Was Asking Bachmann About “Submission” a Sexist Question? Short answer: No.
During the Republican/Tea Party candidates debate last night in Ames, Iowa, the Washington Examiner‘s Byron York asked Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) if she “submits to her husband.” The question arose out of Bachmann’s own declaration that she has been guided to make decisions about and throughout her career by her God as commanded by her husband, describing it as his idea and his will that she attend law school, get a degree in tax law, and run for Congress. As evident from this video, she paints herself as not previously having entertained these choices before her husband suggested she take them up, and expresses some reluctance in making the final decisions.
When York asked the question of Bachmann last night, she answered by underscoring the respect in her marriage and deflected the question effectively (from a political standpoint) by talking about her and her husband’s mutual “respect.”
While the extremely conservative audience at the debate booed and hissed at the question itself, numerous Tweets sent by political observers suggested that “a male candidate” would not have been asked this question and that the question itself was both sexist and inappropriate.
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I don’t think it was either, nor do I think that historically the roles played by a spouse have been irrelevant among male politicians, as the attacks on Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in the past have shown. The role of Hillary Clinton as an advisor in the health care debate in the nineties was, for example, widely excoriated by the right, which at the time declared she had too much influence as an “unelected official.” If Bachmann is in effect declaring from the get-go that her decisions would depend on her husband’s approval, the question arises, who would we be electing should it come to pass that Bachmann becomes president?
There is no doubt that there is sexism in both politics and the media (to name two sectors of our economy in which it is deeply entrenched). But that doesn’t mean every hard question asked a woman candidate is sexist. Politics is hard, brutal and often nasty. One might wish it were not so, but you can’t avoid it at this point, at least not totally. If Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney or another presidential candidate had at any time said they “wouldn’t make a move without their spouses,” or that they had begun a political career, not out of their own desire but at the behest of their spouses, the same question would arise.
The reality is that in any healthy marriage or partnership, such as between the current occupants of the White House from what I can see, things do get discussed, and of course, your spouse, assuming you married them in part because of mutual love and respect, is likely one of your closest sounding boards, if not advisors. But that is different than saying: “I wouldn’t make a move on policy without the approval of my husband or wife.” That is what Bachmann strongly suggested in her own earlier statements. To be honest, I don’t even believe her; It seems too unlikely to me that a woman with her personality and forcefulness would be doing so many things she really doesn’t want to do just for the sake of her husband, and I think she uses this language in part because she believes it but in part because she is “playing to the biblical right,” as are so many others in the current crop of GOP and Tea Party candidates.
But all that being said, we are witnessing the ascendance of people who see it as their role to transform the United States into a country based on “biblical law.” I don’t care if we are talking about a woman or a man: I want to know what their beliefs are and what their politics mean for this country, me, my family. It is totally fair game to force her hand on this and other issues of ideology, and in fact, I hope that hard questions about these issues are put to all of the candidates who make religious belief a central aspect of their campaigns.