The temperature is pushing 100 degrees at the Marion County Fair in Knoxville, Iowa, and the air reeks of farm animals. Michele Bachmann's staffer is soaked with sweat, but his boss hums with cool energy. Pushing open a gate, the candidate steps into a pigpen for a closer look at a pair of hogs, which twin girls are busy squirting with a spray bottle. “You mostly keep ’em cool?” Bachmann asks cheerily. “That's a full-time job, isn't it? Good luck to you!”
In a button-front dress, long gold necklace, dangling earrings and strappy sandals with two-inch wooden heels, Bachmann looks less like a Washington politician out glad-handing voters in Iowa than like a suburban mom on a lunch date. She smiles for a photo, then sidesteps piles of cow dung as she moves through the barn to a goat-judging contest. There, she chats with Miss County Fair, who—decked out in a tiara, pink frock and brown cowboy boots—is the only other person wearing a dress for miles. Wherever Bachmann goes, she speaks in exclamations: “Hi there! I have to say hi. Nice to meet you!” “Now we're going to check out some livestock!” “This has been so much fun!”
I jot in my notebook that this is a woman who is not afraid to touch people, physically. She pats children on the head, doles out giant hugs, rubs voters' backs as she grins for the camera. On one of her constantly moving hands, I catch a glimpse of a diamond so giant that the weight makes it slip around her slender ring finger. Up close you can see that her makeup is TV ready and perfect, baked smooth by the heat. And that's when it hits me. While some consider Bachmann's political views extreme, her presentation as a woman is decidedly not. I'm witnessing something that didn't seem possible only four years ago: a woman running for president who is neither playing up nor tamping down her sexuality.
Back in 2007 and 2008, I followed Hillary Clinton's presidential bid at stops along these very same lush Iowa back roads. When Clinton hugged someone, it felt strained, forced; events staged in front of haystacks seemed manufactured. Clinton carried herself with hawkish bravado, avoiding references to her gender and all but burying her femininity beneath a wardrobe of plainly tailored pantsuits. Even when she announced her candidacy in a January 2007 Web video, she passed up the chance to mention that if elected, she'd be the first female president. On the campaign trail, she sometimes discounted her gender. “I am not running because I'm a woman,” she would say. “I'm running because I think I'm the most qualified and experienced person to do the job that has to be done.”
I was in New Hampshire the night before the state's crucial 2008 primary, and I watched as two radio pranksters interrupted Clinton's speech in a Salem auditorium, chanting, “Iron my shirt! Iron my shirt!” For Clinton, who'd lost to Obama in the Iowa caucuses four days earlier, the primary was make-it-or-break-it, and she was feeling the pressure. Just a few hours earlier, a female supporter had asked, “How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?” and Clinton had teared up. That scene played on network television all day. Back on the stage in Salem that evening, after the iron-my-shirt interruption, Clinton's voice got sharper and louder as security ushered away the two men. Then she paused, and though I couldn't see her from the back of the room, it sure sounded as though she was smiling when she said, “Oh, the remnants of sexism—alive and well!” The crowd jumped to its feet and hollered in support. “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling,” Clinton reminded them. The next day, she won the primary.
If Clinton the campaigner came across as a woman disguised as a man, then Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was the flirtatious Annie Oakley—the girl who could best any guy at huntin' and who still managed to look feminine and flirty in slimy, fish-covered overalls. Her shapely bare legs, accentuated with red pumps sold under the Naughty Monkey label, were featured on the front page of the nation's newspapers and generated dozens of fashion knockoffs, as did her rimless glasses. The Alaska governor seemed to relish her hottie image, flaunting it with red lipstick, formfitting skirts and leather blazers; she winked at the nation's voters during debates, blew kisses on the trail, was dubbed a “MILF” by Male Voters.
Palin and Clinton both approached the inconvenient truth of being a woman by going to visual extremes. Four years later, a different kind of woman entered the race. While it's impossible to completely separate Bachmann's personal presentation from her beliefs, her gender from her far-right, Tea Party politics, in her behavior as a female candidate, Bachmann can be described as middle of the road. Is Bachmann's gender being treated any differently by voters or the press as a result? I hit the campaign trail to find out.
This morning, Bachmann is speaking from the pulpit during Sunday services at the First Assembly of God church in Des Moines. She's talking about finding Jesus Christ, but it's her candid conversation about motherhood that most obviously connects with the crowd. Bachmann introduces two of her daughters, Sophia and Elisa (she and her husband have three, as well as two sons; they have also raised 23 foster children, all girls). Her daughters are sitting in the pews in front of her, and Sophia is with a group of friends from church camp. Bachmann opens up about her own mother, who was forced to sell off her wedding gifts in a garage sale after her divorce. “The beautiful things that were in the hutch, they were all on the table, and everything had to go because there was just nothing anymore,” Bachmann says. The crowd nods sympathetically as she recounts her mother's financial troubles and giggles when Bachmann describes how crowded her house in Stillwater, Minnesota, became after Bachmann and her husband started taking in foster children. “We had nine kids at this point. We couldn't get them all around the table,” Bachmann says, “so we had to blow a wall out in our kitchen to make the kitchen table bigger! But it was all worth it.” In the church lobby later, Bachmann tightly grasps the hands of women who come up to praise her sermon.
As I watch Sophia and Elisa, off on the side, talking casually with voters, I remember how differently the Clinton campaign handled the former first daughter, Chelsea: Clinton fiercely protected her from the media, just as she'd done during eight years in the White House. When the Clinton team finally decided to put Chelsea out there to stump for her mom, the events were tightly controlled. Even Clinton's closest friends say the campaign failed to showcase the senator as a heroic working mom or allow her to bond with other women over “soft subjects” like parenthood. “We foolishly believed that women would be there for her no matter what because the concept of a female president was just too powerful,” says Patti Solis Doyle, a longtime friend who served as campaign manager until February 2008. “We didn't want to be too ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’ or we were going to alienate the men.”
By contrast, Palin wore her motherhood like a badge of honor, placing all her children—even the infant with Down syndrome, even the unwed pregnant teen—on display. The New York Times asserted in 2008 that “no one has ever tried to combine presidential politics and motherhood in quite the way Ms. Palin is doing” and that “she is also making motherhood an explicit part of her appeal, running as a self-proclaimed hockey mom.” If common wisdom was that mommy talk would brand you as unserious, Palin deliberately upended that view. Far from ignoring motherhood, she used it as the raison d'être for more women to become politically involved. “Moms kinda just know when something's wrong,” Palin said in an early campaign video, a truth that electrified a groundswell of conservative women voters who would eventually dub themselves the Mommy Patriots.
“In the 1980s, being a mother would have been held against a candidate running for elected office because she faced the question of ‘Who is taking care of your children while you are out campaigning?’ ” says Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. “Palin complicated that image of women as mothers because she came up with the mama grizzlies and defending your cubs. The fighter is here, but she's fighting to protect her children. That's quite a different emphasis from fighting for the issues or fighting the opponent.”
Bachmann benefits from the shift and adds her own nuance. She doesn't hide her children but doesn't use them as props either. Bachmann's daughters were often pleasantly smiling in the background as she campaigned this summer. “She shows her female strengths,” says presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “But she's not running around with her children all the time. She has the freedom to say that motherhood is a positive thing that she's done.” In debates, Bachmann has returned repeatedly to her identity as a mother and learned to use it as a weapon against the male candidates, even when she doesn't have crucial facts to deploy. “I'm a mom,” she said before blasting Rick Perry for mandating that Texas sixth graders be vaccinated with the HPV-preventive drug Gardasil. “To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.” She often notes that the Tea Party movement has been fueled by energy from mothers who pay the family bills and are tired of seeing the government fail to manage its finances.
Bachmann's passion for motherhood seems genuine; she says it's the most important job listed on her résumé. “I just saw [the word mother] on the paper, and I thought, That's the one that means the most to me … It's that word that means a lot to me. Obviously wife and all the rest, but it's that word, mother,” she tells me. But the 2004 election also helped make clear that it's smart strategy to identify with women voters. “I understand what a lot of women are going through,” she says. “Whether it's as a woman who has been disappointed in life with maybe her marriage or her children, I've been a part of that and trying to be a help to other people's lives.”
It's July 16, 2011, in Pella, Iowa, and I'm standing in a boutique called Fashion by the HallTree watching Bachmann gush about a pink jacket. “That is so cute,” she says to her aides about the Jackie Kennedy–style taffeta top. “I love it! I think this is absolutely adorable.” The double-breasted Samuel Dong design has a $110 price tag. Beverly Terpstra, the clerk on duty, offers Bachmann a 20 percent discount. “Is that what you'd give anybody else?” Bachmann asks. Assured she isn't getting a special favor—“I want to support the economy!”—Bachmann heads to the cashier. She promises Terpstra she will soon see the jacket in photos: “Dress to impress, they say!”
That Bachmann allows herself to fall in love with a cotton candy–colored jacket in front of a reporter like me could be seen as a sign of progress. At the same time, I realize that by trying to tease apart Bachmann's womanhood and her worldview, I've gotten stuck in an old trap: paying more attention to a woman candidate's clothes than to the economic policy she proposes to put in place to help the boutique clerk. Every expert and activist I call for this story chastises me for asking about Bachmann's clothes. I'm left with the feeling that today it's considered politically incorrect for the media to even comment on clothing.
Four years ago, I watched another pink jacket get terrible scrutiny. It was July 2007, at a televised debate of Democratic contenders, and John Edwards gave Hillary Clinton grief about her pink blazer. “I'm not sure about that coat,” Edwards said, following a questioner's direction to find something he disliked about the contender to his left. Barack Obama jumped in to defend his rival: “I actually like Hillary's jacket. I don't know what's wrong with it.” A pink-clad female candidate was so new that the male players had no idea how to respond. “It was awkward,” says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. “They were like kids in a school yard who didn't know what to do.”
Clinton may have been wearing pink, but her clothes did not telegraph “feminine.” She wore boxy pantsuits in every color, and they were widely criticized—so much so that she eventually mocked herself as belonging to “the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit.” Women's Wear Daily reported that Clinton had pulled out of a Vogue photo shoot because she feared “that she would appear too feminine.” For this she received a stern smackdown from Vogue's editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, who intoned in an editor's letter, “The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying.”
By contrast, when Palin hit the national stage in the summer of 2008, she came decked out in a new wardrobe mostly paid for by the Republican National Committee. It was distinctly feminine, even sexy, with cropped suits, those red heels and knee-high boots. The bills for her and her family—nearly $300,000 worth—appeared on campaign finance reports and stirred up months of controversy. Who says clothes don't matter?
Or the body parts beneath them. The image of Clinton showing (barely visible) cleavage during a Senate floor speech was replayed endlessly in the summer of 2007, while Newsweek's cover shot of Palin's glistening bare legs in running shorts (an outtake from a shoot for Runner's World) in November 2009 prompted Palin to cry “sexist” foul. Aides to both women were incensed and blamed the media for focusing on “trivialities.”
For all these reasons, it strikes me as a little calculated when Bachmann adviser Keith Nahigian ambles up to me during a stop in Ames, Iowa, to make sure I notice that Bachmann has kicked off her sandals and is standing barefoot in the grass. Jan Reisetter, a former second-grade teacher from the nearby town of Radcliffe who is there to meet the candidate, tells me the bare feet indicate to her that Bachmann is a genuine woman. “I think she's a real person, and I don't know how to put that in any other words,” Reisetter says. It seems that was exactly the handler's point. “It's something guys can't do,” says Nahigian. He was later promoted to campaign manager in a fall staff shake-up.
If female candidates have managed to destigmatize kids and clothing, does that mean they've also escaped the other forms of sexism? Well, no. In August 2011, just before Bachmann becomes the first woman in history to win the Ames Straw Poll, a British newspaper posts a photo online of her biting into a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair. Her eyes are closed, her mouth is open; it's a terrible, sexualized image, and it ricochets around the digital globe at warp speed, thanks to tweets from liberal television anchor Keith Olbermann and actor Ashton Kutcher. Then the Washington Post illustrates a front-page story about Bachmann with a photo of her standing next to her husband, Marcus. A quick search of news sites shows there was no lack of pictures of Bachmann solo and triumphant. Nor was this a first for the Post; the editors ran a “couples” photo when Bachmann announced her candidacy. Post managing editor Liz Spayd tells me in an e-mail that the newspaper chose both photographs “because we thought they best captured the moment.” “I don't think there was anything sexist about it,” she wrote. “Bachmann very explicitly makes her husband a partner in the campaign, so it's easy to find visually moving images of the two of them.”
Bachmann has experienced more than her share of sexism, as have Clinton and Palin. What's different is her return lobs. Clinton responded to attacks with sharp counterattacks, not humor, and could come off as abrasive. After David Shuster, then an MSNBC news anchor, suggested in February 2008 that it was “unseemly” that Chelsea, who was calling superdelegates to make the case for electing her mom, was being “pimped out in some weird sort of way,” Clinton refused to pick up Shuster's apologetic phone call. He went on to declare on air that he was sorry for using “pejorative” language about Chelsea, but even after that, according to sources close to the situation, Clinton refused to speak with him directly.
Palin's responses to sexist slights have been equally fierce but much more public: She puts her own 250-mph spin on events for her 3.2 million fans on Facebook and her 675,000 Twitter followers. When Bristol was rumored to be creating drama on the set of Dancing with the Stars, Palin tweeted in her daughter's defense: “Ah yes … Bristol-the-diva! Silly critics! See her diva-ish-ness Sunday, Sarah Palin's Alaska 2 learn truth, before assuming. Thanks & enjoy!” Palin's aggressive responses didn't always pay off, however. John Coale, a prominent Washington fund raiser, Palin friend and supporter, told Time magazine in 2009 that “she made the mistake that every time someone attacked her, she'd fight back.” That attitude landed her in time-consuming public spats with the likes of David Letterman (who described Palin's look as “slutty flight attendant”) and Levi Johnston, Bristol's ex-boyfriend.
Bachmann, on the other hand, has a new “freedom” to call out “authentically sexist stuff,” says Traister, noting, “That's not the same thing as saying [sexism is] fixed; obviously it's not.” She points to the migraine-headache story—the one that says Bachmann suffers from pain so severe, she has to take medicine or be hospitalized. It's reminiscent of “the swooning woman on the fainting couch,” says Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, senior fellow at the Barnard Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy. “There you go again, talking about the weak woman with the headache. There's a space that's been opened for women to come up, but some things are still the same.” Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison brings up the migraine story as well. “If a man had migraine headaches, how would that be played?” Hutchison asks. “I don't think it would have been the same.”
Bachmann responded swiftly to the controversy, which had been published by the conservative website the Daily Caller just as her popularity began to soar. She arranged for reporters to speak with her son, a medical resident at the University of Connecticut, and released a letter from Congress's attending physician declaring that it has not been necessary for her to take daily medication. Unlike Palin, Bachmann deflects criticism good-naturedly, without casting herself as a victim. When Fox News's Chris Wallace apologized for asking on air if she was a “flake,” Bachmann answered with public smiles: “All is forgiven, we move forward, so we're good to go.” And when Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman, told reporters that Bachmann had “sex appeal,” she countered with the ultimate postfeminist parry: She accepted the comment as simple flattery, not loaded devaluation. “I am the old woman in the shoe, and so if someone wants to compliment me on my appearance at 55 years of age after all of living life, I welcome that,” she tells me. She also says the photos and questions about her husband are “part of the gauntlet that I fully expected would occur.”
July 28. Washington, D.C. I'm waiting for Bachmann in the lobby of an office suite she rents to make fund-raising calls. She sits down and pulls her hair back so that it hangs behind her shoulders. She's wearing pearls and a flag pin, and she looks—for once—wrung out. She tells me she thinks seeking the nation's highest office as a woman has become “very normalized for people to see,” and goes on to say her reception from women has been very warm. “If anything I've been hearing more, especially in the last few weeks, a lot of women come up to me with their daughters, or they've got their mother with them, and their eyes are dancing, and they're happy and they're joyful and they say, ‘I want you to meet my daughter,’ ” she says. “That makes me feel very good when I hear that.”
I have heard a similar sentiment echoed in many places—in Iowa a woman told me she thought any woman who had the guts should “go for it”—but I've never heard it in the halls of Washington, where the power elite failed early on to line up behind Bachmann's campaign. I try to reach various prominent women for comment on Bachmann, but to my surprise, none will talk. Palin—then still keeping alive the idea that she might be a candidate herself—is unreachable. Clinton declines to comment. (“I don't think we can make that work,” a top aide says after I've requested a chat.) Elizabeth Dole, the last woman to register serious numbers in the Ames Straw Poll (she placed third in 1999), will “take a pass”; a staffer tells me Dole has long avoided participating in stories about female candidates. Condoleezza Rice politely declines two appeals, and aides to Liz Cheney say she is too busy promoting her father's new book to squeeze in an interview.
Is it possible that none of these women—not even those who are Republicans—have any kind words for a woman who's running for president? Or are they simply not supportive of this woman? After all, Bachmann is an extreme social conservative, with more experience opposing legislation than building bipartisan bridges and with an unfortunate tendency to mangle facts. In light of that, perhaps they don't feel a knee-jerk need to stand up for Bachmann simply because she's a woman. Frankly, I find that hopeful. Maybe now, for the first time, we are beginning to view and judge a female candidate not for her sex but for her stated beliefs and policies. “The more women you have in the game,” says Tiffany Dufu, president of the White House Project, which supports the advancement of women in politics, business and media, “the more it can be about their agenda and not their gender.” And that's a good thing.
Christina Bellantoni is a contributing editor at More.
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