Retracting Our Claws on Palin and Bachmann

06/21/2011 11:46 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2011

Sarah Palin hasn't even announced her run for the Republican nomination for president yet, and already the media is abuzz about the impending showdown between her and Michele Bachmann.

Or, as some commentators are choosing to call it, a catfight.

Bachmann announced at last Monday's debate that she will officially be running for the nomination. Palin, while she hasn't said anything definitive, has been dropping her own hints that an announcement from her camp might be forthcoming. With a Republican field universally acknowledged as weak, it seems entirely possible that we could be seeing, for the first time in U.S. history, a female presidential nominee from one of the country's two major political parties.

There's no question that having two relatively strong female candidates for a presidential nomination is a landmark for women in politics. But as Palin and Bachmann try to position themselves in a crowded field, it's becoming clearer by the day exactly what they're up against. Unlike their male counterparts, they not only have to deal with the Democrats and the rifts within their own party. They also have to deal with gender bias. And that -- more than Medicare, more than Obama's relative popularity, more than a bit of confusion about the basic facts of American history -- may well be their undoing.

Bachmann and Palin are facing gender bias not only in the narratives imposed on their rivalry by the media, but also, disturbingly, in the statements coming out of their own camps. While the two women have thus far been careful to sound supportive of each other in public statements, Bachmann strategist Ed Rollins went on the radio a few weeks ago to blast Palin as being "not serious."

When faced with the decision between Bachmann and Palin, Rollins theorized, "people are going to say, 'I gotta make a choice and go with the intelligent woman who's every bit as attractive'."

Now, in his defense, Rollins could have meant politically attractive. But he probably didn't. Despite himself, Rollins is making the important point that the way Bachmann and Palin present themselves is a powerful and risky tool in a way that isn't true for men. It's the perpetual double bind that women in power face: sexuality is, well, sexy -- and, particularly in the early stages of a campaign, that can play an important role in getting people's attention. At the same time, as Rollins' quote inadvertently signals, focusing on the two women's looks makes their rivalry look unserious. Two hot women going at each other. It's only a matter of time before the Palin-Bachmann lesbian porn parody hits the shelves.

Prurience aside, there's another reason why the catfight narrative has taken hold. The Palin v. Bachmann narrative feels easy, in part, because it's a reflection of one of the most pervasive and persistent effects of gender bias: when bias against women becomes conflict between women. This pattern, called gender wars, happens again and again when women are in a minority. Where the message is telegraphed that there's only room for one woman at the top, the resulting conflicts between women trying to hold on to their place of power can be as destructive as any discrimination women face from men.

In this case, the message that there's only room for one woman at the top happens to be true -- there's only going to be one Republican presidential nominee. The problem, then, isn't the conflict in itself, but the tools being used. Bachmann and Palin can buy into cultural stereotypes and criticize each other for being the wrong kind of woman -- for being too flighty, too dumb, for being a bad mother or just not mother enough. Or they can avoid these kinds of easy barbs and focus on politics. Of course, politics is a dirty game, and ad hominem attacks are practically required at this point in a presidential race. But, like it or not, Palin and Bachmann are in a particularly precarious position because of their gender. Their respective camps need to work extra hard to avoid the kind of back-and-forth that will inevitably be called a catfight.

And really, it's not all on them. We as a media-consuming public need to recognize the potential for gender bias that surround any mention of Palin or Bachmann or any other female politician, and make a conscious effort to overcome our prejudices. That means talking about the Republican primary field as a whole, rather than confining Palin and Bachmann to a lady ghetto. Some liberals hope the two women will tear each other to shreds, thus effectively neutralizing each other as a political force. That's how gender wars often play out. But the damage this would do to women in politics would far overshadow any short-term political gain. Whatever your politics, a gender war between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann is bad for America.

- Rachel Dempsey contributed to this post.