White women’s political work: still impulsive, never strategic


One feature of Ryan Lizza’s very good intellectual biography of Michele Bachmann from The New Yorker last week contains this curious explanation of her development as a politician:

For many years, Bachmann has said that she showed up at the convention on a whim and nominated herself at the urging of some friends. She was, she suggests, an accidental candidate. This version of history has become central to her political biography and is repeated in most profiles of her. A 2009 column by George F. Will, for example, says that “on the spur of the moment” some Bachmann allies suggested nominating her.

But she already had a long history of political activism—the Carter and Reagan campaigns, her anti-abortion and education activism, her school-board race—and she had been targeting [former Minnesota State Senator Gary] Laidig for a year.According to an article in the Stillwater Gazette,on October 6, 1999, Bachmann was talking about running against Laidig months before she went to the convention. “I tried to present information to Senator Laidig on Profile of Learning, he was not interested,” she said. “And I told him that if he’s not willing to be more responsive to the citizens, that I may have to run for his seat.” She told the St. Paul Pioneer Pressthat she had decided to run against Laidig a year earlier.

Once again, we have white women’s political activism cast as a “whim” or “spur of the moment” decision, rather than the result of careful planning and strategic thinking:  “Oh my heck, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout politics!  I just care so deeply about the children that I had to get involved!”  Very cannily, Bachmann’s signature issue in Minnesota state politics was activism on behalf of home schoolers and charter schools–in other words, as a concerned mother.  She is smart to rewrite her biography this way, and I’m sure Will grasps that it just wouldn’t do to have a female presidential candidate who looked at all ambitious, or even scheming–even though she threatened Laidig with a primary several times:  According to Lizza, “Laidig defended the education laws in the State Senate, which made him a target for Bachmann. “Michele came to me on several occasions and to my face said, ‘If you don’t vote to get rid of School to Work and Profiles, I will run against you,’ ” he said.”

Not very ladylike!  Especially considering the fact that “[a]fter church every Sunday, the two [Laidig and Bachmann] would watch the talk shows—“Face the Nation,” “Meet the Press”—and discuss politics.”  (UPDATE:  wini points out in the comments below that this sentence referred to Laidig and his father, not to Laidig and Bachmann.  My apologies.)  Another way of telling this story is that Bachmann shanked her friend and political mentor–but instead, we talk about “whims” and “spur of the moment” decisions.  (By the way, I’m not criticizing Bachmann’s behavior here.  Shanking your friends is sometimes what has to happen for an ambitious pol to get ahead.)

I wrote last fall about the recurring trope of the “accidental” white woman activist:

The media trope of the politically-clueless-white-woman-turned-activist is an interesting connection between the 1960s and the Tea Party.  Casting a white woman as politically out-of-touch until inspired by the awfulness of everything these days is absolutely necessary.  I’m sure you’ve all heard about 2009′s own Estrid Kielsmeier, Tea Party star Kelli Carender, aka “Liberty Belle,” the “Seattle hipster” and adult literacy educator who awoke to the horror that in the United States under President Obama, “other people decide what the needs are in society. They get to decide. But in order to fund those things, they have to take from some people in order to give to the other people.”  White American men who are cast as politically clueless for so long wouldn’t be taken seriously–whereas white American women, whose citizenship has always been qualified, are useful symbols for dramatizing the urgency of their movements.  (After all:  isn’t that the pose that Betty Friedan struck, too?  “Oh, I’m just a suburban housewife, no history of leftist journalism or CP membership here!  Nothing to see here–now move along,” at least according to Daniel Horowitz’s brilliant and authoritative intellectual biography.)

I’d argue that this trend goes well beyond twentieth-century political movements and back to the founding days of the Republic.  White women–at least respectable ones who kept to their separate sphere of domesticity and motherhood–were convenient symbols for the urgency of nineteenth century movements like temperance, abolition, and feminism.  “Things are so bad that the wives and mothers are enlisting in the cause!”  Mary Ryan has written about this brilliantly in chapter 4 of her recent book, Mysteries of SexShe shows how white women manipulated separate spheres ideology to serve their political interests through the nineteenth century, and how they thereby made their first claims on American citizenship.

Good for Lizza for pointing out the obvious foolishness of this narrative, but the truth is irrelevant.  Apparently, we Americans desperately want to believe these sorts of myths, because we continue to tell them over and over again.  Ambition, planning, and strategy are unacceptable in women pols.

24 thoughts on “White women’s political work: still impulsive, never strategic

  1. I can understand Friedan’s use of this discourse in the 1960 and 70s when women stepping on to the political stage was a radical act. Of course, we know that for figures like Bachmann and Palin it is necessary to mobilize this kind of language because of their relationship to social conservative-Christian movements that disallow women role in the public sphere. (It would be interesting to contrast this with stories by female politicians who unmarried, childfree Democrats. Wait, are there any? I was actually thinking of Gabrielle Giffords, who was a public official before she got married.) More interesting to me, I have to say, is Bachmann’s recent attempt to re-define the meaning of wifely submission. It was dishonest, but it did reflect a recognition of widespread lack of acceptance of that concept and/or its incompatibility with national leadership by women. It’s an interesting example of a more radical figure trying to “mainstream” herself and reveals something about the boundaries of the acceptable in the U.S.


  2. Maybe tangential, but watching Christine O’Donnell on CNN walk off an interview because the host was being “rude” (by asking her questions she didn’t like) struck me as being similarly gendered. Can you imagine a male candidate deeming an interviewer rude and stomping off? Only Ladies can get away with that construction.

    I find the claiming of these weird Ladylike privileges by purposeful politicians really disturbing.

    Of course, I actually wondered if O’Donnell confused the meaning of “host” a la garden party v. news program.


  3. I find it fascinating that walking out on an interview is viewed as something women do in the US. In the UK, male politicians are forever having tantrums and storming out of interviews. From my not remotely scientific observations, women politicians seem to do it a lot less – perhaps because they don’t want to be accused of being hysterical.


  4. Shaz: I saw that clip too. What an idiot. If she’s too snowflakey to answer questions, then she’s too snowflakey to shill her book on Piers Morgan. Is there a non-sexist way to tell her to “sack up?” Probably not–but it’s the phrase that comes to mind.

    Perpetua, women were far from novelties on the political scene in the mid-20th C. In fact, they’ve been there since the founding of the Republic, as many historians have shown, yet we continue to be surprised when women are politically active and/or run for office. It’s this ideologically-induced amnesia about women in politics that allows us to be continually “surprised” that women are there, and continue to fall for the “whim” or “spur of the moment” bullcrap.

    It’s almost like there never was a Catherine Beecher, a Susan B. Anthony, a Sojourner Truth, a Victoria Woodhull, an Ida B. Wells, a Jeanette Rankin, an Eleanor Roosevelt, a Margaret Chase Smith, a Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Phyllis Schlafly, an Anita Bryant, a Shirley Chisholm, a Bella Abzug, a Geraldine Ferraro, a Patricia Schroeder, a Carol Moesley Braun, a Hillary Clinton, a Sarah Palin, etc. We Americans apparently have a strong need to see these women as totally unrelated exceptions, rather than as an unbroken tradition of women in politics and political activism.

    (This is similar to the erasure of women from American wars that happens after every war, so that we can go on to remember wars in the preferred way, as tests of masculine achievement and sacrifice only.)


  5. F.A: Maybe I wasn’t clear: This wasn’t the kind of angry departure you are talking about. O’Donnell not only presented it as due to “rudeness,” her people told her to do it — she sat there asking them whether she should leave, and they blocked the camera until she could get up.

    So it wasn’t a case of getting pissed and storming off, I saw it as: you aren’t treating me like the lady I am, so my protectors won’t let me be disrespected this way. Which seemed a particular feminine construction.

    I only wish American interviewers would push politicians like they do in the UK.


  6. Yeah. One of the many misogynist criticisms of Hillary Clinton is that she is “calculating”. Because the alternative to calculating is what, whimsical? If she’s not a vicious calculating bitch, then she’s a silly whimsical bitch. It’s the usual “by definition, if a woman is doing it, she’s doing it wrong”.


  7. Don’t forget, Tea Party types like the idea of the “accidental activist”—whether male or female (if especially the latter), but it corresponds to the anybody-can-do-this myth they love about American politics. I mean, the United States are _merely_ a scaled up home, right—everything must function the same way. It’s obvious that our politicians have failed us because they’re not treating the national budget like I treat my checkbook. I say this sarcastically, of course. It’s all a perverted version of the Cincinattus (sp?) myth: an ex-soldier farmer has all the knowledge needed to lead the free world! – TL


  8. Small quibble:

    I believe that this paragraph is about Laidig and his father watching the talk shows together, not Laidig and Bachmann. This does not detract from your arguments and analysis.

    The state senator from Bachmann’s district at that time was Gary Laidig, who is now sixty-three. His father was a Methodist minister, and, after church every Sunday, the two would watch the talk shows—“Face the Nation,” “Meet the Press”—and discuss politics. Even though Laidig’s father was active in the Republican Party, “there was never politics from the pulpit and there was never religion at the precinct caucus,” Laidig told me recently at his home, in St. Paul.

    Read more http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/08/15/110815fa_fact_lizza#ixzz1VOeGDhSr


  9. wini–you’re right. I read it (for some reason) as Laidig and Bachmann because of his role as her political mentor. I’ll make the correction above.

    Tim–good point about the Tea Partiers as being especially attracted to this narrative. (Cincinnatus is another good myth along these lines.) But, it’s been applied to progressive Dems too–remember Patti Murray, the Senator who still describes herself as just “a mom in tennis shoes?” Blech.


  10. It’s also interesting that whenever a FEMALE politician is profiled, the interviewer must always discuss her clothes. Lizza did this too, commenting on her capri pants and on her haircut. This just is not done for MALE politicians.


  11. For some reason in a country a major political party objects to the findings of global warming, is against evolution, is against gay rights of any sort and women have to be accidental activists. Remember, Britain, India and Israel women prime ministers in the 60s-80s period and there were many more after these three. None of them play the charade of accidental whatever. Gays serve in many militaries without any problem (and served is our military without problems for centuries).

    American exceptionalism is to stick out like a sore thumb.


  12. @Tim lacy

    Definitely a Reluctant Hero type, but maybe Cincinnatus is wrong here- that story has an element of noblesse oblige. More like Frodo.


  13. “Sack up” — that’s a new one to me. Here in Lesboland we would say “butch up!” which I think is less sexist. On the other hand, I find it interesting and somewhat embarrassing that even among lesbians traits coded masculine are more valued than those coded feminine. It’s now OK for lesbians to play with butch and femme roles, but while I’ve joked about earning or losing “butch points” [like the time the very gruff lesbian mechanic asked me how many miles I had on my car, and I was totally clueless] I’ve never heard of a dyke earning “femme points.”


  14. Although I don’t agree with Christine O’Donnell’s politics I am on her side about that CNN interview. It Is not a question of her needing to sack up or butch up or whatever raunch euphemism may apply. There was an agreement. A clear agreement on what was to be discussed. CNN attempted a sucker punch and got called on it. When two parties enter into an agreement, an agreement is expected. I think it is sexist to expect her to submit to his questioning when she had already set the ground rules, rules that CNN obviously had agreed on.


  15. I know that O’Donnell probably informed CNN that she didn’t want to talk about certain things, but it seems like people need to indeed butch up if they want the free publicity. Since when do the subjects of interviews get to dictate the questions they may be asked? Isn’t the press corps in the U.S. subservient enough to celebrity and power? (And yes, I realize that it’s pretty hilarious defending Piers Morgan as though he’s a really hard-hitting journalist. As far as I can tell, he’s slightly tougher than Larry King, but not nearly as tough as Rosie O’Donnell.)

    According to the clip I’ve seen–which may be incomplete–when Morgan first asked about her views on gay marriage, she didn’t say “you violated our agreement!” She said instead that it wasn’t relevant because she’s not running for office or laying out a “legislative agenda” (?) and instead wants to talk about her “fiscal policy.” She then leans on the definition of a “host,” as though Piers Morgan invited her over to have dinner with his family.

    I don’t see any evidence that “she set the ground rules” or that CNN violated them. The whole thing just makes her look sillier and once again, not prepared for any kind of political *or* celebrity platform.


  16. Well, then it is open country for CNN to ask about one’s sex life, abortions, etc.

    It seems that only women are expected to sit and take it in the name of getting free publicity. Piers Morgan would have accepted a “no” from a male who evaded a question, but he used her being a woman in order to come off as hard hitting journalist.

    I saw sexism at play. I saw a woman not willing to take it from an asshole.


  17. Did you see a fuller version of the interview than I did? Because all I’ve seen is her refusal to talk about her views about gay marriage. I didn’t see or hear about any questions about her sex life.


  18. Seems to me the fight between Piers Morgan and Christine O’Donnell is like the budget fight Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton staged in the mid-1990s: you win when you make the other fighter look bad. Snowflakey stompoff, Morgan wins. Ebil librul media, O’Donnell wins. We should probably go agnostic into this disagreement.


  19. I still haven’t seen documentation of O’Donnell’s claim that Morgan was asking her about “sex.” He was asking her about gay marriage and Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell–not about HER sex life. If there is a clip or a transcript that shows otherwise, I’d be most grateful if someone would throw the link in the thread here.

    I think it’s perfectly fine for pols who turn OTHER people’s sex lives into political issues to be quizzed about their views. I even think it’s fair game to ask them about their personal sex lives. Why should only so-called “Christian” conservative pols get to say anything they want about other people’s sex lives, and never be asked about their own sexual history? That seems to me to be just fair play if one advocates government intervention into other people’s sex lives (through outlawing abortion, upholding discriminatory marriage and employment laws, etc.)


  20. Pingback: What part of “no solicitors” don’t you understand? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  21. Pingback: What part of “no solicitors” don’t you understand? | Historiann

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