Michele Bachmann Exclusive Interview: “I have not seen gender as a barrier to being in the race”

On July 28, 2011, Christina Bellantoni sat down with presidential candidate Michele Bachmann for an exclusive interview. The full story, "Running (For President) in Heels,"  examines what has changed for women candidates since the 2008 election; the piece appears in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of MORE. Read on for a transcript of the conversation.

by Christina Bellantoni
michele bachmannn pigs pigpen image
Michele Bachmann admiring the pigs at the Marion County Fair in Knoxville, Iowa, in July 2011.
Photograph: Courtesy of Christina Bellantoni

More: Do you think the country has a different view of a woman running for president now than four years ago or 20 years ago?
Michele Bachmann: I have not seen gender as a barrier to being in the race. That’s I think very positive. I don’t see any barrier from people on that score and I think that it seems very normalized for people to see a woman who is running. When I grew up I didn’t feel barriers as a girl. Growing up in a home with a lot of brothers, our parents just expected that all of us could do whatever we wanted and that was a blessing so I never saw myself as having barriers.

I have to say that it hasn’t made any difference whether it’s been South Carolina or Iowa or New Hampshire or Texas or Florida or California or Utah or Nevada, it doesn’t matter which state I’ve been in, I have never detected a barrier. In fact, 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 they just, their eyes are dancing, their eyes are dancing, and they’re happy and they’re joyful and they say I want you to meet my daughter.

This just happened. We were in West Des Moines. We were at a deli and a mother said, ‘I want you to meet my daughter and thank you for being such a good role model for my daughter.’ I’m hearing that more and more from women, mothers for their daughters but then also grandmothers too that are saying that. That makes me feel very good when I hear that.

[Talking about my biography with an associate recently] I just paused and I said you know, I think now being 55 years of age at this point just reflecting and looking backwards, I look at my resume and I look at the things I’ve accomplished, but I mean quite honestly there’s just that word, ‘Mother,’ I just saw it 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. There’s something I think that I’ve come to value even more recently because we are looking at our youngest child going off to college this fall.

More: Is that Sofia?
MB: Yeah.

We’ve been parenting for 29 years and this will be the first time now that all of them will be gone. We had all the foster children as well. It will be very different. It’s just kind of a pause, a time for reflection.
I’m extremely grateful because one thing my husband and I had decided when we first got married even before we had the children. We always wanted to make sure that one of us were there.

It wasn’t always easy, both of us by god’s grace we were self-made people, we worked our way through college. We came from lower middle class backgrounds and we held various jobs through college but we made a decision … that one of us would always be there, and we’ve tag teamed, sometimes I’m gone, sometimes he’s gone. Sometimes there was a period time when he was the full time parent when he was graduate school full time, and I was a federal tax attorney and I was out working in the business world and we’ve flipped, we’ve gone back and forth.

But our central core is that we’ve been committed to those kids to make sure that all the way through high school there’s always someone there, we want to make sure that someone is paying attention to them. Not that we were entertaining them. But one thing we found, is that it seemed to us over the years, that children needed us more the older they got rather than being younger. When they are babies you can’t imagine they could need you any more than that, but they really need your mind when they’re older and they need to know that you really are paying attention to them, to what they’re doing.

I am grateful and I have to give a lot of credit to my husband, because he is equally been as committed. If he hadn’t been as committed I wouldn’t have been as free to be able to come to Washington and do the things that I’m doing.

More: How do you talk about being a woman on the trail? You often [talk about the fact] you were the first female member of Congress from Minnesota. You’re out there, you’re talking about being a mom in a very feminine way. How important is it to you to run as a woman? Or are you a candidate that just happens to be a woman?
MB: I think when it comes to gender, to me the most important thing that voters will have to determine is who can best turn the economy around, who can best deal with private job creation, and who will take on this issue of the repeal of Obamacare and give us health care that will actually reduce costs for Americans? I think I have a very unique skill set.

I started out as lower middle class and then I went to below poverty when our parents divorced, and my mom left the home and worked and did the best she could, she made $4,800 a year. And my brothers and I had to get jobs to help out with the family. It’s a challenge that was brilliantly disguised as a life lesson on the value of a dollar and also of making do and how necessity is the mother of invention.

We learned growing up then what it requires and what it takes to be able to survive. It was a great life lesson. All of us had to work our way through college. … Thus we were very careful with our money, and it was very important to us to be prudent.

That background as a woman, observing my family and my mother go through, you know a full time homemaker and also now being part of the work world and struggling, we’ve lived that life.

My mother told us that it wouldn’t always be this way. Things would get better. And they did. … Building that better life, that my husband and I wanted to build for our family. I’ve lived it all. People say, you know, how did you do it? And I’ll say, ‘You can have it all, but not all at once.’

… (about starting a business from scratch and paying for her own education) …

We’ve got that experience of real life, real experiences of real people. That’s why when people speak with me it’s very authentic, and it’s reality cause I’ve lived so much of what people are talking about.

And then again I think our experience at not only of having our biological children but bringing our 23 foster children in. We have lived and have shared in the challenges of very difficult times that a lot of families go through. A lot of families deal with messy, inconvenient situations. Because that’s life. Life doesn’t turn out and it’s not perfect. My life hasn’t been perfect but it’s what are we going to make out of it.

That’s why my heart really softens when I think about mothering because the greatest lessons that I’ve learned in life have been as a mother, pouring into those children but then also watching these children from various backgrounds and various competencies, you might say, and I mean that in a positive way because we all have different competencies. Some of us are intellectually gifted, some of us athletically gifted, some of us are great listeners. Everyone has a different level of what they can do.

One thing that all of our children, biological and foster children, have taught us is the unbelievable diversity of talent and giftedness that all people have, and they really spoke to both my husband and I to look into the heart of each child and that child might be suffering and eventually they’ll be an adult, but help them get to that next plane because they have something to offer, and they do. One thing that happens often times in family life is that people think maybe the challenge you are having with a child when they are a teenager or even in adolescence that this is going to go on forever and it doesn’t. They get to their 20s, they change dramatically in their 20s. So sometimes it’s just holding on for the ride, and just being there and holding on for the ride.

Our experiences later, we started a charter school for at-risk kids because we had broken hearts for kids in those situations. That was an excellent experience and having our foster children got me involved in the education system. We had home-schooled our biological children, we put them in a private Christian school but the state prevented us from doing that with our foster children, and so they were in public school and I saw some of the challenges and the lack that they had in public school so then I got involved in education reform.

I put five years of my life into education reform and people said ‘Well, Michele why are you doing that your biological children are in private school,’ and I said it doesn’t matter, I went to public school, so did my husband, and if anyone needs a leg up it’s our foster children. And I want to make sure they have every opportunity and the state says this is their only option so let’s make it the best option that we can.

And I was able to see you really can fight city hall. One of the largest programs that Minnesota had put into place in 35 years we were actually able to repeal. And that’s why I have confidence that we can actually repeal Obamacare, it’s very unpopular and people all across the country want it to go and I know that I can bring people together and make that happen.

That led me into the political world I had a unique experience in Minnesota with great success and then also in Washington DC it’s been more of the same, I hit the ground running the first day I got in to Washington and I never quit running, because there were so many challenges, it was a bigger arena here.

All of those life experiences and those skill sets and dealing with elderly parents and parents that are dealing with issues, all of that is pored into me and contributed a broken heart for people’s situations and an empathy and a sympathy that I understand what a lot of women are going through. 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, or unwed moms, my husband and I reached out to unwed mothers and tried to counsel them and give them positive alternatives.

But also in the business world I’ve had wonderful success. I have a doctorate and a post doctorate degree. I’ve had wonderful success in the business world both in the tax court and also with running our own business and providing an income to many families in our own state because of our business. And then being able to see the application of that in government, both in state government and federal.

It’s a very unique skill set, and that's what I'm bringing and offering, the fact that I’ve lived a lot of these life challenges. And It’s that voice that I want to bring, because the president really isn’t about being manager in chief. It’s very different being president. The president brings leadership and decision-making authority and the president does choose individuals to serve in certain job positions, but they also set the tone and they set the leadership and that’s what we need.

I’m a very good decision maker because I have core set of principles and so I can make decisions. Decisions can be very hard and you have to wrestle with them, but I’m able to be able to get all the data on the table and figure out what would be the best decision because decisions mean ill for some people and mean positives for others.

More: To get there you do have to get through this campaign. You talk about understanding other women and I’m sure you’ve seen the way female candidates have been treated over the past. Are you prepared for anything? Are you bracing for the inevitable discussions about hair, clothing, makeup that men don’t get as candidates?
MB: Yes, we’ve already gone through some of that. And this is part of the gauntlet that I fully expected would occur.

But I think again I do want to credit my parents. Because I think they set such a wonderful example, both my mother and my father, never once did they say to me, ‘Why would you do that you’re a girl?’ I mean that never happened.

I mowed the lawn took out the garbage. Most of the time I washed the dishes, most of the time I dried them and put them away. For the most part traditional roles were observed, but sometimes it didn’t happen, because someone had to do the work and I would do the work and my brothers would do likewise. My parents I really do credit because they set a wonderful example for me.

My father, when I was little, I went fishing with him, hunting. When I was 12 he took me through gun safety class. We loaded our own shotgun shells down in the basement, we tied our own fishing lures. I was included in everything I wasn’t not included because I was a girl. I was very grateful for that. I learned a tremendous love for fishing and for the outdoors and I have my dad to thank for that.

More: I notice you highlight it sometimes. Your joke about being nervous that debate moderators would ask you boxers or briefs. It’s these little subtle things. People are thinking it and you’re able to highlight it without being a negative. How much are you thinking about that and what are you prepared for? You know Vin Webber’s comment about you having sex appeal. … How do you deal with that when that comes up?
MB: I am 55 years old and I have given birth to five children and my husband and I together have fostered 23 more. So 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. So I’m not offended if someone says something like that.

More: What about wearing a dress? I’ve watched you on Capitol Hill for many years, you wear feminine clothing. Hillary Clinton was known for her very colorful pantsuits. How much of that is a part of you and important to maintain that? Has that been part of the campaign discussion —of what’s the best thing for you to wear?
MB: No, no. It’s personal. I think it’s personal to me.

When I was growing up I wore pants all the time because it was all boys and me. I wore pants and little red Keds tennis shoes when I was growing up. We were very simple people and didn’t have a lot of money. So sometimes I would be wearing hand me downs that were boys clothes and I didn’t think twice about it. But of course as I got older then I wore girls clothes.

I had two wonderful grandmothers, magnificent influences in my life. I just adored my grandmothers. Both of them sewed, my mother sewed. I sew also, I don’t do it anymore as much. They made clothes for me.

My two grandmothers not very often but if I was going to have a dress they would make a dress for me, and I loved it.

Sometimes they would take me to the fabric store and I could choose the fabric and then I could choose the pattern and it was a big deal. They would sew a dress for me for Easter and I would get a new dress for Easter. And then usually I would get a dress for school and they would make a dress for me for school.

At least through junior high we had to wear dresses every day in school when I was growing up. Elementary school all the way through junior high. I think that changed when I was in high school, I graduated in 1974 and I think by that time then girls could wear slacks. But I was used to wearing dresses.

Of course I wore slacks and dresses in high school. In college it was very different, it was casual. But in law school we were expected to dress up … I just felt more comfortable in dresses. And so as a professional I almost always wore dressed because they were more comfortable to me. Sometimes I would wear slacks, but it just depends on the occasion. If it’s Minnesota and it’s 55 below zero in all likelihood I’m wearing slacks but if it’s a beautiful day I wear a dress.

My mother also was a good role model. She didn’t have a lot of clothes. My mother was very petite and beautiful and my mother wore clothes very well. And she set a wonderful example for me.

And she was a lady. My mother is the one who taught me to be a lady by her actions. I observed the way that she dressed and the way that she carried herself. And both my grandmothers, they were women of very modest means. But they were also ladies.

They took care of themselves. I don’t recall that they wore makeup, but they always did their hair. My one grandmother always had a French roll, the other one usually put her hair up. You’d never see them that they weren’t ready for the day.
I remember one of my grandmothers wore Shelton Stroller dresses, that was her favorite.

I never saw my grandmothers in anything other than dresses. One time I had a grandmother that went to Alaska and she bought her first pair of pants. But they always wore dresses … They just set the example, and they carried themselves as ladies and so they set a wonderful example for me.

More: Does it ever bother you that people compare you to Sarah Palin? Because you are both conservative Republican women, but the similarities really end there. You have some similar constituencies, she’s a politician, but she was a governor, you have very different styles. You’re different people. I know you know each other but you’re not friends in the same sense of you being friends with Steve King, for example. Does that bother you that people just compare you because you’re both women?
MB: Probably because of the dearth of women that have run for high office, whether it’s the vice presidency or the presidency, there are very few. I believe perhaps Elizabeth Dole at one point did, and then you have Geraldine Ferraro, and Mrs. Clinton and also Governor Palin.

That’s not a wide bench of women who have put their name in to run for higher office. So I think it is inevitable that the comparisons come forward, but again when I came into the race I came in with my own unique skill set, my own offerings and I stand on that and I’m very proud of my background and what I offer.

More: One thing I find interesting from the last piece that I did on conservative women. I interviewed Christine O’Donnell. And she was — of everybody I talked to, you were very positive about all the female leaders and you talked about how the Tea Party groups are mostly led by women — but she said absolutely not, our country is not ready. She actually used the words bitch and whore in this interview with me, it was so surprising but she said that’s how women will be treated period, it doesn’t matter where they are running. It sounds like you’re more optimistic than that?
MB: It seems to me very similar to the way I grew up. I don’t sense that there is a difference because of gender. I feel like I’m a professional. I’ve been a professional for a number of years. I’m a businesswoman and a tax lawyer and a professional and so that’s how I treat other people.

I think it’s part of the golden rule. It’s important for us to be kind to other people and treat other people the way that we want to be treated. That’s how I was raised and I’ll be polite. Now if people are rude, that may be the end of the conversation, and maybe we won’t have a subsequent conversation. But I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing the best about the person. But I’m not a fool and I won’t be taken for a ride. I will stand up for my self but at the same time I don’t presume the worst and I don’t see people coming at me with negativity. Until they do.

More: Do you think any of the male candidates learned anything? You’ve engaged with them. Today [in your speech] you talked mostly about President Obama more than your primary rivals who are the first people you have to defeat to get to him. Do you feel like they have learned anything from 2008? I mean we saw so many examples of Hillary Clinton saying, ‘Oh the boys are ganging up on me,’ or Sarah Palin saying that something was sexist and the way she would react. How do you view the primary candidates and how they have treated you?
MB: The New Hampshire debate … was my initial foray. That was the only time that we’ve all been together. Prior to that [we met in New Hampshire for a forum] but that wasn’t even really an interaction. I greeted Governor Romney, I don’t even know if I had a chance to even talk to the other candidates because the room was filled with New Hampshire-ites.

It may seem like we interact more than that but we don’t because we're trying to be with voters and getting our message out. ... I doubt that there will be a lot of interaction even in Iowa. Most likely we’ll talk to each other before we go on stage, maybe on the breaks, shake hands afterwards. It’s onward and upward.

More: And is it a handshake? Are they giving you a kiss on the cheek?
MB: You know I would have to look at the tape, I don’t even recall what it was. I’m an affectionate person I’m a person who hugs, hugs people and I shake hands. I don’t know I’d have to see the tape.

More: I had the chance to observe you in Iowa a couple weekends ago, the weekend you went to two fairs and you spoke in church and we were in Pella…
MB: Oh in Pella! Were you there for the bakery? Oh! I told my husband and the children. That bakery is probably the best bakery I’ve ever been in. (Laughter)

More: You went into that little shop next door and you bought that pink jacket. Have you worn that yet?
MB: It is still on the bus. Part of the reason is because the sleeves are longer, and the heat as you know has been excessive. I can’t wait to wear it. I actually thought if it rained that would be a good day to wear it. So I’ve got it. It’s adorable. It’s got double-breasted buttons and kind of a floppy collar. It caught my eye and I thought it was just great. … It was a small, but I think I actually need a petite small. …

More: What do you think your legacy will be? Obviously there are two paths — you are either president of the United States in 2013, or you are not. But just generally, what you’ve stood for, the values that you represent, how will you be viewed 30, 40 years from now?
MB: Well I hope that 30, 40 years from now that I will be viewed as a wonderful mother to our children. The No. 1 thing that I care about is the fact that I did my job by the children because that has a legacy that will far outlive me. Because it won’t only be them, it will be how they impact their children and the next generation. And it almost brings tears to my eyes because I remember my great grandmother. I talk often on the trail about the links on the chain. The links aren’t metal, the links are flesh and blood. It’s our grandparents and our great grandparents and our parents and then you look in front of you and see the children and then the grandchildren.

We haven’t had grandchildren yet, none of our children are married. That day will come, I hope. But I see how pivotal that place is for my husband and myself. We are one of those links right now. We connect to our parents but now we also connect to our children and their spouses and the other children.

We are not perfect people, but I just want to make sure that for my husband and I, that we’ve been faithful. Faithful to those kids, faithful to each other, faithful to do our job. That doesn’t guarantee the kids will turn out perfect. It doesn’t guarantee they will make that they will make all best decisions in life. But I just want to know when I come to the end of my days that I was faithful to them. That’s very important to me.

More: You’ve been talking about this very painful experience you had with a miscarriage. … How often are you talking about that and is that the first time you’ve brought it up or is that something you’ve discussed over your personal history?
MB: I’ve brought it up before. It’s not frequent. It’s usually if I’m talking to a group about the life issue. The reason why I bring it up the point of the story, it’s very personal.

We didn’t talk about it for a long time because it was so personal for my husband and I, that loss. The reason why I bring it up is because it’s far more common than what I thought. Many women have it. But also I bring it up because it was a life changing moment for my husband and I. Because that was really the moment when we opened ourselves up to the reality of how important children are. Not that we didn’t think the first two were important or the baby that we lost. It changed our thinking in that we wanted to be open to more. Maybe that’s what it was. We didn’t get married saying we’re going to have two kids and that’s it. We really didn’t even think about how many children we would have. But I think when that happened we were just profoundly struck by the value of every human being, and we wanted just to be open to have them. That also was a precursor to us being willing to have broken hearts for kids that come out of less than perfect circumstances. That’s not to condemn any of their parents or their extended family.

It’s just that kids who come out of a challenging situation need someone to be there. That’s maybe the beginning for us. It isn’t that we thought about foster care at that moment but I think something changed in us that we opened ourselves up to be more wiling to pour our lives out for children. That was a change moment for us.

More: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d want in an article about women and females running for president?
MB: I love women. I love women I love their hearts. There are a lot of women who are suffering. I talk to a lot of women on the campaign trail who have difficult times who are suffering. A lot of women who have been disappointed, have been let down.

One thing I’d like women to know is the message that my mother gave me when she was struggling and that’s: Hold on. Hold on. Be faithful to your kids. Hold on for the future because life doesn’t always necessarily stay the way that it is. It will get better. I really want women to be encouraged and to have hope because things can get better. Make good decisions, stop making bad ones, because we have to take responsibility too. But make good decisions and really the future will be a lot better for your kids — and yourself.

Read: Running (For President) in Heels

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First Published Wed, 2011-11-16 17:25

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