UPDATED, 10:21 MDT
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 Sex. She 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.