More Than One Kind of Woman

as seen on The Hill

The 2016 presidential campaign is shaping up to be a historic and complicated one for women. Two female candidates, on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum are running. Were it not for the headline grabbing, inflammatory remarks of other candidates, this would be a bigger story. As the field narrows it will become much more important. Carly Fiorina’s candidacy has added huge complexity to the race and will likely reignite an important debate about the role of women in American politics and society and impel us to recognize the diversity of American women.

A few days after the debate, revered feminist icon Gloria Steinem took to Facebook to lash out at Fiorina. At issue was her dramatic attack of Planned Parenthood. Steinem, in her post, which was picked up by the New York Times and other outlets, rightly pointed out that her claims during the debate were patently false. Indeed it’s disappointing that someone as smart and talented as Fiorina would undermine her own credibility by inventing a narrative about the videos attacking Planned Parenthood that defy actual facts (yet she still insists is true). Steinem was right to attack Fiorina’s distortion. But as part of her takedown, Steinem added “If you thought Republicans could find no woman more damaging to the diversity and needs of the female half of this country than Sarah Palin, take a good look at Carly Fiorina and what she stands for.” As a pro-choice, Democratic woman and Hillary supporter, I am frustrated by the relentless attacks on Planned Parenthood and strongly disagree with many of Fiorina’s views. That said, Steinem and other pro-choice Democratic activists must acknowledge that indeed Fiorina’s views do align with those of many American women.

Since the 1970’s the American women’s movement has struggled to reconcile the profoundly diverse views of American women on a range of issues. Back to the ERA fight, which was ultimately defeated by conservative women who opposed it, there has never been an easy consensus on what women stand for. The reality is, as nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population, women’s views are incredibly diverse as are their opinions on a range of issues. And while it may not align with my personal views, we must acknowledge that many women oppose abortion. Gallup found that 46 percent of women call themselves “pro-life.” The divineness of the abortion issue has always been a wedge in the women’s movement. And that wedge has turned many women off the political process in general. Despite gains made over the last 40 years, women on both sides of the political spectrum remain under engaged and under participating in nearly every aspect of our political process except voting. The challenge has dogged the women’s movement for years. And it’s a reality that has undermined the collective political power of women. If we believe in women’s leadership, and in amplifying women’s voices, we have to be willing to do that even for voices we may not agree with.

Women of my generation are hugely indebted to women like Steinem who have devoted their lives to ensuring the opportunities we enjoy. For her and for many women, the right to choose has been a defining, critical issue of freedom and equality for women. They shudder at the idea of those rights coming under attack. And yet, shouldn’t it be possible to respect that some women just don’t agree? Does their opposition to abortion automatically mean they are anti-woman or regressive? I don’t think so.

In my work with the non-partisan women’s political leadership organization All In Together which I co-founded in 2014, I’m privileged to have the support of both liberal and conservative women. Many of my conservative supporters are pro-life, and also work tirelessly for the advancement, political and economic empowerment of women. They are as committed to women’s’ rights and ideas as any pro-choice democrat I know, even if they have different ideas about how to do it. Take my friend Meghan McCain. She’s a strong supporter of Fiorina but has used her nationally syndicated radio show to call out sexism in the presidential campaign and in the media and works relentlessness to bring attention to the importance of women’s leadership. Or women like Laura Bush or Melinda Gates who may not support abortion yet work tirelessly around the world to advance the health, welfare and empowerment of women. There are many more women like them I could list – all feminists, but also pro-life.

Fiorina is not Melinda Gates but she’s also not Sarah Palin. She has real work to do in sorting out how and if she will be an advocate for women and I strongly disagree with many of her views but she’s smart, accomplished and informed. She should not be dismissed or underestimated. Her views on equal pay don’t make a lot of sense and she will have to eventually answer to the women who see her rise to become CEO as something largely out of reach for them. Against Hillary Clinton in a debate on women’s issues she’ll likely struggle. But it’s also important, if we want more women run for office, to speak up and engage in our democracy, something I believe is essential, we must acknowledge her role and place in this campaign. She is the only woman in a huge field of men. To dismiss her out of hand does a disservice to all women. If we want a more level playing field for women we can do better. As feminists, we can do better.

You can access the original article on The Hill website.