Ghost children: Carly Fiorina’s invocation of fetal and maternal suffering

One of these things is not like the others.

One of these things is not like the others.

Miss me, friends? I’m having a great time in the classroom again with my students, but clearly I need to figure out how it was that I was once able to manage my day job and to blog daily.  Maybe I was younger?  Maybe I felt like I had fresh ideas once upon a time?

Although I didn’t liveblog or Tweet about it, I watched the Republican debate Wednesday night from start to finish.  I thought it was both highly entertaining and permitted the candidates to stake out and articulate their positions.  There were some very important differences among the Republicans on the main stage–on federalism (good according to Mike “Two Buck” Huckabee when it permits a state to resist marriage equality, and bad according to Chris Christie when it permits Coloradoans to spark up without fear of Johnny Law), on U.S. borders and whether it’s good or bad to speak Spanish, on the previous decade-plus of warfare and other intervention in the Middle East, and on the most important question of the night:  whether to honor your wife or your mother by putting her face on a sawbuck.  (Srsly?)

I miss Rick Perry, but only because he was the closest thing to a handsome man anywhere near that stage.  I’ve also decided that Rand Paul looks like just about every boy I had a crush on in high school in the 1980s, with pretty much the same haircut too.  (Don’t judge.)

But this is a blog written by a women’s historian, and there is a woman running for President again on the Republican side, so let’s talk about Carly Fiorina and her interesting offensive on motherhood last night.  Amanda Marcotte wonders “What Was Up with Carly Fiorina’s Grisly Abortion Rant?” in the debate last night.  I don’t think it’s so difficult to guess–Fiorina is the only person on the stage who didn’t have children of her own.  While the male Republican candidates eruped in a patronizing ooze about their wives and families when given the opportunity to introduce themselves to the general public, each of them name-checking their wives and most listing their children by name, Fiorina was at a disadvantage in the DNA-bestowing contest.

She is not the first child-free woman in American history to run for President–Elizabeth Dole (R) had no children, and neither did Shirley Chisholm (D)–but it is unusual among the women who have run either for President or Vice-President in a major party in the past decade.  Republican Michele Bachmann has a large family of natural and former foster children, and Sarah Palin (R) has a famously prodigious brood.  By comparison Hillary Clinton (D) is an underachiever with only one child–but importantly, she has a child (and now a grandchild), and can claim the mantle of motherhood as much as Palin or Bachmann.

So Fiorina’s fantasies about Planned Parenthood’s butchery?  Pretty predictable for a childless woman who needs to court the votes of evangelicals and other religious conservatives–men and women who have at least rhetorically put family at the center of their lives, and who make no bones about the importance of family cohesion and respectability when it comes to their political judgment.  Her resume and family history–a twice-married CEO of a major tech company with no children–is not the kind of biography that most evangelicals and religious conservatives can relate to, especially in a woman.

Fiorina had a difficult needle to thread last night, what with wanting to make a feminist point about Donald Trump’s “look at that face” comment.  But she also needed to distance herself from those feminists–those disreputable slutty leftist feminists who prefer to (in the words of Kulturkampfenmeister par excellence Pat Robertson–“leave their husbands, kill their children and practice witchcraft.”  And one of the best ways for right-wing women to do this is to point to the horrors of abortion.

More interesting to me was Fiorina’s invocation of a child she had buried because of drugs–a shock to me, because so far as I knew, she had never had children.  A quick trip to Wikipedia revealed that a stepdaughter had died at the age of 35 because of “alcoholism, substance abuse, and bulimia.”  I suspect that someone on the Fiorina team has curated this page, which also claims that Fiorina and her second husband Frank (the father of the two stepdaughters) “wanted to have children together but, as Fiorina put it: ‘That wasn’t God’s plan.'”

This is a gothic mobilization of unrealized children and a ghost stepdaughter:  they can be invoked as proof of maternal love and sacrifice, and will never talk back or be able to share a contradictory viewpoint.  And what kind of monster would ever question a mother’s invocation of her own sense of loss of the children she never had, let alone her grief as a bereaved parent?


From The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

These ghost children are almost even better than real children, who can get up to all kinds of inconvenient activities that fall afoul of Dad’s or Mom’s political positions–for example, Jeb Bush’s daughter Noelle’s well-publicized drug arrests while her father was Florida governor and all in on the drug wars and the carceral state; or the charges of animal cruelty against Mike Huckabee’s son David.

Let me be clear:  I don’t think Fiorina’s (or anyone’s) parental status is particularly relevant to their qualifications to be President.  I also believe that she may honestly grieve her stepdaughter and regret that children were not part of “God’s plan” for her.  But all candidates who have children talk about them and use them as props in their political campaigns.  Fiorina as a childless candidate, and especially as a childless woman, is in a difficult position.  Reassuring Republican voters about her devotion to children by invoking both fetal and maternal suffering may be the strategy she needs.  When you don’t have children, sometimes ghost children can do the same work.

9 thoughts on “Ghost children: Carly Fiorina’s invocation of fetal and maternal suffering

  1. I think that all of our crushes from the 1980s are best left buried. . . and it was Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, not Pat Buchanan, who dissed feminism so famously that line is now on a t-shirt. I did not watch the debate (do you get hardship pay for that?) and didn’t realize that Fiorina doesn’t have kids, but it is interesting to ponder how that throws the great American cult of children/motherhood into high relief. At least she’s been married, or she’d really have no hope at all. We seem to have decided in the 20th century that we are electing not just a president, but an entire family to model back to us how we like to see ourselves. And the less reality matches up with the myth, the harder we cling to the myth.


    • Sorry–I used the wrong link, which indeed credited Robertson & not Buchanan.

      But in fact, they both used the same line according to Nancy Levit’s 1998 book The Gender Line: Men, Women, and the Law on p. 127: Robertson used it in a fundraising letter in 1992, but Pat Buchanan was the man who took it to prime time in his floor speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. I vividly remember that night–I was watching live, as usual, and that line was a total jaw-dropper.

      And yes to your point about the old-fashioned ideal and the real and the ever-widening gap.


    • WOW–here’s a lesson in the unreliability of memory. I could swear I saw and heard Pat B. say these words in his famous “Culture War” speech, but it looks like I’m wrong! There’s no footnote for the Buchanan speech claim in the book I linked to above. Here’s a full copy of the Culture War speech, which you can also look up on YouTube in various forms. That line isn’t in there, but here’s what is:

      Elect me, and you get two for the price of one, Mr Clinton says of his lawyer-spouse. And what does Hillary believe? Well, Hillary believes that 12-year-olds should have a right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery–and life on an Indian reservation.

      Well, speak for yourself, Hillary.

      Friends, this is radical feminism. The agenda Clinton & Clinton would impose on America–abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools, women in combat–that’s change, all right. But it is not the kind of change America wants. It is not the kind of change America needs. And it is not the kind of change we can tolerate in a nation that we still call God’s country.


  2. The use of the “Reagan Plane” as a backdrop was a screamer. I mean they gave the departing president an actual 707 (or whatever they were using in those days) and no one said it made him seem like some kind of a Cadillac Welfare Chizzler?!? How many more Presidential Libraries are we going to be able to absorb before we pull back in to a half-floor in an ever-expanding National Archives? Anyway, I didn’t actually see any of it, but the NYT editorial header today, “Crazy Talk,” pretty much summarized everything that I read about the debate. I’ve so had it with the Republican Party as a longue-duree historical catastrophe that about the only thing left to tear down in my imagination would be the Lincoln Memorial.

    I find the unreliability of memory as a personal phenomenon to be a kind of comforting thing in the practice of history. In my own archives, those two very different things that couldn’t possibly have happened in the same month, or even in the same year? Well, they happened on the same day! ! It makes what little we are able to coherently recover from the actual past seem like an achievement on the level of doing exo-planetary geomorphology. Which I once thought might be interesting to do.


  3. Thats a very interesting analysis Historiann. I hadn’t thought of her being childless as a problem. But you are right, that would be an important reference point for GOP primary voters. This little maneuver helps me see Fiorina in a more positive light, even if I despise her views.

    I learned something else about Fiorina from this presidential campaign. I had always thought she was a PhD and a scientist because she had run Bell Labs / Lucent. But then I found out she was a history major at Stanford! The reason she ended up at Bell Labs was because she was a management trainee with AT&T after earning her MBA. That makes the crack up of HP all the more interesting.

    Carly Fiorina, another CEO failing upwardly forever.


  4. Pingback: The Candidates Debate | From Pine View Farm

    • Apparently not, unless it’s procured through a private clinic! Fiorina’s all in on the War on Planned Parenthood.

      How amazing is it that this is considered a real issue 100 years after Margaret Sanger was jailed for distributing pessaries at her clinic, and 50 years after Griswold. The war on women’s autonomy continues newly refreshed.


      • They even use the same rhetoric and the patterns of who is driving the anti-fertility control movement are very similar to the 19th century. It is eerie.

        And, of course, the only way it makes sense is as a way to control women. So that they have someone to subjugate and feel superior to.


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