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Carly Fiorina vs. Barbara Boxer: The Sisterhood and Abortion Politics

4 years ago
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It's nice that being called a feminist is no longer the slur it once was now that a hardy band of pro-life Republican women candidates has adopted the label. Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, the GOP choice facing three-term Senate Democrat Barbara Boxer, will -- as the song goes -- accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative when it comes to her feminist, anti-choice credentials.

It has long been a truism that you can't win election statewide in California without being pro-choice. The last two Republican governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pete Wilson, were pro-choice. Even conservative icon Ronald Reagan early in his first term as governor signed a therapeutic abortion law that liberalized access to the procedure years before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal.

Boxer's strong support for a woman's reproductive rights has animated her career since she was first elected to the Senate in 1992. The memory of Boxer, along with six other women lawmakers, storming the Capitol steps to demand an open Senate hearing on charges of sexual harassment brought by law professor Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas is an archetypal image that Fiorina might dismiss, along with Boxer's hair, as "so yesterday."

Fiorina is counting on a radically different zeitgeist this election. With unemployment at 12 percent in California, she believes that her business background and her promise to bring Silicon Valley know-how to government will trump social issues in November. (One caveat for Boxer to exploit: as head of H-P, Fiorina fired people, and was then fired herself.) H-P stock nosedived during Fiorina's five and a half years at the helm of the company, and it's questionable whether her top-down, autocratic style fits the legislative process, which is about building consensus. Still, if the contest is fought on economic issues and job creation, the voters may be willing to take a flier on someone new versus Boxer, a 30-year veteran of the political process.

The core women's issues that have been central to Boxer's career may not have the resonance this year that they once had. A friend of mine who is the mother of three young adult daughters told me that abortion for them is a non-issue. They think anybody that gets pregnant must want to, and they point to Rielle Hunter, John Edwards' mistress, as exhibit A. Their thinking is that there are so many options to prevent pregnancy, and if you mess up, there's the morning-after pill, which could soon be available from a French manufacturer in a formula that can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex. These young women are not classically pro-life; they don't want to ban abortion. But they don't see it as a right that's essential, or one that is particularly threatened. They take for granted that it will always be there; they just don't think about it as a motivating issue to vote one way or the other.

What we're seeing in this election cycle, propelled in part by Sarah Palin, is the rise of pro-life feminists in a party where previously the women who rose to elective office were pro-choice moderates. Moderate GOP women have been mostly purged from the party, taken down in primaries by right-wing candidates. I remember the criticism that former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman took for her staunch pro-choice views. Often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate, she never made the cut, once joking at a Gridiron dinner that she never made it past the first trimester.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, applauds the new prominence of pro-life women in politics. He notes there are currently none in the Senate and only 13 in the House, and at least one of those, Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, is a Democrat. Even among first ladies whose husbands opposed abortion rights, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush all supported Roe v. Wade, quietly passing the word they were pro-choice. Ponnuru credits Sarah Palin with emboldening and empowering a new breed of women, pro-life feminists, to enter politics. Palin no doubt deserves some credit as a role model, but in politics, like much of life, timing is everything. It's easier to be pro-life today now that botched abortions with coat hangers are a fading memory (so yesterday), and worries about finding work and keeping up with mortgage payments top voter concerns.

Ponnuru points out that Fiorina can present her anti-choice position in a less judgmental way than a male candidate, saying, "I myself was not able to have children of my own, and so I know what a precious gift life is." That probably won't persuade the generation of women who were with Boxer from the start of her long career, but it will get Fiorina a hearing with the generations that followed. They want to know what she would do that Boxer hasn't to revive California's faltering economy and make life better for them. The outcome of this marquee race is as much about the sisterhood as it is the two contenders.

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