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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Carly Fiorina and Choice Feminism

So last month I went to Cedar Rapids for the Iowa Women’s Leadership conference, where the key note speaker was Carly Fiorina. Like many politicians, Fiorina has been spending a lot of time in Iowa lately, and even though at that point she hadn’t yet officially announced her presidential bid, she wasn’t going to waste a speaking opportunity in this coveted state.
But I didn’t go to the conference because of her. I went because my cousin-in-law Robin, who is a two time reality TV star and small business owner, was also scheduled to be speaking about personal journeys, which was the conference’s theme.
“You have to help me,” Robin had demanded, when was first asked to speak.
“What are you talking about?” I replied. “You’re the superstar. I’m sure you’re a much better speaker than I am.”
“Nope. All I do is let cameras follow me around. I don’t plan what I’m going to say and I don’t have to say it front a group of people who are waiting for some deep, life changing message to come out of my mouth. That’s your territory.”
Even though I doubt that my community college students expect life changing messages from my lectures (and they’re disappointed if they are), I still agreed to help her and I also signed up to attend the conference so I could be there to cheer her on. It was fun. We drove down together and we went around to the various speakers, where we also got to know some of the other women who attended.
One woman, named Rachel, cuts hair at a national chain store but she dreams of moving up the ladder and managing her own salon. “I got no maternity leave when I had my kids, and they won’t give me a set schedule, so childcare is hard to arrange, and they pay me basically minimum wage. As a single mother that’s really hard.”
So Rachel was excited to hear Carly Fiorina’s key note address, where she talked about how she went from secretary to the first female executive of a Fortune 500 company. I’ve heard lots of “choice feminists” support Carly Fiorina, and the idea that feminism has changed with the times. After all, everybody is free to choose their own path, and having a choice is always empowering.  It’s not the system that needs to be changed; it’s how we work within it.
“Anyone who wants to harness the full power of human potential, of both men and women, needs to focus on building a meritocracy,” Fiorina said in her speech. “…a true meritocracy where people are recognized, paid and promoted, not on how long they’ve been there, but what they produced – women will rise to the top – not because women are better than men, but because they have half the human potential.”
This is how she explains away our need to establish rules for equal pay. If we just focus solely on performance, there will be no need for employee protection.
But here’s how I see it:  In the eighties, some feminists took offense when men would open the door for them or pull out their chair. Women worried about the implication, that they were incapable of opening the door on their own.
But now, politicians are equating that idea with the idea that some women, like Rachel, actually need real help. We’re not turning Rachel into a victim by giving her equal pay, or maternity leave, or the opportunity to advance in her career, and the insult isn’t the offer of help, it’s our refusal to see that because we still work in a patriarchal system, some women need it.
So yeah, I wasn’t the louder applauder at Fiorina’s speech. The same can’t be said at Robin’s speech, though. She was so nervous before she went on; she kept biting her lip and rubbing her hands against her dress, which was light blue, sleeveless with a gathered skirt, and painted with a pastel map of the world.
“The dress is cheesy, isn’t it?” Robin glared at her reflection back stage, and she looked panicky and pale.
“Not at all. It represents what you do and who you are.” I placed calming hands on her shoulders. “Don’t worry. Just go out there and be yourself. You’ll be great.”
Then I left her so I could take my place in the audience. Soon Robin came out and stood at her podium, and while she started out shaky, her confidence only grew and by the end she had commanded the room.
“I am not shy about admitting to my mistakes,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of them. But when you mess up on national television, the world responds in one of two ways. They either love you or hate you for it. I’ve experienced both. And now, it is my goal to let my missteps empower me, to love myself for all my flaws and foibles. Life is difficult enough anyway, why not forgive ourselves? It could be the first step toward forgiving each other, and then maybe, we can give and receive the help that everyone, at some point, needs.”


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