How Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton Are Taking a Page From the "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher
When Margaret Thatcher's favored black Salvatore Ferragamo handbag was auctioned off for charity in 2000, the smart leather purse sold for roughly $130,000.
The hefty price tag should come as no shock — England's first female prime minister was known for her black leather handbags. She would proudly carry one along with her, either tucked under her arm or in front of her, during official state business.
Over the course of her 11 years in office, these sturdy bags became an outward symbol of her own steadfast personality — so much so that when Thatcher would, for instance, ruthlessly dismiss a journalist or a political rival, her colleagues in Parliament would joke that the opponent who had run afoul of her had been "handbagged."
Thatcher's handbags managed to perform double duty, not just a practical vessel and a token of her femininity but also a tangible reminder of her famed iron will. Who would have thought it would take more than two decades after Thatcher ruled Britain with a powerful mix of femininity and hard-driving stubbornness before her colleagues across the pond would begin to catch up?
Unlike the Iron Lady, women running for public office in the United States have often tried to minimize their gender, worried that voters would not find them “tough enough” to govern a state or hold the nuclear launch codes.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her early years, even before she became a politician in her own right, used to bat away any gendered reference that seemed to pigeonhole her as simply a wife or First Lady. "I'm not sitting here like some little woman standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette," she famously told one interviewer.
During Clinton's 2008 presidential run, when fashion columnist Robin Givhan wrote about the subtle cleavage that the then-senator displayed during a speech on the floor about higher education, her team retaliated: "Clothes? Makeup? Cleavage? What's really important in this race?"
Now, eight years later, Clinton doesn't scoff off those topics — instead, she jokingly lists "hair icon" and "pantsuit aficionado" as two of her credentials in her Twitter bio.
While she often seemed reluctant to fully acknowledge the history-making potential of her presidential bid in 2008, she does so much more freely today, saying recently, "I may not be the youngest candidate in the race, but I will be the youngest woman president of the United States."
Furthermore, she is increasingly willing to delve into the personal — including her experiences as, yes, a "wife, mom, and grandma" (also in her Twitter bio). She has added a regular line to her stump speech, about having a "grandmother glow."
In the first presidential election featuring serious female candidates from both major parties, Clinton and GOP-hopeful Carly Fiorina are displaying more of a Thatcher-like attitude. Think of it as Handbagging 2.0. The candidates are using their gender to their advantage, embracing their unique perspective as women, and, at times, yes, using their experiences as women to ruthlessly dismiss their rivals, too.
When Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican, recently said "the gender card alone" would not be enough for Clinton to win the White House, she was quick to hit back. The gender card, she wrote in a Facebook Q&A, is "played every time Republicans vote against equal pay, deny families access to affordable child care or family leave, refuse to let women make decisions about their health or have access to free contraception."
Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, didn't try to blend in at the first Republican primary debate last week. Instead, she stood out by sporting a bright pink skirt suit — a literal splash of unapologetically feminine brightness in a sea of dark suits. And, also, incidentally, Republican primary voters in an NBC News poll deemed her the overall debate winner for her strong performance.
In the "undercard" debate, she concluded by casting herself as the Republican best equipped to go up against Hillary Clinton — a hard-line stance that would have been more difficult for some of her male colleagues to adopt. "We need a nominee who is going to throw every punch, not pull punches, and someone who cannot stumble before he even gets into the ring," Fiorina said, in her closing statement.
Then, in a fund-raising email several days later, Fiorina seemed to offer her gender as a much-needed point of diversity on the Republican side, sending around a photo of the 10 men on the main debate stage and asking, "What's wrong with this picture?" (The answer: No women — and specifically, no Fiorina).
And both Clinton and Fiorina also used Donald Trump's debate night (and post debate night) dust-up with Fox News' Megyn Kelly to take a pro-woman stance in support of the moderator. "What Trump said about Megyn Kelly is outrageous," Clinton tweeted. And Fiorina also expressed her support over Twitter, writing, "Mr. Trump: There. Is. No. Excuse," and saying she stood with Megyn Kelly.
The message behind these comments is clear — and can be summarized using one of Clinton's comments from a town hall earlier this summer: "I am not asking you to vote for me because I am a woman," she said. "I'm asking you to vote for me because of my merits, but one of my merits is that I am a woman."
In a crowded field of men, being a woman — and focusing on your own experiences as a woman — is a good way to stand out (especially, to female voters, who are considered a decisive voting block this election).
And well into the 21st century, don't we think that maybe voters (and politicians) are finally over the silly stereotype that says that women can't care about their handbags and their wonky policies; that a woman who knows the ins and outs of women’s health can’t be equally knowledgeable on foreign policy; or that the same woman who takes a 3 a.m. call in the Oval Office one night can’t also know how to apply a smart layer of concealer the next morning.
If Margaret Thatcher didn't teach us otherwise, maybe Fiorina and Clinton finally will.
Watch Clinton speak on the importance of upholding women's rights in the 21st century in the video above, and learn more about her political and personal background here.
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