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Is Nikki Haley Running as a Woman?

Melina Mara/The Washington Post
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks to staff after a town hall on a snowy and cold day in Waukee, Iowa, on Tuesday.

Nikki Haley loves a good high-heel metaphor. A snappy little zinger, a reminder to prospective voters that she’s a female candidate, but the cool, action-hero kind:

“They’re not for a fashion statement; they’re for ammunition,” is one of her favorite go-to phrases – to the point that it’s appeared on coffee mugs.

“They’re five-inch heels and I don’t wear them unless you can run in them,” she retorted to Vivek Ramaswamy during a debate last fall.

“You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies, and when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels,” she said in the ad that launched her campaign.

This column is about the femininity of Haley’s presidential campaign, but I don’t think I can go any further without pointing out that it’s not entirely clear that Haley knows how high heels work.

First: Pain inflicted by kicking back has nothing to do with heel height at all. Kicking is generally a toe-based move. Stomp back? Sure. Grind down? Why not. Kicking – no.

Second: “Unless you can run in them”? What? Haley will only wear shoes that Vivek Ramaswamy can run in?

As for the ammunition line, unless Haley is saying that she owns a gun that shoots high heels, or that she keeps bullets in her shoes when she isn’t wearing them on her feet, or that when she unscrews the heel of her shoe it becomes a tiny gun that shoots tiny bullets (or perhaps even tinier high heels) – unless she’s saying one of those things, I don’t know what she’s talking about.

Maybe she’s simply suggesting that a high-heel-wearing female conservative candidate is more lethal, for various cultural reasons, than a stodgy male conservative candidate.

However garbled her shoe metaphors are, I think it’s worth noting that she likes to use shoe metaphors. When Haley announced her candidacy, there was a lot of chatter about how a conservative female candidate might run as a woman in 2024. The answer seems to be she will run lightly as a woman. Not on her high heels but on her tiptoes.

“Isn’t that sweet of him, spending so much time and money against me?” she quipped last week in response to a Trump ad attacking her record, evoking a popular girl brushing off a lovesick admirer.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman,” she often says – a Margaret Thatcher quote that doesn’t put down men so much as it suggests a reliable workhorse quality in women. (We shall arrange the dentist appointments, buy the office birthday cakes, remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse, etc.).

“These fellas don’t know how to talk about abortion,” she said in Wednesday night’s final presidential debate, a sentiment she’d been repeating for months. “Fellas,” is such an interesting word choice. There’s a “lunkhead” quality to it, as if those gentlemen candidates simply don’t know any better.

This is the thing that I noticed about the way Haley invokes her own identity as a woman: When she mentions it, almost without exception, she cites it as an asset – not something that may have hindered her campaign, via sexism, but something that would make her a better president than the other candidates, if elected. When asked about abortion, she frequently mentions that she has special insight into reproductive topics because she had “trouble” conceiving her children. When asked, at a December town hall, why she was more qualified than the other 2024 contenders, she replied, “I’m a mom.”

Perhaps this doesn’t strike you as noteworthy – plenty of female politicians have talked about their children, for example – but it’s a different tack than we’ve seen before on the national trail.

When 2020’s crop of female candidates (and Hillary Clinton before them) talked about their identities as women, they often talked not only about their pride in their accomplishments as women, but about the systemic road blocks that had obstructed their paths. Elizabeth Warren made her struggles to find child care as a young mom a part of her personal narrative. Amy Klobuchar battled newcomer Pete Buttigieg onstage, and then boldly suggested that female candidates are held to a higher standard. Kamala Harris’s speeches were often about the adversity she encountered as she climbed California’s political ladder. Hillary Clinton lamented the unbreakable glass ceiling.

In November, scholar Christine Rosen published a thoughtful essay on Nikki Haley for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Rosen wrote of how Democratic female candidates are always presumed to be feminist by default, while conservative female candidates are expected to either prove that they’re feminists or denounce feminism entirely.

Haley, Rosen surmised, refused to take either path. While Haley might cite her female identity as a bonus, she has refused to raise the idea that others might hold it against her – to play the “oh, the misogyny” card, as Rosen put it. She ran as “a fighter who happens to be a woman, someone thick-skinned yet self-aware.”

Rosen was a fan of Haley’s strategy, and of Haley herself, but she wondered how the “tough but nuanced version of female leadership” would play to younger crowds – the “baby Bolsheviks whose understanding of feminism can be summarized in a meme.”

With due respect to this, er, interesting portrait of young women voters, I don’t think Haley is trying to appeal to 25-year-old Bryn Mawr grads as much as moderate 55-year-olds who don’t want to vote for Biden but are looking for a way out of Trump. Voters who don’t mind the idea of a female president but would rather not have a feminist one. Voters who want a bootstraps origin story rather than one that reminds them of America’s sexist and racist past.

Voters who either don’t think that being an American woman means navigating harassment, stereotypes and lower wages, or don’t want to hear about it. Voters who instead want to hear about the ways in which America offers women unparalleled opportunity.

Nikki Haley is running as a woman, but without the burdensome context of womanhood and all that it has meant in our country. She’s running in a way that keeps feathers unruffled and messy truths unexamined – a woman who placates and manages everyone else’s feelings. She’s running as the daughter who volunteers to host Thanksgiving every year, remembers who is gluten-intolerant and keeps Uncle Donald from holding the dinner table conversation hostage to his rants. Haley’s not my candidate, but watching her high-wire act has felt deeply familiar. It’s the most traditionally feminine thing about her.

The message she ultimately seems to want to leave voters with is that she’s sharp, but not in a way that will wound you. At least not unless she’s kicking you with her heels.