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Carly Fiorina's Re-Branding of Feminism Is an Empty Marketing Strategy

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Brace yourself for the coming tedium: Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina has decided to make re-branding feminism and reclaiming it for the right a central message in her campaign. “Feminism began as a rallying cry to empower women,” Fiorina claimed in remarks prepared for a speech at the Competitive Enterprise Institute on Thursday. “But over the years, feminism has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.” As for a better definition of feminism, Fiorina offered this: “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses. … A woman may choose to have five children and home-school them. She may choose to become a CEO, or run for president.”

As Time’s Tessa Berenson pointed out, Fiorina has few high-profile Republican allies when it comes to her fond use of the term “feminist.” The label is especially repellent, it seems, to GOP partisans with a socially conservative bent, like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. How will Fiorina avoid alienating the entirety of her fellow Republicans with seemingly feminist messaging? It’s simple: Strip the politics out, and the free marketeering component of her party—which is, incidentally, its ideological and monetary engine—will happily go along with whatever recruits women voters away from Hillary.

Fiorina’s definition of feminism is difficult to differentiate from any run-of-the-mill, mass-market, self-help system. It is about living the life you have chosen, seeking empowerment, following your dreams. These are all strictly individual goals which can only be managed on the individual level: No one else can pursue your dreams, only you. But this is the stuff of Oprah "a-ha!" moments, not the stuff of politics. To pursue politics that actually benefit women—that is, to enact a politically actionable feminism rather than a self-help regimen—is to look at the factors that diminish women’s quality of life as a class, and seek to resolve them through policy.

This is easy to do. What are the factors that are harming women as a class? Poverty: Six in ten poor adults are women. What poor people lack—that is, what defines the condition of poverty—is enough resources to support themselves. The way to help impoverished people is therefore to deliver resources to them, through either the labor market or state transfers or some combination thereof. Fiorina is opposed to improvements in both avenues of poverty reduction, having come out against legislatively raising the minimum wage as well as laws that would mandate equal pay, and has argued that further work requirements be attached to welfare programs. For poor mothers who rely on welfare to make ends meet, what work requirements mean is more time away from their children, more money spent (paradoxically) on daycare, and not much in the way of long-term job prospects. In no way, then, does Fiorina actually support policies that would be beneficial to women on the whole.

Perhaps all the rhetoric surrounding dream-chasing is meant to suggest Fiorina would rather see women become more socially mobile; that is, more likely to rise in socio-economic status throughout their lifetimes. “My story—from secretary to CEO to candidate for president—is only possible in this country,” Fiorina said in her address, and she is absolutely wrong. In fact, the United States lags behind peer countries in social mobility, meaning that it’s relatively difficult for people from poor backgrounds to get ahead in America. Moreover, women in America appear to be at higher risk for falling behind their original social position, and do not experience the same level of mobility that men do. As research from The Brookings Institution has demonstrated, women born into the lowest income quintile have an especially difficult time digging out: While 47 percent of women born to parents in the lowest quintile remain there, only 35 percent of men do.

Countries where social mobility is relatively high tend to be those with policies that run contrary to Fiorina’s anti-taxing bent. According to a 2010 OECD report, “redistributive tax and benefit policies aimed at providing income support or access to education for disadvantaged families may reduce the handicaps of a poorer or less well educated background,” thus explaining why Swedes and Norwegians born poor have a better shot at dying well-to-do than their American counterparts. In the United States, policies like these would make life substantially better for women, who appear to bear the brunt of stickiness at the bottom of the income scale. But you won’t see Fiorina advocating for a robust welfare regime any time soon.

Instead, she will likely luxuriate in her own story ad nauseum in an attempt to prove that letting the free market take its course is the best for women, because it happened to pan out for her, and she is a woman. Data contradict her, and nothing about her politics is particularly woman-friendly, making her claims to feminism insultingly transparent. Fiorina might be supportive of her own accomplishments and those of other individual women, but she displays no interest in the betterment of women as a class. Her feminism is nothing more than a marketing strategy, which is not an arena she has had particular success in.