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."

Perhaps because she is anticipating strong female support for Boxer, Fiorina has gradually begun to reveal a different kind of feminine side. Less than two weeks after an Ohio Republican Party group made headlines for a newsletter urging supporters to take Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton "out of the House and put her back in the kitchen," Fiorina posed in the Wall Street Journalmagazine in her kitchen, gazing lovingly at her husband while dutifully stirring a sauce. The profile went to great lengths to stress Fiorina's embrace of girly flourishes—noting her "cropped candy-pink-colored blazer with a ruffled edge," her "velvety-red-manicured nails," her references to "old girlfriends," and her penchant for Jane Fonda's Prime Time Workout—presumably in contrast with the drab suits favored by Boxer.

Some of Fiorina's other tactics, though—particularly when she has gone after Boxer directly—are more typical of the testosterone-fueled, aggressive business world from which Fiorina emerged. Fiorina's campaign sent out an e-mail slamming Boxer for asking a brigadier general to refer to her as "Senator" during a Senate hearing. (He had been addressing her as "ma'am.") Fiorina rushed in to assure voters that she would not be the kind of woman who objected to being called ma'am: "I'm sure you'll agree that Boxer's arrogance and disrespect for our nation's military leaders is way out of line," the e-mail read. In subsequent appearances before Republican groups, she has brought up the incident, pledging that she'll answer to "ma'am," "Carly," or even "Hey, you."

One gets the impression from Fiorina's book that she would have punched anyone in her office who called her "ma'am." And as a spokesperson for John McCain's presidential campaign, Fiorina lashed out at Saturday Night Live portrayals of Palin as "disrespectful" and "sexist." But in this race, it's clear that her best hope is to win over the mama grizzlies, so she is doing as any shrewd politician would and repackaging herself.

If Fiorina were a man appearing with his wife in the kitchen gazing adoringly, he might be considered sexist. If Boxer were a man accusing a female candidate of playing stupid, same thing. But these are two women, each a groundbreaker in her own way, fighting fair. And when we look back, this may be more the Year of the Woman than 2008 was: a year when dozens of women from all over the political spectrum behaved not all that differently from men.

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Sara Libby is managing editor of Voice of San Diego.

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