Running (For President) in Heels

You don't need a Y chromosome to run on the national ticket. Yet in 2008 Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both faced nasty personal criticisms that male candidates are usually spared. Now, after months of Michele Bachmann in the news, it's time to ask: Has anything changed for women in four years?

by Christina Bellantoni
Sarah Palin legs at Lancaster rally
Sarah Palin's legs were frequently photographed during the campaign. Here, she's standing next to John McCain (left) after a rally in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2008.
Photograph: ©Brooks Kraft/Corbis

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!”

First Published December 7, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


k groh09.02.2012

I'm a little confused about some of the statements in this article. Yes, I would certainly like to see more women in political power positions but, not posing as men! Women bring a more sensible, nurturing & negotiating attitude to the whole dynamic. Men are more warlike in their attitudes and I believe this is what has gotten our country and yes, the world, in the mess we're in. Women have a completely different dynamic - and, this needs to be nurtured. Our world has suffered enough wars, hunger & political pocket-packing - let's get back to basics & take care of the families & children - let's nurture people and get rid of the turf wars going on everywhere. Let's get rid of the attitude that in order to control people you have to rape them and behead and shoot them. Let's get a more feminine attitude towards power - not just inject more testosterone into the wound.

Gina Barreca08.09.2012

Interesting! I also want to point out that there are different consequences for male and female politicians when their actions, both in public and in private, are exposed.

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