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.”