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.