The hardest stories to cover in politics are the dogs that don’t bark, that is figuring out why something isn’t happening. When it comes to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) the dog that isn’t barking, at least not yet, is her gender. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was “historic,” and the press thrilled to story after story about the potential for a woman president. Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were likewise hailed as models of feminist achievement. But there is scant mention of the fact that a Republican woman, emphasis on woman, is zooming to the top of the polls in Iowa and may be the first GOP woman ever to win a caucus or primary.
That doesn’t mean her gender doesn’t matter. To the contrary, the sneers that greeted her announcement that she was running, and the propensity to lump her in with Sarah Palin (two conservative women must be two peas in a pod, right?), suggest that, at least in the mainstream media, gender politics and bias are very much alive. When GOP consultant Mike Murphy took to Twitter during the first debate to slam Bachmann’s appearance, we knew that the double standard for evaluating candidates is alive and well. Vin Weber, a Tim Pawlenty supporter, had to apologize after referring to Bachmann as “sexy,” a remark Bachmann cheerfully let roll off her back. But Bachmann as a role model or as a breakthrough in the GOP, which liberal pundits insist remains “anti-woman,” is not a story that’s drawn coverage, even in the conservative media.
Doug Sachtleben, a spokesman for the campaign told me, “Congresswoman Bachmann doesn’t make it about gender or herself. This election is about the need for a constitutional conservative in the White House. The best candidate happens to be a woman.”
Some observers agree that it has to do with Bachmann’s decision not to run as a gender-identity candidate. Gail Heriot, a professor at the University of San Diego law school and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, thinks the rules are different for Republican women. “Bachmann hasn’t yet won a primary, so I am not surprised that nobody is celebrating her as any kind of a “first,” Heriot said. “More fundamentally, however, she is a Republican. In general, Republicans don’t seem to back particular candidates on account of their race or sex. Identity politics is not really a conservative thing. Her campaign, therefore, is under no pressure to use her sex as a selling point. Nor is it under any pressure to make a case for why her sex shouldn’t matter.”
Others think the lack of interest in Bachmann’s gender is itself evidence of bias, and not simply that Clinton’s campaign made gender a non-issue in politics, argues, Diana Furtchgott-Roth, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. “Look at MSM portrayals of Kagan and Sotomayor as women who have broken barriers. And that was after Hillary. Feminizing Bachmann would be making her likeable.”
And still others think that she’s only recently been taken seriously by the media (perhaps due to sexism). A Republican woman communications guru tells me that “the MSM doesn’t take her that seriously yet. When it does, we’ll probably notice it more.”
Of course, the lack of interest in her gender may be a combination of all of these factors. But what is clear is that Bachmann’s gender is no barrier within the Republican electorate. (In a recent Quinnipiac poll, Bachmann had the support of 14 percent of Republicans (15 percent of men and 12 percent of women.)
Right Turn will have more on Bachmann and gender as the campaign plays out, but for now, for whatever reason, liberal feminist groups sure aren’t celebrating her candidacy, and Republican Tea Partyers are welcoming her with open arms. Just saying.