Michele Bachmann and the feminist dilemma

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2011 - 3:44 PM

Michele Bachmann is not what they had in mind. Still, they sense the sexism to which she's been subjected.

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Michele Bachmann

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Hearing the phrase "Michele Bachmann, Minnesota's first female major-party presidential candidate" doesn't exactly make the longtime Minnesota feminists I know beam with pride.

I've seen it make a few of them appear slightly ill.

Few of those who pushed four decades ago for gender equity imagined that their efforts would lead to a candidacy like Bachmann's.

But the Sixth District congresswoman -- only the third woman Minnesota has sent to the U.S. House -- owes those women, big-time. She and other conservative female elected officials are beneficiaries of the social change the mostly liberal women's movement engineered.

Elect more women, feminists used to claim, and public policy will become more progressive. Government will do more to aid poor and abused women, care for kids and improve health care. Working women will have government on their side, enforcing fair compensation and decent conditions in the workplace.

Bachmann is living proof that those claims were a tad overstated.

"We weren't always as careful as we should have been about our message," sighed Bonnie Watkins, executive director of the Minnesota Women's Consortium. "We said 'Elect women.' Well, all women are not progressive."

Clearly not.

But all women are subject to run-ins with the residue of sexism that lingers in American life. That includes Bachmann -- or so it seemed to me as I tuned in to last Monday's CNN/Tea Party GOP presidential candidates' slugfest.

In the month after she won the Aug. 13 Iowa GOP straw poll and ran former Gov. Tim Pawlenty off the field, Bachmann's standing in national polls plummeted.

That's not what usually happens to the winner of a much-hyped election. The trigger for the decline: Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race, and the national media klieg lights shifted to him.

That might have been because Perry is from big Texas and Bachmann is from little Minnesota. Or because he's been a governor and she's been a member of Congress (though she's been there longer than Barack Obama had been when he ran for president in 2008).

But might it also have been because he's a male out of presidential central casting, and she's not?

Bachmann shellacked Perry in Monday's debate. Her attack on the Texas governor's executive order requiring 12-year-old girls to be immunized against cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) had him on the defensive, even before she mentioned that his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical giant Merck, a manufacturer of the vaccine.

Yet afterward, CNN analyst David Gergen praised Perry's "command presence" and said he "deflected reasonably well" against the shots that "people" took at him.

Command presence? "That's just ridiculous," Watkins sputtered.

Echoed Jackie Stevenson of Minnetonka, a charter member of the DFL Feminist Caucus: "Absolutely, no question, Bachmann is bumping into bias against women. ... I need to call some of the national media on that." (David Gergen, look out for calls from the 952 area code.)

And Marilyn Bryant, who was once the GOP chair of the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus: "She's facing sexism, without a doubt."

None of these three would vote for antichoice, antitax, antigay rights Bachmann. But each admits to a twinge of sisterly sympathy for her.

Each wonders why the opportunity to elect the first female president isn't much mentioned by GOP talking heads, even though Republicans have been on the short side of the gender gap for years.

And each frets about what Bachmann's candidacy means for the movement they've worked hard to advance.

Sexism wasn't Bachmann's biggest foe last week. Her own factual carelessness was. She reversed whatever gain on Perry she'd made during the debate by soon afterward repeating an unproven claim that the HPV vaccine caused a mental disability.

That made Bryant wince. "It's quite terrifying for me to think that Minnesota's first woman candidate for president is not credible. Will she poison the well for others who follow?"

There's likely still validity in what American feminists told each other 35 years ago: A woman has to outwork and outsmart the men around her to succeed. They always added a punch line: "Fortunately, this is not difficult for a woman."

More than Bachmann's presidential bid may be riding on whether she can make that kicker ring true.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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