The 2012 American election is a long way away. And yet, feminists are already tired of pointing out that people have been sexist in their treatment of Michele Bachmann. The relationship of feminists to right-wing women is a thankless one; although these women’s policies are unacceptable, it’s still no fun to learn how quickly men will fall back on the “bitch,” “crazy” or “bimbo” rhetoric when threatened. Anyone who recalls the Sarah Palin Death March of 2008 can tell you that. And now, here we are again, with Bachmann: No, it is not relevant to Michele Bachmann’s campaigns that she suffers migraines. Yes, framing her with “crazy eyes” on the cover of Newsweek is appealing to the idea that women who want power are pathological, and is a stunningly cheap way of manipulating the discourse. Yes, her husband’s anti-gay policies are an appropriate subject of discussion; no, saying that he “acts gay,” and using hateful stereotypes to make jokes about it, is not okay.
But, when it comes to the latest instance of “sexist” rhetoric against Bachmann — Byron York’s choice to ask her, at the Iowa GOP debate, whether she would be faithful to her stated policy of being “submissive to her husband” as President — it’s hard to work up any righteous indignation. You could, if pressed, make the point that male candidates are rarely questioned about their marriages during the debates. But marriage, sex, and family can be used against any politician: See “Billary,” John Edwards’ infidelities, Larry Craig’s restroom incident, Dick Cheney’s daughter Mary, etc., etc., ad infinitum. And Bachmann’s open adherence to an extremist form of the Christian religion does indeed shape her policies. She is not shy about pointing this out. But in this instance, her belief in the evangelical doctrine of “wifely submission” could, in fact, mean that someone other than the elected President would hold the position of ultimate authority within the White House, without having to be elected himself. This question is supremely relevant to Bachmann’s candidacy. And it does effectively demonstrate that she is unfit for the position she seeks.
Bachmann, lately of the Salem Lutheran Church, has been running as an Evangelical candidate from the beginning. She received her law degree from the Oral Roberts University, an extremist right-wing and evangelical institution that opposes the separation of church and state. She aims to restore the United States to “biblical principles,” regardless of whether everyone within the United States is Christian, or even religious (hint: they’re not). She has even gone so far as to say that God has “called” her to seek the presidency. Her religion informs every aspect of her career. And it’s important to remember that Bachmann’s own statements about that religion led us to this particular question. York quoted a speech she gave in 2006. The full quote is as follows: “My husband said, ‘now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law.’ Tax law? I hate taxes. Why should I go into something like that? But the Lord says, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.”
Note the specific kind of authority that Marcus Bachmann was apparently allowed to exercise. This is not about their domestic arrangement or their personal relationship; as the quote makes clear, Marcus Bachmann was essentially allowed to choose his wife’s job. He told her which degree to get, and what to study; she did it, despite her distaste for the subject. It’s simply not plausible that Michele Bachmann could practice her self-professed standard of wifely “submission” without allowing it to influence her decisions as President. As this quote demonstrates, Michele Bachmann’s professional life is firmly under her husband’s control.
Bachmann has back-pedaled on the definition of “submissive,” insisting that it means “respect, mutual respect.” In fact, a quick Google of the definition confirms that “submissive” actually means “unresistingly or humbly obedient” and that “submit” means “to give over or yield to the power or authority of another,” “to yield oneself to the power or authority of another,” and/or “to defer to another’s judgment, opinion, decision, etc.” All of which is more in line with the way that Bachmann herself has used the word in the past.
But Bachmann’s PC re-coding of “submission” is very much in line with evangelical Christian rhetoric. It is extremely common for Evangelicals to insist that “submission” is not equivalent to subordination, while actually mandating that wives endure a kind of subordination that authorities would recognize as domestic abuse.
Evangelical website Bible.org, for example, offers a series of lessons on being a “submissive” wife, telling the reader that “submission does not imply inferiority or subordination.” On the same page, however, it tells us that husbands are to have the final veto over all of a woman’s purchases, her “employment,” how she spends her personal time, and all child-rearing decisions, and that it is a sin for a woman to attempt to exercise control in these matters: “As your husband leads your home, it is God to whom he is ultimately responsible… If you are arguing with him over decisions for your family, your root problem is failure to trust God.” In this scenario, to defy one’s husband is to defy God himself. A further lesson tells us that women are to “overlook… verbal abuse,” because God “never gives us more than we can bear,” and counsels that wives who are being physically battered by their husbands should trust that this will change in the future, “if they [have] been better wives.” Finally, the same website counsels that a husband is entitled to penetrate his wife, whether or not she wants him to, a policy that the Godless secularists amongst us refer to as “institutionalized marital rape”: “Are you willing to give yourself to your husband sexually without considering your own desires or needs? Are you prepared to give him the authority over your body? If you are not, you are in sin.” Again: The people who preach this also preach that “submission” entailing all of the above “does not imply inferiority or subordination.”
We are dealing, here, with something more than a politician’s re-phrasing of a controversial belief. We are dealing with a strain of American thought that appropriates religion for the purposes of oppressing women, and has developed a specific rhetoric to cover up this fact. We do not know the precise extent to which Michele Bachmann follows this doctrine. But we do know that she follows it, and has allowed it to shape her career.
Ultimately, Michele’s choice to “submit” to Marcus Bachmann is her choice; all we can do is hope that she is physically safe within her marriage. But we can also acknowledge that her subordination precludes her from exercising authority. Michele can treat Marcus like a God all she likes. Michele can let Marcus make every single personal and professional decision for her. But what she cannot do is insist that the American people treat Marcus the same way. We didn’t marry the man; nor will we elect him. When one woman’s “submission” stands to affect the policies of an entire country, it is perfectly within our rights to say that it has gone too far.