Mutually exclusive: Feminist or President of the United States

As my DGC partner, Shirley Ramos, wrote in her recent blog, CLINTON OR FIORINA: IT WAS A COIN TOSS, the flip of a quarter by my youngest son resulted in my covering Carly Fiorina and Shirley covering Hillary Clinton in this series of blogs. Our goal is to discuss how these women leaders show up, achieve success, and deliver their message as they vie for the Oval Office.  We are not offering political analysis or making a voting recommendation. We are looking at these candidates as women who have the attention of a nation. How did they come about this powerful position and how are they using it?


A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses.

  • Carly Fiorina, June 2015


feminist carly fiorinaThat is the definition of feminism Carly Fiorina offered a little boy she met at a fundraising event.  It’s a powerful statement that declares that feminism is broader than the “issues” we tend to define it with (pay equality, abortion, single motherhood, etc.). It says that a feminist can have any calling, be on any side of any issue, as long as she has the access and ability to choose in what manner she lives her life.  If this definition were more widely embraced, would more than 23% of today’s women identify themselves as feminists?

I love this definition because it’s aligned with a belief in our authentic self – acknowledging our personal power and not allowing ourselves to be limited by cultural, societal or even personal judgments and restraints.  And I hope this is a definition we can offer today’s millennials and future generations.  But this is an idealist presidential candidate’s modern definition. Did Carly attain today’s position of power by embracing her own personal, authentic self when she was a young management trainee at AT&T?

Quite an interesting paradox… to achieve your ideal of living a life of full authenticity and choice, you have to make choices that sucker punch your highest, best self. 

Let’s take a closer look at the record and then the path to achieve it.

Carly Fiorina is a lady of “firsts”.

  • First woman executive at telecom giant, AT&T.
  • First woman to run a Fortune 500 company – Hewlett Packard.
  • First woman to lead a top-20 company ranked by Fortune magazine.

It is no wonder she is vying for the title of First Woman President of the United States.

Her list of credentials is certainly impressive – she rose quickly through the corporate ranks of AT&T to run all North American operations, then led the spin-off of Lucent Technologies in 1995 and was part of the team that launched one of the most successful IPOs (Lucent, 1996) in history. She then went on to own the role she is most famous for, CEO of Hewlett-Packard. To say that was a tumultuous tenure would be an understatement.

Regardless of what you think of her CEO capabilities, or her presidential aspirations, Carly can teach us a lot about what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated industry.  The following excerpts are taken from a speech she delivered in June 2015.

When I first started at AT&T, my male colleagues held a meeting with new clients at a strip club. When I got into the cab the morning of the meeting and told the driver where I was going, he asked me if I was the new act.

You can argue that this was 30 years ago and times were different. But I’d ask you to consider that 30 years ago was the 1980s – well past the era of Mad Men.  And even as late as 2008, I had male friends who frequently met with business associates in strip clubs.  I would like you to consider two questions:

  1. How would Carly’s colleagues have responded if she insisted the next meeting be held at Chippendales – or any club with male strippers?
  2. What would the fallout have been if she had refused to attend a meeting in a strip club?

I ask these questions not as a judgement against strip clubs (I have no issues with strip clubs nor the dancers they hire) but because this is an illustration Carly herself puts out there as an example of a hostile, male dominated work situation. And she did have a choice.  And this is where the paradox lies… if she had pushed back on a situation that clearly made her uncomfortable, would she still have risen as quickly as she did at AT&T? Or would she have forfeited the career that brought her to the highest position in HP and garnered her enough influence and recognition that she can now run for president?

She follows that story up with:

A few years later, my boss introduced me to my new team as the “token bimbo.” When I started at HP, I was also called a bimboand a word that also starts with B and rhymes with witchwords that definitely werent used to describe male CEOs at other, similar companies.

What we don’t know, but what I am hugely curious about, is how Carly responded to the name-calling.  “Bitch” is such an overused term for women in power – regardless of whether or not the term is earned – and frankly, we may not refer to male CEOs as bitches but I do believe Donald Trump and a few other powerful men have earned less than stellar epithets.  I find “token bimbo” more offensive, myself; it is a blatant play to belittle and degrade her as a sexual object.  Providing these examples of corporate sexism are not particularly powerful because they are so common.

But what would be powerful, is knowing how Carly moved past them.  Did she fight back?  How? Did she accept and ignore them? How did her choices impact the outcome that led her to a presidential race?

Just last month in fact, a reporter said he’d never talked to a presidential candidate with pink nail polish. Another reporter asked me if I thought hormones would prevent a woman from serving in the Oval Office. 

I included this quote from her speech to remind us that corporate America is not the only playground where sexism is still breathing heavy into our ear pieces.  Do male presidential candidates not get manicures? (I guarantee you they do).  Are men not also at the affect of the hormones and chemicals that run rampant hot phonethrough their bodies? Is the reporter implying that once a month, we must keep a female president away from any “bat phone” or delicate international negotiations?

If we’re going to claim that woman are more susceptible to biological influences, then let’s also remember the number of presidents who succumbed to their own biological urges… after the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, how many people truly believed that affair impacted Bill Clinton’s ability to run the country?  It wasn’t even a question before we knew about the affair. 

Carly Fiorina is a complex woman with an interesting history.  I posit here that while she has a definition for feminism that embraces personal choice and self-trust, she did not reach her current position of power by following that philosophy.  I am not saying this is good or bad: it is a paradox that all women face, and it only changes when we change – when we actually start living and acting up on our best, highest self.

This only scratches the surface of trying to understand the journey of a powerful woman to America’s main stage.  Over this election season, it’s going to be interesting to get to know both Carly and Hillary a bit better as women and leaders.

But it will be up to you to choose if one is deserving of your vote for President.


Natalie Hahn O’Flaherty is a principal at Dirty Girls Consulting, offering programs that support women. Women work differently, think differently, and it is up to us to develop this difference into  our strength. We explore breaking free of traditional standards, accomplishing professional and personal goals to create an authentic, fully loved life. Read more Dirty Girl Consulting blogs here.

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