Bachmann Showed Female Politicians the Wrong Way to Seem Tough

And other lessons about women in politics today from the retiring Minnesota representative

For a while there in 2011, or at least for a few minutes that August, Michele Bachmann was a real contender for the Republican presidential nomination. The race she ran offers several lessons for women who may be thinking of making a White House bid.

The most disconcerting aspect of Bachmann's campaign, from my standpoint, was her explicit embrace of the biblical instruction that wives submit to their husbands. She didn't say that during her presidential campaign, true, but she did at a public church service during one of her congressional campaigns, and the proof is on video.

Her remarks may have been what one analyst described to me as "religious boilerplate," meant to reassure Christian conservatives about her faith, and maybe they did serve that purpose. But the clashing images of the submissive wife and commander in chief are problematic -- in fact, irreconcilable. They are also, of course, deeply reinforcing of a stereotype of women as followers or collaborators, rather than leaders of a state, a nation, or the free world.

The lesson here is not that candidates need to abandon their faiths or beliefs, just that it's better to keep such matters private. This may be especially true if you are a conservative Christian woman running for what is widely viewed as the most powerful job in the world.

Bachmann certainly did not lack aggressive instincts or awareness that a female candidate for president needs to prove she's tough. She more than demonstrated her willingness to attack President Obama and her fellow Republican contenders. But she overdid it. Although fact-checkers frequently deemed her policy assertions false or exaggerated, that did not stop her from repeating them. Sometimes in the repetition she went even further afield from facts, as when she suggested HPV virus caused mental retardation.

Rather than underscoring Bachmann's strength or fearlessness, the off-base attacks and contentions undermined her credibility as a serious candidate. There are other ways for women to prove they are tough. Hillary Rodham Clinton conveyed it through resilience, persistence, and performance in office over many years. If there's a profile around that doesn't call her tough at least once, I haven't seen it.

There were some female-oriented aspects of Bachmann's campaign that were beyond her control. One was the news that she suffered from migraines. This is a largely feminine complaint, and one that can be temporarily incapacitating. There was probably no great way to handle the uproar of speculation: How bad were they? How long did they last? How often did they occur? Was this a disqualifier for the presidency? Yes, that last question did get asked.

Back when John F. Kennedy was taking multiple prescriptions for multiple afflictions, the public was largely in the dark and nobody was suggesting he was medically incapable of being president. In this day and age, by contrast, it's not hard to imagine a public debate about the impact of menopause on a candidate. (Not that I'm in a hurry to kick off that discussion, believe me.) The sad truth is that women candidates are better off if their health problems, should they have any, are common to both genders. Again, Hillary Clinton. A stomach virus, a concussion, a blood clot -- these are not "women's problems."

One final lesson that Bachmann demonstrated during her brief presidential campaign. It takes a lot of time and money for women to look good on TV and on the campaign trail, and it is worth that time and money. It's not fair, obviously. Male candidates don't have to do much beyond showering, shaving, and throwing on a nondescript suit. Women have to deal with hair, makeup, and complicated wardrobe choices (they seem complicated to me, at least).

But Bachmann -- pilloried for a bad makeup day on TV at a CNN debate -- usually looked like a consummate political professional, with a bit of rock-star celebrity thrown in. Her debate clothing offered stylish reprieves on stages full of men. On the trail, her look was amplified by the stagecraft of her campaign bus and music, and the crowds loved the whole scene.

Inevitably, Bachmann took criticism for spending too much on her appearance. And maybe she did go overboard. But she also took hits for looking bad. It's not easy to strike that balance, and there will be gossipy punditry no matter what. Hillary Clinton paved the way here, too, with her short, blonde, no-nonsense hairstyle on the 2008 campaign trail, preceded and succeeded by every imaginable way of wearing hair and every imaginable opinion on it.

There's no escape. The answer for women, in my book: Spend what you must to look good, ignore the noise, and build a fact-based case for why you deserve the top job and those other guys don't.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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