The GOP Doesn't Just Have a Woman Problem, it Doesn't Understand Women

Carly Fiorina, former California GOP senate challenger to Barbara Boxer, emerged at the Conservative Political Action Conference here as the speaker most willing to engage the Republicans' persistent problems with appealing to women. Well, after she spent the first half of her speech denying climate change. Priorities!

Fiorina didn't offer a solution, but she did offer some great slogans: "I am a proud pro-life woman. ... I believe science is proving us right everyday!" (Hey, don't knock junk science until you've tried it, right?) She also echoed a feminist line when she said, "All issues are women's issues."

I like that line. I've used it myself. But, to judge by the speakers at CPAC this weekend, what she means is, "There's a woman's angle to every issue." You know, ladies care about health care because we have babies! (Especially when we don't have a choice.) Women care about guns because how else will we defend ourselves! (I fear for the woman who told the audience that she sleeps with a "loaded gun next to my bed and I've never felt safer".)

But when feminists talk about every issue being a women's issue, we're not talking about finding a way to make a specific policy agenda appeal to women. What most feminists mean by that is "There's a larger economic or policy angle to every issue dismissed as 'women's'."

The leaders of the GOP just can't comprehend that women's circumstances – decades of discrimination against them – might mean that policies, or the lack of policies, which seem perfectly fair to "everyone else" (white men, basically) have a different impact on them.

Gender is not allowed to be a special category, right next to race and sexuality, when it comes to constructing policy. Gender only matters in how you sell a policy, not in how it actually plays out.

And the women at CPAC? They're so invested in being ladies, they don't even talk like women. They can't admit that they're denied anything, so they can't ask anything.

This attitude emerged the most awkwardly during the panel "Why conservatism is right for women", which might have been better cast as "why women are right for conservatism". The arguments weren't about what the GOP has to offer women so much as what stereotypically feminine traits should make them conservative.

There were some important truths ("Guess what, there is a wage gap!") and honest pleas (asking "white men" to stay in the background during debates about birth control), but orthodoxy hobbled innovation. When talk turned to recruiting female candidates, one of the panelists asserted that women don't run for Republican office because they are "doing other things of value". I would have loved to have heard what those "other things of value" are, because there's nothing about GOP policies to make me think they value anything a woman can do more than having children.

Fiorina spoke on the last day of the conference. She, like many of the main-stage speakers at the event, was introduced as a possible presidential candidate. ("Wouldn't it be interesting if she took on another woman in 2016?") Like every other female main stage speaker at the event, she did not crack the top 10 vote-getters in the actual CPAC presidential straw poll.

Of course, there were several female speakers the GOP probably wouldn't want on that poll, stunt candidates and pranksters whose presence would undermine the ginger steps toward seriousness that CPAC has lately taken. Michele Bachmann. Ann Coulter. Sarah Palin.

They are, arguably, the GOP's most recognizable women. And the Conservative Political Action Conference needed them here to sell tickets and generate excitement. But their presence at the tail end of the event, shoe-horned in after all the more legitimate candidates had spoken, exemplifies the corner the GOP has backed itself into when it comes to gender. The public knows how out of touch this party is, and it is undeniably true: the women the GOP has elevated to the marquee are the ones they are least likely to have or want on a ticket.

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