The Bachmann Mystique

On August 11, at a Republican debate in Iowa held two days before she won the straw poll in Ames, Michele Bachmann deflected a question that brought boos from the audience. The moderator, Byron York of the Washington Examiner, had asked the Minnesota congresswoman whether she would be submissive to her husband in the White House.

York's query was prompted by a statement Bachmann made to the congregation at the Living World Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, during her first run for Congress in 2006. After she finished law school at the conservative Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she recalled, her husband urged her to get a postdoctoral degree in tax law. "I hate taxes, why should I go and do something like that?" she said. "But the Lord says, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.'"

The view that wives should submit to their husbands, which comes from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Ephesians, is held by many conservative Christians. Bachmann told York that submission means mutual respect, which is a rhetorical trick, according to Kathryn Joyce, author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. For evangelicals, it means that wives should submit to their husbands, and men promise to love them in return. "I think when people start to fudge the line about what submission entails, they're going against a long tradition," Joyce says -- a tradition that Bachmann embraced when she was born again at age 16.

How can a woman be an avatar for an evangelical movement that argues that women must obey men? No doubt some purists may vote against Bachmann simply because she's a woman. For others, Bachmann's candidacy raises a question that hasn't been answered because we've never elected a female president. "There's a long tradition of conservative women being allowed to rise above their domestic station," Joyce says, "as long as they are campaigning on all other women needing to stay within that domestic station." In this sense, Bachmann is a nonthreatening female candidate for evangelicals. She doesn't augur a sea change of female power, because her beliefs won't disrupt power structures that keep white men on top.

The apparent contradiction between female power and biblical governance cropped up when Sarah Palin became the vice -- presidential running mate to John McCain in 2008. Evangelical leaders didn't doubt she could do the job, but some questioned whether she should. "It would be hypocritical of me to suggest that I would be perfectly happy to have Christian young women believe that being Vice President of the United States is more important than being a wife and mother," wrote R. Albert Mohler Jr., the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in The Washington Post.

A run for the top job would appear to represent a bigger conundrum. Bachmann, though, differs from Palin in an important way. Crediting programs like Title IX with helping her succeed, Palin identified herself as a feminist. Bachmann does not. When asked by The Daily Beast in June whether she considered herself a feminist, she rejected the label and called herself an "empowered American." For Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List, Palin and Bachmann both represent a brand of feminism that is more inclusive than it has been in the past. For one thing, it champions more traditional roles for women. Dannenfelser says men and women can fulfill complementary roles in which their gender informs their ideology, but sometimes, ideology trumps gender. What Bachmann believes, in other words, is more important than what she is.

That formula only seems to work for conservative women. In her 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton took great pains to not come across as a progressive feminist. "You know, our politics can get a little imbalanced sometimes," she said in 2007. "We move off to the left or off to the right, but eventually we find our way back to the center because Americans are problem solvers. We are not ideologues." An unapologetic progressive would, of course, argue for equality for women, people of color, and gays, who all still suffer in the current system. Had Clinton championed those causes, though, she would have resigned herself to an identity-politics ghetto.

Not so with Bachmann. As a nontraditional candidate espousing traditional values, she rides a Tea Party wave of aggrieved white men who believe they've lost power in the Obama era. But once in the Oval Office, she would have more authority than many true believers think a woman should have. The first female president would open doors for women, whether she wants to or not.

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