Rep. Michele Bachmann, founder of the Tea Party caucus in the new Congress, gave more than a response to President Obama's State of the Union speech Tuesday night. She gave us a look at the new political woman in Washington.
Some of the old Republican bulls looked as if they were suffering a bad bout of indigestion. She's treading on old toes. She acquitted herself with poise and power, and that's what's scary to the party establishment.
When Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann got together during the midterm election campaigns, they were dismissed by certain politicians and pundits as "Thelma and Louise," as real-life stand-ins for the two innocent housewives whose bucolic romp across America became a killing spree. But there's more than just Mrs. Bachmann in the new wave of tough women in town. "This new generation of conservative politicas - having caught, skinned and eviscerated liberal feminism as if it were one of Palin's Alaskan salmon - is transforming the very meaning of a women's movement," observes Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal. Her point is that men and women, liberals and even some conservatives, have fallen into panic mode at the arrival of Tea Party women. The male politicians long for the more modest ladies, led by Phyllis Schlafly, who defeated the Equal Rights Amendment but did it the old-fashioned, feminine way: presenting homemade jelly and jam to state legislators.
Not so long ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the Lady MacBeth of the nightmares of men who were afraid she was on her way back to the White House. The men relaxed when it became clear that she was only on her way to Foggy Bottom to become secretary of state. She looked matronly and sedate this week, a comfortable dowager member of the old boys club in royal blue as she sat listening to President Obama from her front-row seat. Almost nobody remembers that she once was ridiculed as having to wear pink to look feminine.
Although Mrs. Clinton was attacked as "uppity," having climbed to power as a "wife of," such accusations are mild by the new standards. More tempting female targets have replaced her. Mrs. Palin's conservative philosophy is as legitimately criticized as Mrs. Clinton's liberal agenda once was. Her critics nevertheless attack by innuendo, taking aim (pardon the expression) with appeals to anachronistic female stereotypes.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, assistant minority leader, typically dispenses male condescension. "Sarah Palin just can't seem to get it - on any front," he told Bill Press, a liberal radio talk-show interviewer. "I think she's an attractive person. She is articulate. But I think intellectually she seems not to be able to understand what's going on here." (You just can't trust a pretty face, but she was woman enough to get elected governor of a state and to run for vice president on a major-party ticket.) When Mr. Clyburn was asked why powerful men talk down to Mrs. Palin, he hurried for safety behind the skirts of his wife and daughters, saying he had discussed all this with the women in his house.
A Washington Post columnist likens abstaining from attacks on Mrs. Palin to a character on the old "Seinfeld" show deciding to give up boudoir romps to free enough brain power "to learn Portuguese, Euclidean geometry, become a whiz on 'Jeopardy!' and solve a Rubik's cube." Like teenage boys, the boys have fun ganging up on her. But it's not just feminine stereotypes that cause her trouble. Old-guard feminists criticize her for not fitting into their stereotype. She doesn't talk about conventional "women's issues," such as universal child care and parental leave. She offers maternalism in a different voice by showing concern for the future of our children, who must confront the effects of a trillion-dollar deficit.
"What did we buy?" Mrs. Bachmann asks about the stimulus spending, in the manner of a spouse examining the credit-card bills. "Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy." Women know how to budget and know the pitfalls of spending money they don't have. That may be why more women than men, according to some of the exit polls, voted for Republican House candidates in November.
Many of the Tea Party women were nurtured in the PTA, but they've learned quickly how to use that experience in the home - and now in the House.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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