Can the GOP Become the Party of the Working Mom?
How Michele Bachmann's new memoir tries to woo America's "career women."
Photograph by Andrew Burton.
There are two main sets of characters in Michele Bachmann’s new memoir, Core of Conviction. On one hand, there are “the big-city liberal mayors, the Saul Alinsky nostalgists, the ACORN activists, the taxpayer-subsidy-dependent green-jobs propagandists, and all the other moochers, hustlers, and rent seekers demanding a ‘place at the table’ when liberals control the White House.” Pitted against these villains are Bachmann’s heroines, America’s last best hope: flinty working women. One of Bachmann’s grandmothers worked in a meatpacking factory, raised seven children, and still changed her own snow tires at the age of 83. When Bachmann’s parents divorced, her mother had to go back to work, “and work hard. We qualified for welfare, but Mom wouldn’t think of it.” As a teenager, Bachmann baby-sat and worked at a grocery store to save for college. One summer she cleaned fish and tarred roofs in Alaska, before going on to practice tax law and raise five biological children and numerous foster kids on a frugal regimen of Bible study and Goodwill shopping trips.
Bachmann’s story is not a pitch for a return to a postwar arcadia of fixed gender roles in little boxes made of ticky-tacky. Instead, she casts herself as an icon of American working womanhood, a “career woman” whose calling and identity are not clouded by the “faddish fog of ‘feminism,’ ” but are instead the result of real-life experience, Midwestern pragmatism, and Christian faith. Secular feminists have long dismissed the women of the Christian right as a mob of Hillary-hating homemakers. What they haven’t noticed is that, for the past few decades, American conservatives have been building the case that the GOP is no longer the party of Betty Draper—it’s the party of the working mom.
As a young wife who found her conservative instincts hardening in the “perilous fires of the Carter administration”—which she blames for allowing Islamists to run rampant abroad and “a festival of liberal relativism” to erupt at home—Bachmann discovered the books of Beverly LaHaye and Phyllis Schlafly. LaHaye was once a self-described “fearful, introverted” pastor’s wife, but by the 1970s she had become a professional activist who founded Concerned Women for America and wrote books such as The Spirit-Controlled Woman (1976), urging every Christian woman to overcome her insecurities and become a “dynamic fighter” for God inside and outside the home.
It is 87-year-old Schlafly, though, who is the real materfamilias of the conservative women’s movement, the face that launched a thousand pro-Goldwater coffee klatches with her rightwing manifesto A Choice Not an Echo (1964)—and who pioneered the working mom-cum-holy-crusader model that Bachmann has perfected. The Radcliffe-educated mother of six, best known as the woman who defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, believes that gender differences are divinely ordained. And yet Schlafly was always an unapologetic cheerleader for working women like herself. In The Power of the Positive Woman (1977) she applauded the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and congratulated women who combined marriage and motherhood—a woman’s highest callings, she said—with a fulfilling career. She especially admired the prime ministers Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher—praising the latter as not only “a leader of men and women,” but a “traditional lady” who cooked a proper breakfast for her husband each morning.
Like Schlafly before them, today’s Christian supermoms—working mothers like Bachmann and Sarah Palin—see no paradox in cheerfully admitting their debts to secular feminism while also marketing themselves as rebukes to the women’s movement. Their careers are not a neutered escape from Betty Friedan’s “comfortable concentration camp” of housewifery: They represent a natural extension of a woman’s maternal sense of duty and God-given gender. Palin’s memoir, Going Rogue, opens with a vignette of Gov. Grizzly balancing multiple BlackBerrys on one hip and daughter Piper on the other, proud to be “standing on the shoulders of women who had won hard-fought battles for things like equal pay and equal access, [so that] I grew up knowing I could be anything I wanted to be.” Bachmann, too, is “all for strong women as role models; I knew many of them growing up.” But if she appreciates feminism’s fruits, she is quick to caricature its premises: “in the seventies, women were solemnly instructed by the liberal media to believe that family, tradition, and even faith were merely disguised manifestations of an oppressive ‘patriarchy.’ ” (Patriarchy may not be all that oppressive with a patriarch like Marcus Bachmann, Michele’s partner in what she calls a “tag team” marriage—a man who does his share of the cooking and child care and is not even mildly grumpy when she decides to run for state senate without consulting him.)
In Bachmann’s view, the true oppressors are the white-shoe liberals who run a “gangster government” based on “nonworkable-in-the-real-world ideology” and their henchmen “the pundits of the era, speaking down to us from their high perches in their ivory towers.” Yes, this outsider critique of Washington elites who don’t understand Bachmann’s “real-world America” is one of the oldest tricks in the Republican playbook. But it gains a special power in the hands of conservative career women, who can pass off partisan ideology as maternal common sense and disguise pandering as feminine sensitivity. Bachmann understands Americans by “look[ing] into their hearts. That’s a sacred feeling.” And she dodges the charges of unladylike ambition that have dogged Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, by claiming to be “nothing more than a concerned parent” whose feminine instincts and inborn convictions turned her into an “accidental politician.”
This post-Friedan populism is the key to what makes Bachmann appealing (or bone-chilling, depending on your politics.) In an age when the two-thirds of American mothers who work find themselves on winding career paths pitted with painful trade-offs, sacrifices, and self-reinvention, Bachmann tells women what many of them want to hear: that the secret is to simply know one’s own heart and trust in God’s plan. She has frequently noted how happy she was to put her law career on hold for a few years and be a stay-at-home mom before jumping into politics. In Core of Conviction, managing the cradle, the briefcase, and the campaign stump is not a strenuous juggling act: These are natural and complementary dimensions of her femininity. For Bachmann, there is no cognitive dissonance in relentlessly pursuing career ambitions while trumpeting “traditional family values.” A woman can have kids and a career, love and professional triumph, and even save her country—all just by being true to her instincts and principles. Conservative evangelicals may be Bachmann’s base, but she knows that there is one American religion with even more true believers than Christianity: the cult of authenticity, in which aw-shucks sincerity is the mark of a savior, the appearance of trying too hard betrays the devil’s work, and virtue lies in just “being yourself.”
Of course, the effortless red-blooded supermom shtick can backfire. Sarah Palin took her race for the Mrs. Authentic America crown a little too far: The producers behind Sarah Palin’s Alaska learned the hard way that canned caribou hunts and staged grizzly encounters don’t impress viewers. Bachmann, though, is cannier. She says she is just a “small woman” whose “campaign plan is simple: I am going to say true things.” And she seems to understand that wooing the American voter is a lot like wooing a man or tricking a toddler into eating his broccoli—or “having it all” as a 21st-century woman, for that matter. Doing it demands careful choreography and a bit of guile, and making it look easy is even harder.
Molly Worthen teaches religious history at the University of Toronto.