Goodbye Girl Power, Hello Cat Fighting

LA Times piece substitutes one female pol storyline for another

Sunday’s Los Angeles Times story on the history of tensions between California’s leading ladies, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, seems to supplant one standard female-pol narrative for another: debunking the girl power storyline for a bit of cat fighting.

The insidery piece opens with a scene from a McCain campaign meeting held in early 2008.

As the meeting began, Whitman turned to Fiorina, the first woman ever to run a Fortune 20 company, and tersely suggested that she take notes.


The set up then follows:

…Whitman and Fiorina have often been painted as one and the same, Silicon Valley duplicates now part of a rising sisterhood of leaders in the Republican Party. Although they are the first California women to serve as their party’s nominees for the offices, they are no more ideologically or stylistically similar than any two men who might occupy the roles. Nor did they run their companies in the same manner.

Professor Jennifer Chatman of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business said the recent tendency to lump them together glosses over their distinctions. “It’s like — OK, we’ve got two gals running now, they must have been putting their makeup on in the bathrooms together. Would we assume the same if one were a man or both were men?”

It’s a valid question. So is this: Would the Times be writing about these tensions if the candidates weren’t women?

Perhaps they wouldn’t need to. But the story seems guilty of some of the charges it challenges.

The piece is well reported— writers Maeve Reston and Seema Mehta note in it that they spoke to almost two dozen people close to the candidates from their time in business and politics—and the reader leaves with little doubt that some tension exists. But while countering the idea that Fiorina and Whitman are taken from the same mold—which they do effectively, canvassing their respective and distinct rises in business and politics—the two writers also fit the candidates into a mold of their own, and one familiar to newspaper readers everywhere: the warring women.

And aside from insider claims that the women don’t like each other, didn’t want to cross paths at the Republican Convention in 2008, etc., Reston and Mehta hinge the narrative on some pretty lightweight examples:

In May, Whitman was planning a Silicon Valley forum that would feature McCain, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and prominent California business executives, according to two people with knowledge of the event’s planning.

Fiorina tried to insert herself into event, said the sources, who would not speak openly because of their continued political involvement. “There was tension between the two about their roles at the event, back and forth about who would speak when, who would be the lead person.”

Ultimately, Whitman moderated the event and remained its co-chair — while Fiorina didn’t speak. (Spokeswoman Soderlund said Fiorina “never asked to be a part of it.”)

On a scale of behind-the-scenes political friction, it hardly ranks with the f-bombs of Game Change.

Whitman and Fiorina may have once been painted as one and the same, as the authors note, but the brushstrokes in this Times piece feel very familiar. It’s fine to take issue with a trite female politician narrative, but best not to replace it with another.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.