Clinton vs. Fiorina: Feminists who can't agree on anything "I may not be your dream candidate just yet, but I can assure you I am Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare," presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said during Wednesday's debate.
Fiorina relishes comparisons between her and Clinton.
"I will tell you this, I will beat Hillary Clinton," she added.
See also: Carly Fiorina is going after her true rival, and it's not Donald Trump
That version of the 2016 election is currently improbable, but Fiorina is doing something no other Republican has dared to try: She is talking to and about women and challenging Clinton's authority on women's issues.
"[I]t is the height of hypocrisy for Mrs. Clinton to talk about being the first woman president, when every single policy she espouses, and every single policy of President Obama has been demonstrably bad for women," Fiorina said at the debate.
We need to fight for policies that break down barriers to good jobs and help balance work and family: equal pay, child care, and paid leave.
â Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 29, 2015
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign published a detailed list of her positions on issues like equal pay, sexual assault, child care and paid family leave. These have been central to Clinton's campaign message, which casts her as the best advocate for women and families.
That two accomplished women are vying for the presidency, both insisting that gender inequity is real and damaging, is a new moment in our nation's history. Yet their brands of feminism are distinct, at times virtually opposite.
Clinton and Fiorina's policies are as divergent as their philosophies. One believes identity is directly tied to economic and social opportunity; the other rejects so-called identity politics and envisions a merit-based path to equality.
Fiorina's approach is unusual territory for conservatives, who typically assail and caricature feminism without acknowledging the barriers that many American women encounter in the workplace and at home, as they do their best to earn a living, build a middle class life and care for their children.
Q: Are Republicans waging a "war on women"?
Get more answers at https://t.co/sIWIyxiodv.https://t.co/ozaseUvaur
â Carly Fiorina (@CarlyFiorina) October 23, 2015
Drawing on her corporate experience, Fiorina doesn't deny that women face discrimination and biased treatment.
In a Medium essay published in June, she even took feminism seriously, noting that it "began as a rallying cry to empower womenâââto vote, to get an education, to enter the workplace."
But it "devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections." She proposes a new definition of feminism: "A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses."
That definition would probably be welcome in many liberal circles. In fact, its premise sounds complementary to a definition Clinton gave Girls actress Lena Dunham in a recent interview.
"Well, a feminist is by definition someone who believes in equal rights," she said. "We believe that women have the same rights as men, politically, culturally, socially, economically."
Ever aware of the pitfalls of identifying as a feminist, Clinton was clear that it doesn't mean hating men or disavowing society. Her platform suggests a woman cannot "live the life she chooses" if she cannot participate fully and equally in society, for instance, without access to services like safe and legal abortion services, which Fiorina opposes.
That issue is where Fiorina's vision of conservative feminism splinters from the shared values of freedom and autonomy. She has frequently criticized "litmus tests" on issues like abortion rights and paid leave.
"I have been called a threat to women's health because I'm pro-life," she told Fox News' Sean Hannity in June. "My candidacy has been called an offense to women because I don't agree with the litany of the left."
In her Medium essay, she argued forcefully for a merit-based approach to solving gender inequity.
Equal pay, she said, should not be legislated by the government, much less one based on "seniority systems" that reward length of service, not performance, and disproportionately disadvantage women as a result. Education reform, she said, should hinge on upending teacher's unions to create greater accountability. Low-income women are "trapped" by government assistance programs because taking a job can mean the end of benefits, so we must reassess the incentives of those programs.
Fiorina seems to care deeply about the burdens placed uniquely on women, even if her definition of feminism leads to wildly different policy prescriptions.
Hillary claims weâre better off with a Democrat in the White House. Carly's op-ed explains why that isn't the case: https://t.co/FW9QKOQro8
â Carly Fiorina (@CarlyFiorina) October 27, 2015
It's not clear, however, how Fiorina will balance her sensitivity to women's issues with her distaste for turning them into a divisive platform. It appears only Fiorina is the arbiter of that line at the moment, willing in one instance to speak candidly about women's experiences or position herself as the best candidate to beat Hillary because she too is a mother and grandmother, but then swearing she's not playing a gender card in the next.
Clinton, for her part, has spent little time addressing Fiorina's attacks. She has embraced her life's work as an advocate for women and girls. When asked about family leave in the last Democratic debate, she said the wealthy would pay for a federal program to guarantee new parents paid time off to care for a new child.
That response, bound to irk conservatives, doesn't even reflect how some states, and proposed federal legislation, fund such programs, but did make her commitment to the issue convincing.
Commercial break: Hillary is fighting for equal pay for women. Republicans are fighting against it. #GOPdebatehttps://t.co/ebzv1UawBM
â Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 29, 2015
Clinton's feminism means using the power and influence of government to help women and their families thrive through a higher minimum wage, affordable childcare and access to reproductive health care. Fiorina sees little to no role for the government in any of these areas, and that too, is how she and Clinton fundamentally disagree on what it means to fight for women. Perhaps it should be surprising that feminism and its definition have become a theme of this campaign, or that a conservative woman is making her own case for a new version of it. But the trend reflects a growing movement that insists on not just equality, but for the right to contain multitudes.
We just don't know what that means for our politics. If we're lucky, maybe the 2016 election will indeed become a referendum on what feminism â in its many iterations â means to Americans.
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