Michele Bachmann’s glass house

January 4, 2012

By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.

Of all the candidates who rose and fell during the prolonged Republican primary campaign going into Iowa, Michele Bachmann took the wildest ride. Bachmann won the 2011 Ames Straw Poll in August, taking 28 percent of the vote, mainly due to conservative evangelicals who supported her strong anti-abortion views and her ease in speaking Christianese. But a mere five months later, after a disastrous showing in Iowa where she only took 5 percent of the vote, Bachmann is dropping out of the race.

The campaign has blamed sexism for her precipitous fall. It’s an accusation that hasn’t done her any favors with defensive voters, but this may be one of those rare occasions when the Bachmann camp has correctly assessed reality. As a conservative female politician with an evangelical base, Bachmann was forced to hang her ambitions on voters who believe in traditional gender roles. It’s a strategy—a woman who rejects feminism who also wants to use feminism to gain serious power–that causes cognitive dissonance for voters, like fruit-flavored beer. The novelty will generate some sales, but at the end of the day, people will return to the half-dozen other beer-flavored beers available.

The sustained culture war that has created modern conservatism has many aspects to it: homophobia, racialized resentments, hostility to immigration. But anger about feminist gains surely rises to the top, with a special anger reserved for reproductive rights that free women from the kitchen and allow them to compete with men in the workplace. Bachmann herself gloated frequently about her love of traditional male power, noting publicly that she submits to her husband and strictly forbids her daughters to take the lead with boys, forcing them to adopt a strictly passive role in dating. Unsurprisingly, her belief that women should not control when they give birth has been a major platform for her, one she routinely describes as her number one priority.

That these opinions created an initial bout of enthusiasm for Bachmann is unsurprising. For decades now, conservatives have loved an anti-feminist woman, believing, correctly, that having women express hostility to women’s rights dilutes the feminist ideology. Putting anti-feminist views in a woman’s mouth allows conservatives to argue that many women are perfectly happy allowing men to take the lead.  Additionally, anti-feminist women can be used to shame feminists, by asking them why they can’t just accept the status quo like conservative women do. Many pundits and writers have made a career being the woman who opposes women’s empowerment: Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter, Beverly LaHaye, among others. As long as these women’s actions are seen as fundamentally supportive of male dominance, they’re applauded for speaking out, and make money doing it.

The problems arise when anti-feminist women start to seek real power for themselves. Bachmann is far from the first female candidate whose anti-feminist views gained her a flurry of enthusiasm but whose conservative base reneged at the last minute. That base is unable to grant serious power to a woman, no matter how much she promised to use it to disempower other women. Michele Bachmann is simply the latest conservative woman who has found that she’s trapped not under a glass ceiling, but in a glass house: stuck in the role of champion for male control, unable to get a piece of the pie for themselves.

The Bush administration learned about this conundrum when they foolishly thought evangelicals would line up behind an evangelical female anti-abortion Supreme Court nominee in the same way they line up for such women at book signings. It played out differently. An evangelical outcry against Harriet Miers led Bush to make the unusual move of retracting a nominee because of pressure from his own party, and he quickly replaced her with a more standard-issue conservative male nominee, Samuel Alito.

Sarah Palin had a similar trajectory: an initial burst of conservative enthusiasm that turned to serious doubts. Palin saw the writing on the wall and has since retreated from seeking office, instead sticking to the more woman-friendly role of making speeches and writing books. In 2008, Sharron Angle tripped across the contradiction between her hostility to female equality and her own ambitions, and ended up losing the Nevada Senate race to Harry Reid, despite early polling data suggesting he would be an easy candidate to beat. Thirteen percent of voters in exit polls claimed Angle was not conservative enough, a surprisingly high number considering her far-right views, and one that hints at underlying suspicions about women with too much ambition.

Republican women who want a career in politics have usually found more success avoiding the anti-feminist pitch. Only one female Republican Senator, Kelly Ayotte, has much play with the evangelical right, and she managed that feat mainly by running a quiet election in the small and atypical state of New Hampshire. For politicians with aspirations of winning over the Christian right, a better bet is to moderate your ambitions and not vie for prominent federal offices. Many evangelical female Republicans hold governorships and even sit in the House of Representatives. It’s those showy offices with serious political power, such as Supreme Court judgeships, the Senate, and certainly the Presidency, that go a step too far.

Bachmann seems to be aware of the dissonance caused by a female politician running on an anti-feminist platform. During her post-caucus speech last night, she resorted to denying that she possessed that feminist-y quality of ambition, stating, “I am not a politician,” and, “I do not aspire to be a politician.” Clearly, she hopes to convince voters that she’s nothing more than a contented housewife who magically got swept into a suit and behind a podium, running a campaign for President through God’s will, not that of her own. It’s a strategy that was likely never to work—they’re conservatives, not idiots–but certainly at this point, trying to stomp out the contradictions with a neat little bit of dishonesty about the extent of her ambitions is too little, too late.

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Congresswoman Michele Bachmann thanks her husband, Marcus Bachmann at her Iowa Caucus night rally in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 3, 2012.  REUTERS/Brian Frank


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Although one must wonder whether Santorum would have done as well if he had caught his surge early. I agree with all the points expressed here, but Rick didn’t get any kind of personal scrutiny in the media because nobody thought he had a chance of winning any state. Bahcmann on the other hand was a serious contender for 20 minutes a few months ago, and people got their licks in against her.

This “early peak” phenomenon probably explains far less of the result than the entrenched sexism that Amanda has analyzed, but I think when we see the Santorum wave (eww) collapse, it will be for the same reason that the Cain train derailed, and that Rick Perry is soon to retire back to N****rhead – the closet doors open and the skeletons come out.

Posted by Crommunist | Report as abusive

Simply put, Evangelical fundies want women barefoot and pregnant, in aprons, not pants. They use women as cheerleaders, but never as team captain.

Posted by ProChoiceGramma | Report as abusive

This article is extremely out of touch. This is the 21st century. Wake up. When writers continue to aggressively hang on to old world outdated issues coined to conservatives, it becomes suffocating. Why do all writers want to categorize all conservative republicans as a collective group that hates gays, promotes racial hatred, against all immigrants, and belongs to the Tea Party? Stop stereotyping. This is like saying that all democrats are gay, tree-huggers, baby-killers, communists, and hate the rich. Stop using the far right wing agenda and far left wing agenda as the foundation for all articles. The 80% of the everyday common American needs to be heard and appreciated.

Posted by timpaulmills | Report as abusive

Harriet Miers, Sharron Angle, and Michele Bachmann are all transparently unintelligent. The same could be said of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, many other conservative men. Perhaps as a result of the disasterous W presidency, conservatives are not as forgiving of palpable idiocy as they once were. This is one issue.

Anti-femminism is another issue. And although it is certainly worth looking at the careers of anti-feminist conservative women politicians for clues toward understanding the extent of their anti-feminist sentiment, this analysis is undermined by the distortion of a Republican party suddenly leery of obvious stupidity while at the same time forcing its politicians to profess incredibly dumb beliefs.

In this context, I’m surprised that Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska wasn’t mentioned. The Republican Murkowski was forced to run (and win) as an independent when a Palin-backed candidate beat her in the primary. The difference is that Murkowski is actually intelligent and well-spoken, more of a throwback Rockefeller Republican than the newer breed anyway.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

I think the article goes through a lot of trouble to hang Bachman’s defeat on the allegedly overwhelming entrenched antifeminism among what has come to pass for conservatism these days. It seems as if opportunity was taken to ride a favorite hobby horse. I believe that Bachman’s apparent and complete disconnection from political and economic realities is the largest part of what undid her. While the social conservatives have a large voice within the GOP, they do not represent a majority, and are themselves in conflict with the libertarian/small government wing. Elsewhere, I believe that old-style pragmatic and practical business-oriented conservatism still exists and will not sacrifice itself to ideological excess, such as that which backfired on the previous administration. In sum, those who did not vote for her actually voted for someone else, not against her just to keep women down.

Posted by RynoM | Report as abusive

[…] […]

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

The reality is that, if you listen to what Michele Bachmann says and compare it to reality, she is an extremely dishonest person. But honesty in politicians does not appear to be something valued by the evangelical right.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

I think we were only reminded that Iowa Republican voters are not a uniform group of hardcore Evangelicals after all; they are more nuanced than that, as evidenced by Ron Paul’s strong showing. It could also mean that Republicans, at least in Iowa, may be coming to their senses and supporting candidates that are not one-issue hardcore Christian Evangelicals (witness Perry’s weak showing, despite or because of his “Strong” commercials that openly pandered to the hardcore Christian right).

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

The Miers backlash had nothing to do with her sex and everything to do with her being completely unqualified and the biggest attempt at cronyism by a sitting president in living memory. Her nomination was a joke to all sides and the sooner that embarassment was buried the better for W.

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

“This article is extremely out of touch. This is the 21st century. Wake up.”

It was Michelle Bachmann who said she would be “submissive to her husband” even if she was elected president. Who’s the one who needs to join the 21st century?

Posted by RobertHoward | Report as abusive

I sure hope Reuters doesn’t have to pay for these simple minded social science classes.

Posted by cp61 | Report as abusive

Honestly, as a conservative that would abstain from voting in a presidential election before voting for Bachmann, I can tell you unequivocally that the conservative movement’s lack of enthusiasm for Michelle Bachmann emanates almost entirely from her seeming lack of competence rather than from her being a woman. That she points to sexism as the reason for her defeat may be her most incorrect assessment of reality. Have you heard her talk?

Also, I voted for a Republican woman as governor of Oklahoma.

Posted by Jayhay | Report as abusive

[…] Bachmann bows out. (Reuters) […]

Posted by Bachmann Suspends Campaign – Vows to Defeat Obama’s “Agenda of Socialism” | FavStocks | Report as abusive

Well, she’s gotta blame something. Can’t say that God was toying with her when He told her to run; can’t say that she’s a massive hypocrite and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in govt handouts while railing against them; can’t say it’s because she told kids not to get vaccinated… so call it anti-feminist bigotry. Capital B, capital S, with lots of exclamation points. Should Rick Perry complain that it was women out to derail his campaign that caused his terrible flop? Or maybe it was forgetting your agenda on a televised national debate – oops.

This is almost as bad as Sarah Palin blaming the media for her 30+ ethics charges as casuing her to quit as Governor of Alaska – you know, not her violating the ethics code some 30+ times and wanting to have the state pay her legal bills to fight them. The only reason they all got dropped was because she quit, otherwise she most assuredly would have been impeached. But it’s the media’s fault… the same media that hired her (albeit Fox) and paid her almost $10m since her ‘retirement’ from politics.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Way off beam. Did you think about the examples of Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher? At all? If being a woman doomed Bachman she would never have reached ftont runner status ahead of Santorum.

She did. Her strength was her religion, as you note. Her downfall was her history with witchcraft. If you don’t see that you really don’t get these evangelicals at all.

While I respect the views of rational republicans saying they would never vote Bachman on competence grounds, that really doesn’t account for the votes of the religious right. It was down to witchcraft.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

“The sustained culture war that has created modern conservatism… ” I don’t think these words accurately describe past recent history. Conservatism was around first, then came perversion of it. (like this article.)

Posted by limapie | Report as abusive

Please Ms. Marcotte, do not pretend to know the thoughts of the CHRISTian sector of this country. You obviously have never had very much of an interaction with us.
Most CHRISTian men respect the women in their lives. They treat them as delicate beings and regard their part in our lives as a blessing.
And PROCHOICE GRANMA has probably done something she is not proud of and is lashing out at us to assuage her conscience.
Proud to be married to an intelligent CHRISTian LADY.

Posted by Bobby1947 | Report as abusive

I thought the conservatives just wanted something pretty to look at, which is why she did so well up until things got serious.

Posted by lhathaway | Report as abusive

My little girl could draw a more accurate picture with a box of crayons than this article.

Posted by mindlessthug | Report as abusive

You have upset a lot of conservative evangelical fundies who would rather you were at the kitchen sink than a keyboard.

On the other hand, leaving sexism out of it, could it be that Bachman (and Palin) are just thick?

Posted by Jozi | Report as abusive

Glad to see people smashing this article. Drawing conservatives as anti-intellectual zealots who support submission to their husbands and are vehemently anti-feminist ignores that for the most part, an American conservative is anti-government, pro-business, anti-regulation AND anti-bailout, and should be fundamentally anti-war.

Bachmann actually supports dominionism. for those not in the know, that is divine right within the context of an democracy or republic (god chooses the elections and thus the leader can do no wrong). She is on record with this. Thankfully God knows to keep out of American politics.

Posted by billt568 | Report as abusive

Voters grappled with Palin during her aspirations to seize power and occupy the White House. They didn’t need mini-Palin with equally blind ambition.

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

So you’re saying God gave her the boot early on? If it weren’t for the fact God has no interest in blind political ambition, I’d say you were on to something.

Posted by DisgustedReader | Report as abusive

I don’t know if the average GOP evangelical voter sees the deep personal hypocrisy in women like Bachmann and Palin and others. But, apparently, they are able to realize that some of the stuff that they say is just plain ignorant.

Women like Bachmann accept all the benefits of feminism and equal rights that those rights provide to THEM. What they cannot accept is that other women have different lives and encounter different problems and need to make their own decisions about how to deal with them.

Bachmann, et al, may simply be control freaks. They simply want to dictate to other women what is right for them. They want to legislate how other people should lead their personal lives.

As Christians, you would think they would realize that they could do the most good by living good lives and being good examples of what they consider moral people to be, rather than beat people over the head with their own demands that people accept what they want them to do. And, help people, encourage people in their quests to do better.

These women are in a mutually beneficial relationship that is typical within the GOP, just like blacks like Hermain Cain, Tim Scott and Alan West. The party gets to say: Look at us, aren’t we inclusive?!? while fighting women’s and black rights legislatively. The candidates are prized as trophies that allow the party to say that. It’s sick on both sides.

Posted by emm305 | Report as abusive

This has to be one of the worst commentary pieces I’ve ever seen on here…where to begin:
1) The sneering, condescending view of evangelical Christians. Substitute in any other major block of religious people and this (“Christianese?” seriously, do you take us for Martians or something?) comes across as borderline racist.
2) Lisa Murkowski lost her party’s nomination for Alaska Senate because of a (largely correct in my humble view) perception that she was part of a corrupt political machine and out of touch with her party’s voters – not because of her plumbing. She is a statist, career politician and nowhere near being a genuine evangelical. In a state as conservative as Alaska, the fact that she was able to survive by almost having a worse ACU rating than Ben Nelson, a Democrat, is astounding.
3) I seem to recall two female Senate nominees from the GOP, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle that initially drew strong support from the very conservative right you accuse of having a problem with women in these positions, garnered serious ridicule from the Democratic party, the DC establishment, the spineless bunch at the RNC, and the media-which seriously undermined their candidacies.
4) I also seem to recall the Dems filibustering two qualified Federal Court nominees in the days of the Bush Administration – Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen, in the hopes that they would be unable to be picked for the Supreme Court someday (we can’t have a Republican President nominating qualified women or Hispanics, as Miguel Estrada withdrew unfortunately, now can we?)
5) Opposition to Harriet Miers was driven by the fact that her resume was light in terms of legal scholarship and a history of opinions to tell whether or not she could be relied upon to judge based on the merits of the Constitution when interpreting law. (I thought Feminism was about equality/merit? Oh, wait…)
6) You’ve apparently forgotten that Sandra Day-O’Connor, a conservative judge/political heavy hitter from Arizona, was nominated to be the first female SCOTUS AJ by President Ronald Reagan (championed by Sen Barry Goldwater as well) – standard bearers in the Conservative movement.
7) Given all the media scrutiny / bashing etc. (largely from the left/DC media establishment) bestowed upon Sarah Palin, who could blame her for wanting to make money writing books and giving speeches rather than going through the gauntlet again? (Is Katie Couric a man?) I fail to see what this has to do with the GOP wanting women back in the kitchen, when many conservatives would love to see her jump in the race. Can’t have your cake and eat it too (but then that would seem to tbe the objective of your feminist movement now, wouldn’t it?)
8) Hillary Clinton. If I need to explain this you need to switch careers.
9) Many Conservatives that you accuse of wanting women back in the kitchen have seriously considered a “Draft Condi” movement (1st Female Sec of State – ala GW Bush) for President and she may be on the ticket as VP.
10) Michelle Bachmann was perceived as lacking gravitas as a back bencher by running for President. You clearly understand little about Presidential politics if you think governorships lack power or paths to the top – Nikki Haley could be a serious candidate at some point in the future for Pres. or VP, as most Presidents of late have been governors. (Except for our current one…and gee isn’t that turning out swell?)

Posted by AntoniusBlock | Report as abusive

Correction/modifier on Condi Rice…should say “First African American Female” Sec of State

Posted by AntoniusBlock | Report as abusive

Brilliantly insightful piece!

The political ambitions of evangelical women are denied by the very set of entrenched “Christian” fundamentalist ideologies that they seek to champion.

Welcome to the world of the American Taliban.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

It is no big secret those like Bachmann and the amazing ‘Frothy Mix’ would have us in some 14th century theocracy waging Holy War against the Muslims in Jerusalem while praying and waiting patiently for Armageddon to come given half a chance.

For those of you getting your conservative panties in a twist, if you read, she is leveling the beam squarely at Evangelical fundies at the extremes. Be they a minority or not, they are still nauseatingly vocal. Can’t we just carve out an area in the middle of Nebraska and ship them all there so they can have their fundie Utopia and left the rest of us the Hell alone?

Posted by Sinestar | Report as abusive

[…] Amanda Marcotte blames Michele Bachmann’s failure on the fact that the conservative “base is unable to grant serious power to a woman, no matter how much she promised to use it to disempower other women.” […]

Posted by Weekly Feminist Reader | Report as abusive

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