The stunning CPAC gender gap: Where are the women, Al Cardenas?

There were plenty of women in the audience on Friday, when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at CPAC. But women were underrepresented as featured speakers at the annual conservative gathering in National Harbor, Md.
(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
<i>This post has been corrected, as indicated below.</i>

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.--I took the Al Cardenas Challenge … and won!

Cardenas, an attorney and former head of the Florida GOP. is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC.

On Friday, he was asked why women were so badly underrepresented as speakers at the annual Republican gathering, which has featured on its main stage a parade of high-profile men and relatively few women.


“A vast majority of the featured speakers have been men,” a reporter told Cardenas at an impromptu news conference just outside the main ballroom. “Are you happy with the gender makeup?”

“Everyone who has asked me that question -- I’ve asked them one back,” said Cardenas, who stood with Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief who sank on her maiden political voyage in 2010 when she failed to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. “‘Have you physically counted the number of women from the 200-some speakers here on the agenda?’ And I have yet to have somebody who asked me that question who has gone down the full agenda and counted the number of women.”

Not so fast, Mr. Cardenas.

In honor of International Women’s Day on Saturday, I sat down with my handy CPAC mobile app, which helpfully lists all the speakers and panelists who participate in the three-day conservative carnival.

I kept a running tally of names by gender. In order to be as precise as possible, I also looked at bios when a name seemed ambiguous. So, yes, Alex Epstein, author of “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” is a man, but Alex Smith, national chair of College Republicans, is a woman. Shannon Smith, chief executive of Abundant Power Group, is a man. And Mary Katharine Ham, an editor-at-large at, was listed twice. (You go, girl!)

I’m kicking myself for not putting any money on the Cardenas Challenge. Because, you know what? That guy is way off the mark.

By my count, the CPAC mobile app listed 163 speakers and panelists. Men outnumber women by far.

The breakdown: 128 men (78%) vs 35 (21%) women. That’s a 57-point gender gap, people. If Republicans have any hope of stopping the Democrats’ blockbuster narrative that they are waging a war on women, they must first solve their own war of attrition on women.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who closes CPAC on Saturday evening, is expected to be a highlight for many attendees. But one woman with mega-star power is not enough to dispel the notion that CPAC (and by association the Republican Party) is a retrogressive boys’ club.

When is the next Sarah Palin going to get some CPAC love?

Even a writer on the conservative website,, was brutal: “CPAC could have invited South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez,” wrote Mary Chastain. “These women are not only in a position of power, but they are also minorities. Martinez can reach out to women and the Latino vote, which leans to the left. They did not even bring in Condoleezza Rice … she is respected on both sides of the aisle. CPAC also left out Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer.”

In a way, I can understand Cardenas’ obliviousness. He’s got man blinders on.

But how in the world did Fiorina get it so wrong?

When Cardenas denied the existence of a gender gap, the reporter who asked the original question noted that very few women were scheduled as “featured speakers.”

Fiorina bristled.

“I absolutely disagree,” said Fiorina, who is chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation. “Of course, there are people who had scheduling conflicts, but we’re very proud of the women in this movement. If you look around this hall and look at the number of women of all ages who are here, I think the only thing you can conclude is that this is a very heterogeneous set of speakers and panelists.”

On Saturday afternoon, CPAC’s only all-female panel is to take the stage a few hours before Palin arrives. Their topic? “Why Conservatism is Right for Women.”

I’d like to hear them talk about why Al Cardenas and Carly Fiorina can’t count.

[For the Record, 10:45 a.m. EST March 8: An earlier version of this post said the gender gap among speakers and panelists at CPAC is 57%. It is 57 percentage points.]

Twitter: @robinabcarian