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Carly Fiorina, and the conservative case for feminism

Carly Fiorina

(The Washington Post) – In a speech on the “state of women in America” Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina sought to reclaim “feminism,” a word she said had been co-opted by the left.

“The left has controlled this conversation,” she said in a call with the media before the event. “They have defined the term ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ in a certain way. And I think it’s important that we reclaim that term.”

Politicians are known for trying to co-opt political words used by the other side: Republicans were resolute in labeling the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare”; President Obama later embraced the term in an attempt to change its connotations. On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said he wants his campaign to focus on “family values,” a term usually associated with social conservatives that he instead used to describe progressive goals like paid family and medical leave.

Fiorina and “feminism” follows in this tradition, and it comes at a key time in a party that’s struggling with female voters; in 2012, the Democratic-Republican gender gap was the widest it had been since Gallup began tracking in 1952, at 20 points. But gender in politics hasn’t always been so polarizing, and the Democratic party hasn’t always been the feminist party. Many early suffrage leaders were Republican, the Republican Party endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1940, before the Democrats.

Fiorina tried to place herself within that tradition, saying on the call she was in a “unique position” to comment on the state of women in America. “It has been 95 years since women got the right to vote, 50 years since the “Feminine Mystique,” 16 years since I was named the first female CEO of a Fortune 50 company,” said the former Hewlett-Packard head. She mentioned the low number of female chief executives at Standard & Poor’s 500 companies — only 23 — and  said, “realizing the potential of women isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

It sounds similar to the sort of rhetoric we hear from Democrats about women, but there’s little reason to think there couldn’t be a Republican audience for it, too. And indeed, Fiorina’s take on feminism was trending on social media this week.

After all, feminism is a word that could apply to most Americans. A MarchVox poll found 78 percent of Americans believe in the “social, political, legal and economic equality of the sexes,” yet only 18 percent consider themselves feminists. For a large number of Americans, it seems, the word is unwelcoming, not the concept. Part of that is political — a 2013 Huffington Post-YouGov poll found Democrats were more likely than Republicans to consider themselves feminists — but there’s also concern the word is extreme, and something that pits women against men, as we’ve seen from some of the answers female pop stars and actresses have given when asked if they’re feminists.

Fiorina’s definition of a feminist is “a woman who lives the life she chooses.” It’s a more nonpartisan definition — liberals would say a watered-down one — and might be more welcoming at a time when a majority don’t identify with the word but believe in equality for women.

And as a political strategy goes, it’s not a bad one for a long shot like Fiorina or her party. After all, she’s the only major female candidate in the GOP field.

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