Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Michelle Bachmann should be a feminist

Rising in the ranks as the only female candidate in the Republican primaries, Michelle Bachmann represents how far women have come since our bra-burning days. However, she is no feminist. In fact, women's groups like the National Organization for Women have expressed concern that “having Bachmann as the first female president would actually be a setback for women rather than a victory.” That may be true- Bachmann opposes abortion, and even more shockingly, believes that wives should be “submissive to their husbands.” But, by choosing to strategically alienate herself from women’s rights groups, Bachmann may be shooting herself in the foot.

Timothy Kelly, reporter for the International Business Times suggests that female presidential candidates are subject to a different, perhaps more intensive, type of scrutiny then male candidates. He observes that both Palin and Bachmann attact public criticism for “verbal gaffes” that male politicians like Joe Biden managed to escape. One study on sexism in United States presidential campaigns reveals that sexism towards women candidates is still very much alive in the media and among voters. For instance, voters are more likely to focus on appearance, clothing, emotional state (remember when Hilary Clinton cried?!) and character than on a woman’s position on the issues. Stories about women candidates are also more likely to mention children and marital status. While these observations may seem innocuous, they have the effect of pigeon-holing women into stereotypical roles that are not typically associated with leadership. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the unfortunate double standard that female candidate face: “Women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine . . . who succeed in politics and public life will be scrutinized under a different lens from that applied to successful men.”

Bachmann has already been the target of sexist criticism. In August 2011, a Newsweek article portrayed Bachmann as a wide-eyed, crazy “Queen of Rage.” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women came to Bachmann’s defense explaining: "Her policy positions are diametrically opposed to NOW's positions and I intend to defeat her. That's my job. But no male politician is treated this way. As much as I disagree with everything she stands for, she is a serious viable candidate for the United States presidency and there is no male viable candidate who has ever been treated this way."

. . . If Bachmann is going to endure scrutiny and criticism simply for being female, she may as well try to get some back up.


S said...
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S said...

Megan, I think the comparison between Joe Biden's "verbal gaffes" and Bachmann's is important.

As an average American engaged in our political system, my recollection of the media's response to Joe Biden's slip-ups and straight up stupid comments is that they were treated comically. "Oh, its just silly Joe, slipping up again." *insert head shaking* Bachmann on the other hand "enjoys" the benefit of extreme scrutiny.

To refresh your memory of some of the best Bidenisms see http://politicalhumor.about.com/od/joebiden/a/bidenisms.htm.

Counter that with Bachmann's statement that "The immigration system in the United States worked very, very well up until the mid-1960s when liberal members of Congress changed the immigration laws." See http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/09/13/317735/michele-bachmann-white-immigration/. Here an inference must be made that she is referring to the xenophobic immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act. However, the media has not sought to clarify if her statement included racist immigration policies or if she was referring to someone else.

During our discussion on this issue though, a colleague raised two important distinctions between Biden and Bachmann, raising the question of whether that Biden/Bachmann is a good analogy. First, Biden was born in 1942, Bachmann 1956. The fourteen year difference may be enough to put Biden in the class of people where society is comfortable shrugging off stupid statements because they are "old." Also, Biden did not occupy the Presidential Candidate spotlight like Bachmann does. Rather, his position as Vice President in a campaign that was highly controversial was overshadowed by the Democratic Presidential Candidate. The media was more concerned with Obama and his ethnicity (among other things) than Biden's slip ups.

My colleague suggests that a better comparison would be between Sarah Palin and Biden, both who ran for Vice President. I agree.

KayZee said...

DISCLAIMER: I do not support Michelle Bachmann...

However, I wonder 1) how America would react and 2) how feminists would react if (hopefully hypothetically) Bachmann won the presidency. Let's just say, for argument's sake, that she wins the Republican spot and then wins the presidential election.

How would America react? Would having a women in the White House (regardless of political party) have a significant effect on how Americans treat women professionals? I wrote my first blog about the stereotypes that still exist today, especially in our profession. I expressed my frustration over professionals who continue to adhere to stereotyped opinions of women in the workforce. Would having a female president change this?

Second, would she be good for feminism? For all of her anti-female political views (see most recent comments on the HPV vaccine), would feminists be able to support her if only for the historical position she holds? I do not want to see Michelle Bachmann in the Oval Office, but I would love to see a woman there. What do we do if a woman who seemingly doesn't care for women's rights, became president?

Rose Sawyer said...
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Rose Sawyer said...

Megan, you write that Michelle Bachmann is a "serious viable candidate for the United States presidency." I beg to differ. My concern about women in politics of late is that, aside from candidates such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, there aren't any. To my knowledge, there is not a single female candidate in the 2012 Republican primary race who is anything other than a demagogue. Why?

I think a part of the problem is that women don't go into lower-level politics. For example, only 8 of our 50 governors and 16 of our 100 senators are women. Part of this may be self-selected. But part of it, I think, also reflects women's understanding that even today they are in some ways "destined to fail." In 2008, 45% of respondents of a Pew Social Trends Poll responded that "women don't make as good of leaders as men." Interestingly, in 2010 75% of respondents to a General Social Survey disagreed with the statement "Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women." The consensus that seems to emerge is that women don't make good leaders, but not because they're too emotional. (Ironically, 45% think that "women aren't tough enough for politics," which seems related to the prior question me.) What, then, is making us think that women can't lead?

Well, 67% of respondents believed that "women's responsibilities to family don't leave time for politics." (Pew Social Trends Poll.) 75% believed "women who are active in party politics get held back by men." (Id.) 67% believe that women are held to a different standard, in politics, than men. (CBS News/NY Times Poll.)

All of these reasons seem to some extent true and relate to the other issues that we've discussed in this class.

My personal hypothesis is that it's a bit of a vicious cycle: thoughtful women are often discouraged from entering politics for the above-mentioned reasons, and because the women that do enter politics (ahem, Bachmann) are not thoughtful, they perpetuate negative stereotypes that women can't lead.

I think it's up to our generation of women to enter politics, responsibly, and break this cycle.

Note: all statistics in this comment are taken from the Roper Center's survey results on the topic of "Women and Work."

tomindavis said...

Great post, Megan. I think it is always important to bring to the light the poor and unequal public and media treatments of women politicians. Some of the criticisms are brazen and debasing; some are unconscious, insidious. Still, the leap you make from treatment of women political candidates to the criticisms of Michelle Bachmann is far from a tight fit.

Yes, I am sure that a great many of those who criticize her are generally sexist, or criticize her for reasons that include their sexist views of women pols. Yet I would venture to say that most of those who aim to take Ms. Bachmann down do so to reveal Ms. Bachmann's considerable shortcomings, not to deny here the right to power as a woman. the comparison between her and Biden is not a fair one either, Biden is lovable, self-deprecating and thoroughly educated, to say nothing of the fact that he has served in public office for over 40 years.
I will say this: IF people knocked Bachmann for her being a woman, it would be one more example of the barriers put in place when women attempt to be feminine and powerful. But if she were a man, honest to go, I don't think the criticism would be any less vitriolic. Her comments, and her open naivete of all things, you know, sensible and kind, surpass gender lines. thanks for the thoughtful post, tho. :)

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Great post and interesting commentary. However, it appears as though we are willing to "excuse" the lack of scrutiny regarding Vice-President Biden's gaffes. Evidently, his remarks should be overlooked because of his age or because he was merely a vice-presidential candidate. I disagree.

While the spotlight inevitably shines brighter on Presidential candidates, such as Bachmann, that does not mean that other politicians not running for President should be given a carte blanch. Indeed, one of the greatest knocks against John McCain was his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. One heartbeat away from the presidency - there was as much scrutiny of Governor Palin as there was of Senator McCain. [1] As Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden should still be held to the same standard as any other White House candidate- male or female, President or Vice-President.

Additionally, age should not be taken into account. As the Vice-President, he should be more attuned to the current political and social overtones present in American society. Holding a political role is not the same as Grandpa sitting in the living room during Christmas and making mildly inappropriate or insensitive remarks. Politicians have a higher responsibility, fair or not, to maintain the rights of and respect for others.

Claims that Joe Biden is more "lovable, self-deprecating and thoroughly educated" than Michelle Bachmann, do not excuse the greater scrutiny of her feminine qualities, or lack thereof. Bachmann, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, Nikki Haley and countless other women face unfair scrutiny when compared to their male counterparts. To excuse the actions by elder statesmen or allow gaffes by likable, male politicians to be more easily swept away perpetuates this problem.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/09/26/jack-cafferty-if-sarah-pa_n_129724.html