During Wednesday night's Republican debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) stood at a podium flanked by seven men. She articulated her plan to repeal "Obamacare" and to slash gasoline prices when the moderator addressed her, but she generally faded into the background as Rick Perry and Mitt Romney pulled ahead of the pack. Notably, she failed to mention the one thing that really could have separated her from the rest: She is the lone female in the race.
Quite unlike prior presidential and vice presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, Bachmann has consistently downplayed the fact that she is a woman in her campaign. She never mentions any of the barriers that would be broken if she were to become the first female Republican presidential nominee or the first female president. She doesn't identify as a feminist or embrace any particularly feminist or pro-woman policies. She talks about how wives should be "submissive" to their husbands, and on Women's Equality Day, she shared a stage in South Carolina with the state's first woman governor and entirely ignored the fact that it was the 91st anniversary of women's suffrage.
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, said Bachmann's decision to downplay her gender in her campaign could be a smart electoral strategy to win over the evangelical, conservative base.
"She does not embrace feminist policies or feminist principles," said Lawless. "For them to portray her as breaking a glass ceiling becomes tricky. I think the campaign has rightly tried not to do that. The counter to that is Sarah Palin, who didn't embrace feminist principles or feminist policies, but was a self-identified feminist and said she was out there to finish the work that Hillary Clinton started. That disconnect between what her beliefs were and what her rhetoric said ultimately raised a lot of questions."
Women's groups such as the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America have expressed concern that Bachmann as the first female president would actually be a setback for women rather than a victory.
"She is so opposed to women's equality and women's rights that I suppose it's appropriate that she's not touting herself as a woman candidate," said Terry O'Neill, president of NOW. "Palin at least claims to support Title IX. I'm searching for an issue on which Bachmann and NOW would agree."
While shying away from some women's issues, Bachmann has been extremely vocal about her opposition to reproductive choice and family planning. On a campaign stop in Iowa, she labeled Planned Parenthood "the LensCrafters of big abortion" -- despite the fact that abortion only accounts for 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's services annually -- and promised to defund the health care provider if she were elected president.
According to Planned Parenthood, one in five women in America have visited one of its clinics at some point for health services, and a recent Guttmacher Institute report found that six in 10 clients consider a family planning center like Planned Parenthood their primary health provider. If Planned Parenthood is defunded on a federal level, millions of low-income women, many in rural or medically underserved communities, would lose access to basic preventative health services, such as pap smears, breast exams, screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and affordable birth control.
Bachmann also voted in favor of the Stupak amendment, which would have banned abortion coverage for women under the new health care system. She twice co-sponsored legislation that forces women to hear a state-written lecture 24 hours before having an abortion, and she voted to block medical schools from using federal funds to train doctors in safe abortion care.
"[Bachmann's] record and rhetoric show a consistent hostility to women’s freedom and privacy -- and, in fact, she’s elevating these themes in debates and on the campaign trail," said Elizabeth Shipp, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "Bachmann’s campaign may break a barrier for one woman –- herself -- but what about the barriers for other women that will come as a result of her policies if she moves into the White House?”
But conservative women's organizations are miffed by the criticism. Ciara Matthews, communications director at the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect women who oppose abortion rights, said she can't understand why any women's group wouldn't be pleased to see the first woman president elected.
"If we're trying to send the message that women are as strong as men are, why do we need to highlight the fact that we are women doing something that women are expected to be able to do as well as men?" said Matthews. "And Bachmann has a very pro-woman agenda. She's pro-life, and I think that the most pro-woman position you can take -- wanting to defend women against the horrors of abortion."
Bachmann's campaign spokeswoman said the candidate doesn't need to identify as a feminist or play up the fact that she is the only woman running because she leads by example.
"Michele speaks with great pride about being a mother to her five wonderful children, foster mother to 23 children and wife of almost 33 years," Alice Stewart said. "She has talked about the many fond memories of raising her children and being a homemaker. She has shared the most personal story a woman can tell -- that of losing a child due to a miscarriage. At campaign events across the country, mothers bring their daughters to meet Michele and say she is a tremendous role model to girls and women everywhere."
Being a proud mother and a homemaker, however, hasn't been enough to propel Bachmann's campaign into the lead. She had a strong start in the Iowa Straw Poll, but her lackluster debate performances and her slip in popularity over the past month has left some wondering whether it's time for her to shake things up and embrace her power as a woman.
"At this point, she has no choice but to employ a different strategy," said professor Lawless. "There's something to be said for being the only woman in the race, and I think Bachmann could do a little more to point out that she doesn't have to be a pro-choice liberal to say the Republican Party should be a little more diverse and be open to people of different races and genders."
Amanda Terkel contributed to this report.
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