Defining Women by Their Marriages: Sexism on the Debate Stage

Soon after Carly Fiorina entered the Republican primary race, I wrote a piece about how woman v. woman elections are far from gender neutral. In fact, having two women candidates in a race can amplify the role of gender. According to Barbara Lee Family Foundation research, gender-based attacks often fuel media coverage, and it can be difficult to get away from the stereotypes of “cat fights” or “mean girls.”

With two women vying to be President of the United States for the first time in our country’s history, I’d hoped things might be different this time around. There was always the (remote) chance that attacks would be policy-based instead of gender-based, right? That women running to lead a nation would refrain from perpetuating stereotypes that had kept women out of leadership roles for generations, perhaps. That a sisterhood, of sorts, would be found in their mutual attempts to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling.

If I weren’t jaded enough, my hope was officially crushed during the last Republican undercard debate, when part of Carly Fiorina’s answer to the question “What is your assessment of the economy right now?” was a dig at Hillary Clinton’s marriage. “Unlike the other woman in this race, I actually like spending time with my husband,” Fiorina said (no word yet on how she apparently knows all about the inner workings of the Clintons’ marriage).

Her comment garnered laughter and applause from the audience, which is unsurprising given that political party trumps gender (voters care more about a candidate’s party affiliation than they do about her gender). However, the insult was sexist, and implied that a woman is not qualified to be president if she doesn’t enjoy spending time with her husband. And that’s to say nothing of same-sex couples and single women. But that’s another post entirely.

The comment was unworthy of Fiorina, who previously garnered praise for her handling of Donald Trump’s misogynistic remarks. As a woman who rose to the highest levels of the male-dominated industries of business and tech, she should know better.

How does loving to spend time with your husband qualify you to be president? And, is a woman who loves spending time with her husband more qualified to be president than one who prefers to spend her time, say, traveling around the world being Secretary of State?

Fiorina is trying to make “wifely credentials” a prerequisite for being a female president, but, in a world where women are earning more college degrees than men, starting businesses at twice the rate of men, and competing for the highest elected office in the country, she needs to change tactics. Trying to define women by their marriages is wrong, both ethically and factually, and sexism is still sexism, even when it’s coming from a woman.

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