Nikki Haley’s Gender Trap
At the Republican debate on Wednesday, Nikki Haley was a popular target. Candidates attacked her repeatedly, sensing that as her poll numbers have risen, she’s become more of a threat. When Haley responded, she did so in a familiar way. “I love all the attention, fellas — thank you for that,” she said. She is the only woman in the GOP field, lest anyone’s forgotten. Her remark referenced her gender without sounding too feminist. For Haley, that’s a common strategy.
When she entered the race for president, she brought gender to the forefront, announcing, “May the best woman win.” Later, in a debate where Vivek Ramaswamy called her “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels,” she responded in kind, telling him they were five-inch heels and “I don’t wear ’em unless you can run in ‘em.” The author of a book on female leaders, Haley has cited Margaret Thatcher as her role model. “There’s nothing wrong with Iron Ladies being feminine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with Iron Ladies being great wives, and great moms.” Haley, of course, is more than a wife and mother. She’s the former governor of South Carolina and was Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. She owes her career to the hard-won gains of the feminist movement. She just can’t admit it.
Like many conservative women before her, Haley confronts a trap of her own making. She plays up her gender when it suits her, but never too much, because otherwise she’ll trigger Republican voters who despise so-called identity politics. Haley has tried to head off that threat. ”This is not about identity politics,” she said during her campaign announcement. “I don’t believe in that. And I don’t believe in glass ceilings, either. I believe in creating a country where anybody can do anything and create their own American dream.” GOP strategist Alice Stewart told CNN in September that Haley had “no need for her to light her hair on fire and [stress] the fact that she’s a woman because she uses her ability and experience as a way to connect with voters.” In practice, Haley can offer only a stripped-down brand of female empowerment with its most cynical elements on display.