What's in a headache?
In some cases, Athena.
The revelations from a disgruntled former aide that Michele Bachmann suffers from crippling migraines – which she attributes to wearing heels and says are easily managed with medication, but about which her aides and science may differ – have sparked a great deal of concern.
Up until now, most of the questions about Bachmann’s fitness to serve haven’t revolved around the fact that she’s female. Is this the end of that? There's no denying that women have more migraines than men. 18 percent of women and only 6 percent of men suffer from migraines, according to the government’s Office on Women’s Health. Does that make the migraine a woman's disease? And is it sexist to ask?
When women have headaches, it indicates hysteria. When men have headaches, it is probably because they need another hair of the dog. When men have headaches, eventually a Greek god emerges fully formed from their crania. When women have headaches, it indicates that they need to go lie down in some dark room, draw all the curtains, and read a Kate Chopin novel.
Joan Didion’s description of the “migraine personality” is damning enough. “There certainly is what doctors call a ‘migraine personality,’ and that personality tends to be ambitious, inward, intolerant of error, rather rigidly organized, perfectionist,” she wrote in 1968 in the essay “In Bed.” But is it anti-feminist?
One of the lurking concerns with any female candidate is that she might suddenly be overwhelmed with some Woman Problem — like the Feminine Mystique, a horrifying and recurring condition — or that she would be so struck by the lack of adequate women's facilities in the Oval Office that she suddenly became unfit to govern. Is "migraines" code for "Michele Bachmann is female"?
We never had to worry about this with Hillary. Hillary cried only once, and later she preserved the tear and used it as a horcrux. There were so many other issues going on with Sarah Palin that to discuss her Woman Problems somewhat fell by the wayside.
Presidents have had debilitating conditions before. William Henry Harrison died twenty-eight days into his presidency, which somewhat limited his ability to govern.
Fit to govern doesn’t mean passing a swim test, although that certainly wouldn’t hurt. Not that mens sana in corpore sano always implies a stellar Oval Office tenure. Benjamin Harrison was fit as a fiddle, although he had a proverbially limp handshake. So, for that matter, was Chester A. Arthur.
And even when the president wasn’t in rude health, he still had to appear to be entirely hale and hearty at all times, capable of stopping speeding bullets with a single well-turned glance. Grover Cleveland had secret cancer surgery on a boat to maintain this illusion.
But gradually chinks began to appear in this facade. Woodrow Wilson had a stroke while in office. FDR? Polio. Lincoln was frequently depressed, which for years we mistook for "just being a typical person alive in the notoriously undemonstrative 19th century" until we discovered his locked LiveJournal.
Now the territory has shifted. But how much?
Where we draw the line differs from generation to generation and voter to voter. And whether rightly or wrongly, we seem far more concerned about mental health than physical. Can’t run up eight flights of stairs? We’ll cope! Terrified of confined spaces? That might be problematic. If they can’t raise the debt ceiling, you might feel trapped and accidentally push the wrong buttons.
In spite of these examples, it still mattered on the campaign trail. The 1972 Tom Eagleton revelation about electroshock therapy and depression might not be a game-changer today. But if the response to Bachmann’s headaches is any indication, perhaps it still might. It's one thing not to be able to walk. It's another to be incapacitated from within. Prostate cancer deters the average voter less than nebulous mental frailty.
Perhaps this is anti-feminist. After all, women are proverbially weak, nervous creatures prone to being overcome by neurasthenia! They have too many feelings to govern efficiently.
In fact, even though more women are in government than ever, that argument has never quite vanished. It’s not, we argue, that women don’t have more emotional intelligence, or Ability To Work Gently With And Touch The Hearts Of Others than men. It’s that we ought to value these qualities more. Sure, there’s still an awful lot of pantsuits floating around, but suddenly qualities formerly derided as “feminine,” like a sensitivity to light and touch, are a selling point.
Until they aren’t.
Fit to govern? Not tonight; I have a headache.