Carly Fiorina steps up to the main stage at the second Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night as the only woman on a platform with 10 men.
The contender who tried to avoid competing principally as “the woman candidate” is now in the midst of a counterattack after facing insults about her appearance from Donald Trump, and will have to figure out just how to handle the personal question of gender she’s been pushed to address.
Confronting the obvious significance of gender while avoiding the “gender card” is a familiar conundrum for many other women leaders in male-dominated elections, several former governors told the Guardian.
“You don’t want to have to play the gender card but at one point I had to accuse my opponent of being scared to debate a woman, because he kept avoiding it. It worked – we had two debates scheduled within 12 hours after that,” said former New Jersey Republican governor Christie Todd Whitman.
The former Hewlett-Packard chief executive had been improving in the polls since August without having either to defend or specifically promote her gender, after a crisp performance at the first debate – albeit having been relegated to the second-tier forum – and strong political attacks on Hillary Clinton.
The race was barely under way when she said : “It’s not about your gender, it’s about what you believe, what your accomplishments are … what your leadership is.”
Fiorina has now switched tactics to capitalize directly on Trump’s remarks. She began on Friday by urging Republican women at a convention to “look at this face”, meaning her own, condemned Trump’s remarks as “unpresidential”, and then the Super Pac campaigning group, Carly For America, used Fiorina’s words as a voiceover for a video ad posted on YouTube on Monday showcasing dozens of women’s faces as the “faces of leadership”.
The turn of events sounds all too familiar to Whitman. She, too, had tried to keep her election race about the issues.
“But I was called too regal because every hair was in place. When I tried to talk about tax cuts, people said it must have been my husband who was coming up with these ideas. And there was a story being put out that I drove drunk every night down the highway shooting an Uzi,” she said.
Fiorina has a very long way to go to get anywhere near the White House. Her numbers are rising, but she still only has 4% in the latestNew York Times/CBS opinion poll. Donald Trump is in the lead with Republicans voters, at 27%, with Ben Carson at 23%.
But she has been “promoted” from the second-tier debate level she was relegated to in August and in the process she is closing in onTed Cruz at 5% and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio at 6%, while Paul, Walker and Christie lag behind.
“So she’s on her way,” Whitman said of Fiorina.
Other women who have run their states laughed wryly at similar memories of enduring sexist insults and being obliged to sidetrack their election campaigns to deal with them.
Former health secretary and Democratic Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius, told the Guardian she found it “baffling and troubling” that female candidates were still being forced to fight old-school sexism on the campaign trail and “America is still behind the world average” for women serving in government office.
The fact that the race has devolved in this way is simply deja vu for former Connecticut Republican governor Jodi Rell. When she first became a state representative in the 1980s she was asked if she was going to the state capital city Hartford “because my husband lets me go”.
She remembers being enraged and showing it – earning herself points in the campaign.
“I decided I’m going to address it, but then be done with it,” she said.
Her husband Lou almost got a T-shirt made that said “I let my wife go to Hartford”, she said.
Rell, who was lieutenant governor from 1995 to 2004 and governor from 2004 to 2011, is “absolutely” expecting a gladiatorial gender fight between Trump and Fiorina on Wednesday.
But, she said: “It’s her opportunity of a lifetime.”
Fiorina now seems to agree and has been winding up to it. She strode on stage at a Republican women’s convention in Arizona on Friday to Alicia Keys’ This Girl is on Fire and her opener was inviting the assembled to look at “this face” of a proud 61-year-old businesswoman, raising cheers. She then launched into gender-based anecdotes that went down well, such as when she insisted on accompanying her male colleagues to a “business meeting” they had arranged to hold in a strip club and how in her first managerial job, she was introduced to her subordinates by her boss as the “token bimbo”.
The audience’s cheers were noticeably muted, however, when she advocated restricting abortion and depriving Planned Parenthood of funds.
She finished by asking those gathered to vote for her as an outsider intent on saving the nation from the “ineptitude and corruption of this federal government” because she is “the most qualified” to do the job, “not because I’m a woman”.
Beyond her appearance, Fiorina faces being targeted on her record at Hewlett-Packard, which she ran for six drama-packed years before being ousted by the board in 2005.
But even in debating business, she could be in trouble because women are judged more harshly for their mistakes, particularly by other women, said Whitman, who served as governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.
“When women mess up, other women think that reflects badly on them and are notoriously more critical, much more personal, because there are fewer women in highly visible positions,” she said.
Sebelius said that when she became governor of Kansas in 2003 she was only the 13th woman in US history to be elected governor.
There are currently only six women serving as state governors. Each of them was approached for comment but declined to make themselves available.
Sebelius also lamented that the current “all-time high” of women in Congress adds up to just 19% of the seats, despite constituting 53% of the US population, a point also made by Fiorina last weekend.
Erin Vilardi, founder of the national campaign group VoteRunLead that trains women to run for office – mostly at state legislature level or below – said that the more women run, the less the narrative focuses on gender.
“One woman runs it’s ‘is she man enough?’ or ‘what does she look like?’, when two run it’s seen as a catfight, when three or more run it becomes too complicated to judge each one’s hair and clothes and faces, and it forces the talk to be about the issues,” she said.
Christine Gregoire, former Washington state attorney general from 1992 to 2004 then Democratic governor from 2005 to 2013 faced such problems, she said. When she ran for attorney general, she was asked if she was tough enough and when she ran the gubernatorial race she was accused of being too tough, she said.
An elderly gentleman who protested against her run for attorney general told her that “women should not be generals”, she recalled.
But Gregoire said that now that Washington state has had a female attorney general, two women governors and a female majority in the state house and senate “people in my state are really starting to vote for the person”, so talk about appearance “becomes passé”.
When Sebelius was running for office, legendary Texas governor Ann Richards told her that women needed to be prepared for what people silently thought, saying:
“If you’re single, you can’t get a man. If you’re married and in office, you’ll be neglecting your man. If you’re divorced, you couldn’t keep a man and if you’re a widow, you killed your man.”
“She was probably right,” said Sebelius.
“It’s such a crapshoot. I’ve never seen a scenario like this with so many people vying for attention,” said Whitman. The risks are in being ignored entirely or forcing an interjection and appearing “shrill” – the death shriek for women trying to get ahead anywhere.
But there may be a stealthy way to play the gender card.
“Let the men beat each other up and say just enough to be the sane one in the race,” said Whitman.