Gender-Identity Politics Is Complicated For Presidential Aspirant Fiorina

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Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, speaks at a luncheon hosted by the Derry Republican Town Committee, on May 26, 2015, in Derry, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)
Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, speaks at a luncheon hosted by the Derry Republican Town Committee, on May 26, 2015, in Derry, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)

The 2016 presidential cycle is a first for women. It's the first time two women are simultaneously vying for the White House as the nominee of each of the two major parties, political research analysts say.

But for Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina, gender-identity politics is complicated.

On Thursday evening, Fiorina will deliver a speech in Washington on the state of women in America, which epitomizes her campaign to "gender neutralize" the race.

On the campaign trail, sometimes Fiorina is eager to play up gender.

"I was asked by a national television reporter whether I thought a woman's hormones prevented her from serving in the Oval Office," Fiorina told a crowd gathered at a kitchen in a Londonderry, N.H., home. A few women gasped, whispering "Jesus!" under their breaths.

"I know, to the young women here, it's shocking that I would get asked such a question, but I was asked that question," Fiorina said.

But other times, she downplays the importance of gender.

"One of the questions I've gotten asked repeatedly is whether I am criticizing Hillary Clinton because I'm a woman. No, it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a woman — it has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman," Fiorina told that same kitchen full of voters.

But gender optics seem stronger than words, and sometimes, when Fiorina tries to de-gender the race, voters don't allow her to do that.

At a VFW luncheon in Hudson, Nancy Hayford, 59, from Nashua, shook Fiorina's hands enthusiastically and welcomed her to New Hampshire.

"We are so proud of you," Hayford told Fiorina. "We're so excited when you talk about Hillary because we were just saying how you're the person to do it. You're female. And you've got to do it to her. You've gotta."

Fiorina quietly said "thank you" and squeezed through the crowd to shake more hands, while a starstruck Hayford took photos of her.

"We really love her because she's a female and we need more power, especially battling the other side," said Hayford.

The "other side" is Hayford's euphemism for "Hillary Clinton."

A Republican Long-Shot

Both Fiorina and Clinton are women in their 60s with shoulder-length blond hair. One wrote a book called "Hard Choices." The other wrote a book called "Tough Choices."

Beyond those superficial similarities, however, they don't have much in common. Clinton is the Democratic front-runner; Fiorina is a Republican long-shot, still trying to garner enough support to participate in a televised primetime GOP debate.

Still, the female symbolism at Fiorina events is striking. Most of her local staffers are women. And her house parties in New Hampshire this week were hosted exclusively by women.

"I support her 100 percent. I worship her," said Andrea Alexander, an attorney from Windham wearing a "Carly for America" sticker on her hot pink shirt. "She's my new Mitt Romney. It's about the economy, stupid," she added with a laugh, referencing the oft-used political phrase.

For Alexander, as for many Fiorina fans, the simple message of small government, less bureaucracy and better leadership resonates.

There's still one issue that worries Alexander. Fiorina is pro-life and Alexander says abortion is a litmus test for many of her feminist female friends.

"The Republicans have to nail that," Alexander said. "We will get the Bible Belt and the pro-lifers no matter what. We need to get everybody else. If you're anti Roe v. Wade — goodbye. I'm 50. Everybody 50 down below, we're pro-choice."

Though she doesn't agree with Fiorina's position on abortion, Alexander says she'll still vote for Fiorina in the New Hampshire primary, because she trusts Fiorina on the economy, the most important issue in her mind.

Voting On Gender

Fiorina is the former CEO of tech giant Hewlett Packard. In 1999, she became the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. Some of her supporters are eager to point out that she broke the glass ceiling in business, so, sure, she can break it again in politics.

But analysts say people do not really vote based on a candidate's gender.

"Women, and voters in general, vote by party before gender every single time," said Adrienne Kimmell, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. "We know that party always trumps gender." (The Cambridge-based organization was founded by Clinton supporter Barbara Lee, but it's a nonpartisan group that researches women in politics.)

Kimmell says that overall women tend to vote more Democratic, but that's because of specific policies, not an affinity for a female candidate.
She also says the comparisons between Clinton and Fiorina are deeper than politics.

"I think there's a gendered component to it — 100 percent because of this notion that it is historical," Kimmell said, referring to the fact that two women are simultaneously vying for the nomination in each of the major political parties.

Fiorina is trying to distinguish herself in a crowded GOP field as something more than the "anti-Hillary," and she's drawing large crowds in New Hampshire to prove that point.

But at all those events, Hillary Clinton's name inevitably comes up.

Rebecca Sananes contributed to this report.

This segment aired on June 11, 2015.


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