Fiorina vs. Boxer: The best female political showdown ever.

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June 8 2010 5:58 PM

Fiorina vs. Boxer: The Best Female Political Showdown Ever

What kind of "Year of the Woman" is this?

Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman.
Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman.

California primary voting is still ongoing, but early polls are predicting a woman-friendly victory. Or is it, in fact, woman-friendly? Meg Whitman, the former head of eBay, is predicted to win her primary for the governor's race. Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is predicted to win her primary and become a nominee for Senate. Both are Republican businesswomen. Whitman is expected to spend the most money ever in a gubernatorial primary. Fiorina will run against another woman, Democrat Barbara Boxer, and they have already started to fight.

If this is some kind of Year of the Woman, it is not unfolding in the expected way. Some are calling it the Year of the Republican Woman in California, and some are calling it the year of the "mama grizzly," referring to a certain type of ferocious conservative mom who loves Sarah Palin and everyone Palin loves (in this case, Fiorina). Aside from being female, the women in question are behaving in a not-entirely-pathbreaking way. Whitman has succumbed to the worst politician's habit, spending tens of millions of her own money. Fiorina, in battling a reliable feminist icon, has played up some old homemaker stereotypes to endear herself to her new Tea Party fans. In the upcoming race, Fiorina and Boxer are likely to battle viciously over every important issue, as John Dickerson points out: "abortion, gun control, offshore drilling, immigration, and Sarah Palin."

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For those who conceived of the forward march as something like a clean victory for Hillary Clinton, this latest development presents some confusing dilemmas: Do you still cheer if the ceiling is crashed by two conservative businesswomen? What if those women behave exactly like all the men do in politics? And finally, does an insult to a woman politician still count as sexist if it comes from another woman?

Fiorina presents a particularly confusing profile. She started out as a secretary and then became the CEO of "by far the most prominent American company that a woman had — or, to this day, has — ever run," as the New York Times put it. She has called on her feminist credentials in the past, recalling in her memoir, Tough Choices, how she once accompanied the high-powered men in her office to a business meeting in a strip club in order to demonstrate that she could play anywhere with the big boys. A recent breast cancer survivor, Fiorina has also walked in several cancer-related fundraisers like Race for the Cure—telling boob jokes to the New York Times and emotionally recalling her treatment and how it prepared her to run for office. It's hard to claim that she did not do her part to advance the image of powerful women in America.

Boxer, on the other hand, won her feminist credentials in the traditional public service way. She has long advocated for women and children, worked to protect abortion rights and clinic access, emphasized the need for more women on the Supreme Court, and in 2004 received more votes than any Senate candidate in U.S. history—male or female.

One can imagine that in some awards dinner for American women in leadership, they would both share the stage and shake hands. But in this political race they are enemies. Like Whitman, Fiorina began billing herself as a would-be "CEO of California," and insisting that Boxer's "policies are part of what's driving this state into bankruptcy." Boxer, on the other hand, has begun mocking Fiorina for equating worrying about climate change to fretting over "the weather."

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