Last Wednesday, the CNN Republican Primary Debate showcased a parade of suited men, best differentiated by their accompanying ties — and in one case, hair — and one candidate in heels: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
Fiorina has quickly grown to become one of the most notable personalities in the Republican primary contest for several reasons: She is one of three non-politicians vying to win the party’s nomination next year, one of two candidates with experience as a private-sector executive and the only female candidate. At the risk of being criticized for imposing a gender role on the sole female candidate, I believe Fiorina stands out in another way amongst her male peers: Think of the Republican primary contest as a family, where Fiorina fulfills the role of mother.
Let us consider our own mothers, or parents who assumed a maternal role in the household. In many cases, our mothers are under-celebrated, overworked, diligent, tactful, logical and the target of reckless blame. Looking back at my own adolescence, it surprises me that my mother was as tolerant as she was, in the face of an angst-filled son and two daughters not far behind in developing their more prickly adolescent personalities.
Fiorina faces the same environment in standing as the lone female in the Republican pack. Generally respected by her male peers, Fiorina has only drawn limited criticism to date. Donald Trump, the longstanding Republican primary frontrunner, spoke of Fiorina in exaggerated terms: “Look, you have a woman who got fired from her job. And I mean fired viciously. She got fired viciously.”
In reality, Fiorina was forced to step down from her post at Hewlett-Packard in 2005 due to disagreements with its board of directors. This is a commonplace event in corporate America. Former Hewlett-Packard Board Member Tom Perkins, who voted to fire Fiorina, even told the New York Times his vote was a mistake: “While Carly fought to save the company and the employees within, some board members fought for their own power or advancement.”
Fiorina continues to cite her tenure at Hewlett-Packard as noteworthy. Amid her resignation, she presided over increasing growth rates and greater cash flow. During a period in which the company’s stock plunged, Fiorina oversaw the downsizing of staff by approximately 30,000 workers — a figure that has discreetly plagued the Fiorina campaign. Like the leadership of any maternal figure in a household, Fiorina’s tenure at Hewlett-Packard had both high points and low points. Her actions demonstrate that she was not vying for popularity but rather for smart growth and operating within realistic parameters. She had the long-term interests of her shareholders in mind. How many times have our mothers told us “no” or suggested we reel back our hedonistic desires to do something, buy something, eat something, etc.? Our mothers have our long-term interests at heart. As the old saying goes, “Mother knows best.”
In addition to the critique of her professional credentials, Fiorina has also been attacked personally. In a Sept. 9 Rolling Stone piece titled “Trump Seriously,” the frontrunner plunged his campaign into a new chapter of attacking his peers’ appearances. Trump said of Fiorina,“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
Fiorina later responded, “Maybe, just maybe, I’m getting under his skin a little bit because I am climbing in the polls.” In the face of such personal criticism, like many mothers who face hurtful words from their children, Fiorina stood calm and collective, and she knew exactly what to say to acknowledge the criticism but also sharply respond. This was no better exemplified than in her Wednesday night response to CNN moderator Jake Tapper’s question on the matter: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Looking to the personal side of Fiorina, she — like many of our mothers — comes from a background of perseverance and challenges in a time of transitioning roles for women in American society. One of Fiorina’s favorite talking points, about how she rose from a secretary to the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, attests to her reluctance to accept social and professional norms in her career. She also refrains from asking for special treatment, as expressed in her reluctance to issue a new $10 bill featuring a woman: “It is a gesture. I don’t think it helps to change our history. What I would think is we ought to recognize that women are not a special interest group. Women are the majority of this nation. We are half the potential of this nation, and this nation will be better off when every woman has the opportunity to live the life she chooses.”
Fiorina has also overcome personal struggles, losing a daughter to drug addiction and a father to Alzheimer’s disease and wrestling with breast cancer in her own life. (She, unlike Hillary Clinton, has a different reason for sporting multiple hairdos over the last decade). Like our mothers, Fiorina knows true struggle firsthand, knows how to cope and knows how to care — in a way that perhaps our fathers may not. For the Republican Party that has so long nominated one father after another, would a mother’s perspective be a refreshing and beneficial change to party politics?
Current polling out of Real Clear Politics place Fiorina among the top 10 Republican primary candidates, and in certain polls, among the top five. In the days following Wednesday’s debate, the numbers will change thanks to Fiorina’s sterling performance. Which changes can this potentially deliver to the Trump-dominated primary? Is America ready to finally vote to place mom in charge?