Michele Bachmann’s glass house
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