The most nausea-inducing and (unintentionally) comic quote of the mid-term campaign so far comes from Carly Fiorina, the ousted CEO of Hewlett Packard who won the California Republican senatorial primary last week. Explaining her anti-abortion stance to the San Francisco Chronicle, Fiorina said, “I myself was not able to have children of my own, and so I know what a precious gift life is. My husband’s mother was told to abort him. She spent a year in the hospital after his birth. My husband is the joy of her life, and he is the rock of my life. So these experiences have shaped my view.” So all of those pro-choice feminist moms don’t know what a precious gift life is? Or perhaps Fiorina wouldn’t be so opposed to abortion if her husband had turned out to be a disappointment to her or his mother? There is nothing more pathetic than the spectacle of someone who probably would have been a “moderate” Republican 20 years ago trying to cozy up to the Christian right and the Tea Party by discovering strong anti-abortion convictions. But the craven spectacle of female candidates like Fiorina using their womanhood to bolster their anti-choice credentials underlines the important fact that even at a time when the economy is said to be the overwhelming problem on everyone’s mind, cultural issues continue to play a critical role in American politics.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, hailed this election as the year of the pro-life woman. “These women will make it easier for pro-lifers to discuss the issue in the terms we want to discuss it,” she writes, “as a plea for justice for a vulnerable group.” What this means is that women on the right, by virtue of possessing uteruses, can pretend to be less opportunistic and callous than the kind of right-wing men who pushed a bill through the Oklahama State Legislature that protects doctors from malpractice suits if, in the interest of discouraging abortions, they lie to women about birth defects discovered through sonograms or amniocentesis. A woman claims to place a higher value on life because she couldn’t have children herself, and we are supposed to credit her with moral authority because…why? If my grandparents died before reaching age 65, does that give me the authority to suggest that Social Security and Medicare ought to be abolished?
Such cultural/religious issues–or, more precisely, debates over whether the government has the right to stick its nose into your most intimate decisions–have little to do these days with the gender of politicians. Liberal Democrats are (with some exceptions) pro-choice and pro-gay rights. Conservative Republicans (with almost no exceptions, because they can’t get nominated otherwise) are anti-choice and anti-gay rights. Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, liberated from right-wing Republicanism and now running for the Senate from Florida as an independent, vetoed a terrible bill requiring all women (unless they could prove they were victims of rape or incest) to pay for a sonogram before obtaining an abortion. As the Republican/Tea Party candidate, he wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Mainstream journalists have taken great pains over the past year to distinguish between the Christian right and the Tea Party, and it is true that a few tea partiers, particularly Rand Paul in Kentucky, are not Christian soldiers but anti-government libertarians. In a practical sense, though, there is a huge overlap between the Christian right and the tea party movement, between the Republican Party and the Tea Party. One of the signature achievements of the Christian right over the past 30 years has been to meld traditional anti-tax and anti-government positions with support for government intervention on behalf of the morality articulated by conservative Christians. This was not the case for earlier generations of Christian fundamentalist politicians, most notably William Jennings Bryan, who was a biblical literalist, an anti-evolutionist, and an economic populist. For the present generation, though government is bad if it’s taxing you to help the poor, but it’s good if it prevents you from marrying a partner of the same sex, obtaining contraceptives if you’re unmarried, or having an abortion.
Sarah Palin, the Tea Party’s Red Queen, is the personification of the two strands in right-wing thought and politics. And Palin is the mistress of the art of claiming moral standing as a result of what she does with her reproductive system. Remember all the times she exhibited her Down syndrome son on the campaign trail in 2008? Fiorina’s repellent attempt to bolster her anti-abortion credentials by lamenting her own infertility is directly inspired by Palin’s message, “Look at me, I’m a wonderful woman because that I had a child with a mental disability. And you women who had abortions in the same circumstance are bad, bad, bad. “
Born-again right-wing women like Fiorina, who was actually born in 1954, and Palin, born in 1964, are just young enough to have benefited from all of the opportunities that the feminist movement fought so hard to open to all women in the 1970s, without having had to contribute anything. The anti-government ideology of these women is particularly hypocritical, since they would be nowhere without the anti-sex discrimination laws that opened doors in education, employment and business to women of their generations. Palin wouldn’t have had a high school basketball team to play on, or have made it onto local TV, without the legislation inspired by the women’s movement. Fiorina wouldn’t have become a CEO without the women’s movement. Of course, the shareholders of Hewlett Packard during her six-year tenure would have been better off without Fiorina’s stewardship. She was sacked by the board in 2005 after HP stock (which has now largely recovered) lost two-thirds of its value under her leadership. She left with a $21 million golden parachute, thereby proving that at least some women in corporate America can be rewarded for doing their executive jobs just as incompetently as men.
These right-wing women politicians are anti-feminists who have benefited personally from feminism. Now they are allying themselves with the Good Old Boys of right-wing religion and right-wing economics and calling themselves pro-life and “free market” feminists. And right-wing male blowhards, whose mouths are more accustomed to saying “feminazi” than “feminist,” are eager to anoint these women as standbearers for the cause of Bible-based government intervention in Americans’ private lives and government neglect of the public good.
Those atheists who are also libertarian conservatives ought to think about everything inside the package if they like the glittery anti-government wrapping enveloping Tea Party/Republican candidates this year. Whether that candidate has an XX or an XY chromosomal structure, he or she is equally beholden to people who want to make their morality the law of the land. These women, like their male counterparts, are opportunists with no shame. Let’s give them a big shout-out for defining equal opportunity down!