Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference on June 17, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference on June 17, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(Corrects female members of House in sixth paragraph.)

At a recent campaign rally, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, tried to quash a narrative that some people find too irresistible to drop. A woman at the rally asked the candidate about reported divisions between Bachmann and Sarah Palin. Bachmann brushed it off.

“They want to see two girls come together and have a mud wrestling fight,” she replied. “And I’m not going to give it to them.”

Unfortunately, Bachmann campaign adviser Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican operative, had already printed tickets to the mud match. Within days of being hired, Rollins was publicly arguing that his candidate was more substantive than Palin. Fair enough; elections are competitions, after all. But Rollins found a particularly unhelpful way to make his case.

“People are going to say, ‘I gotta make a choice and go with the intelligent woman who’s every bit as attractive,’” he said.

Rollins went right for the sexist underbelly of American politics, emphasizing the attractiveness of the two female politicians in a way that no male candidate ever experiences.

The number of women in public office has increased dramatically in recent decades. In 1984, when Representative Geraldine Ferraro was tapped to be the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, there were 22 women in the House and two in the Senate. Today, there are 75 women in the House and 17 in the Senate, along with six governors. Hillary Clinton broke the glass ceiling in presidential politics in 2008 with a viable campaign that probably would have succeeded but for the tsunami of Barack Obama.

Political candidate Ferraro, the political spouse Barbara Bush once famously said, was the type of woman who “rhymes with rich.” The overt sexism that Ferraro encountered -- did she have the cojones to pull the nuclear trigger? -- has thankfully passed. But the unholy preoccupation with a female politician’s looks, hair, clothes and more persists. Who is she married to? How will she find time to raise her children? Is she too ambitious? Too assertive?

Clinton has experienced all the sexism and ambivalence American politics has to offer. Her 2008 campaign sometimes seemed as much about pantsuits and hairstyles as her position on Iraq. Her sex appeal was considered fair game for all manner of jokes. If you were a particular kind of Hillary hater, you could purchase a Clinton nutcracker for $16.95. Late night comedians cast her as the long-suffering homebody unable to keep her husband from wandering off after every passing skirt.

Crude Stereotypes

With more women winning elections, you would think it would have become easier to talk about female politicians without the conversation devolving into crude stereotypes. Apparently not.

On “Fox News Sunday,” host Chris Wallace asked Bachmann whether she is “a flake.” Would any similarly prominent male politician be asked that question? (I can think of a few who deserve it, but none who would actually endure it.)

If a woman inadvertently fuels the catty stereotype, the media all but rejoice. In her 2010 Senate campaign in California, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina grumbled into a hot microphone that her opponent, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, sported a hairstyle that was “so yesterday.” The comment came off as cheerleader-on-cheerleader backbiting because, well, it was. But for a week afterward the substantive issues of the contest were eclipsed. Nothing mattered but the catfight.

When Boxer insisted that Brigadier General Michael Walsh call her “senator” instead of “ma’am” during a hearing, a similar kerfuffle ensued. A website was promptly launched to ridicule her, and her primary election opponent put up an ad comparing her to Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” movies complaining when people called him “Mister.”

In addition to having fashionable hair and an indifference to their official titles, female candidates are still expected to be nice.

Perhaps the most memorable exchange of Clinton’s race against Obama occurred when she was flailing in New Hampshire after having lost the caucuses in Iowa. In their last debate before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton was asked about her “personality deficit.” She uncomfortably replied that the question “hurts my feelings” and gamely granted that Obama was “very likeable.” Obama icily replied: “You’re likeable enough, Hillary.” Clinton went on to pull off an upset in New Hampshire, with women voting for her by a 12-point margin. (She had lost them by seven in Iowa.)

The slights, slurs and sexism faced by female candidates aren’t over. Rollins did his attractive boss no favors by injecting attractiveness into the equation for amassing Republican delegates for the 2012 nomination.

Still, progress for women is real. When professional political hacks say Bachmann can’t win the presidency, it’s not because of her looks or her sex. It’s because of her far-out ideas, including calling for an end to most environmental regulations, voting against a ban on job discrimination based on sexual orientation and seeking probes to expose members of Congress who are anti-American. There’s also her shaky grasp of American history and icons. (Bachmann somehow thinks the Founding Fathers, who wrote slavery into the U.S. Constitution, were champions of equal rights.)

Bachmann is certainly a long shot for the White House. But it’s not because she’s a woman. Thanks for that, Hillary. You go girl.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer on this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.