The temperature is pushing 100 degrees at the Marion County Fair in Knoxville, Iowa, and the air reeks of farm animals. Michele Bachmann's staffer is soaked with sweat, but his boss hums with cool energy. Pushing open a gate, the candidate steps into a pigpen for a closer look at a pair of hogs, which twin girls are busy squirting with a spray bottle. “You mostly keep ’em cool?” Bachmann asks cheerily. “That's a full-time job, isn't it? Good luck to you!”
In a button-front dress, long gold necklace, dangling earrings and strappy sandals with two-inch wooden heels, Bachmann looks less like a Washington politician out glad-handing voters in Iowa than like a suburban mom on a lunch date. She smiles for a photo, then sidesteps piles of cow dung as she moves through the barn to a goat-judging contest. There, she chats with Miss County Fair, who—decked out in a tiara, pink frock and brown cowboy boots—is the only other person wearing a dress for miles. Wherever Bachmann goes, she speaks in exclamations: “Hi there! I have to say hi. Nice to meet you!” “Now we're going to check out some livestock!” “This has been so much fun!”
I jot in my notebook that this is a woman who is not afraid to touch people, physically. She pats children on the head, doles out giant hugs, rubs voters' backs as she grins for the camera. On one of her constantly moving hands, I catch a glimpse of a diamond so giant that the weight makes it slip around her slender ring finger. Up close you can see that her makeup is TV ready and perfect, baked smooth by the heat. And that's when it hits me. While some consider Bachmann's political views extreme, her presentation as a woman is decidedly not. I'm witnessing something that didn't seem possible only four years ago: a woman running for president who is neither playing up nor tamping down her sexuality.
Back in 2007 and 2008, I followed Hillary Clinton's presidential bid at stops along these very same lush Iowa back roads. When Clinton hugged someone, it felt strained, forced; events staged in front of haystacks seemed manufactured. Clinton carried herself with hawkish bravado, avoiding references to her gender and all but burying her femininity beneath a wardrobe of plainly tailored pantsuits. Even when she announced her candidacy in a January 2007 Web video, she passed up the chance to mention that if elected, she'd be the first female president. On the campaign trail, she sometimes discounted her gender. “I am not running because I'm a woman,” she would say. “I'm running because I think I'm the most qualified and experienced person to do the job that has to be done.”
I was in New Hampshire the night before the state's crucial 2008 primary, and I watched as two radio pranksters interrupted Clinton's speech in a Salem auditorium, chanting, “Iron my shirt! Iron my shirt!” For Clinton, who'd lost to Obama in the Iowa caucuses four days earlier, the primary was make-it-or-break-it, and she was feeling the pressure. Just a few hours earlier, a female supporter had asked, “How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?” and Clinton had teared up. That scene played on network television all day. Back on the stage in Salem that evening, after the iron-my-shirt interruption, Clinton's voice got sharper and louder as security ushered away the two men. Then she paused, and though I couldn't see her from the back of the room, it sure sounded as though she was smiling when she said, “Oh, the remnants of sexism—alive and well!” The crowd jumped to its feet and hollered in support. “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling,” Clinton reminded them. The next day, she won the primary.