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

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.


CLICK HERE to read our exclusive interview with Michele Bachmann

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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