Historian Kirsten Marie Delegard's new book, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States, describes the birth of a women's movement that countered the power of women reformers in the early twentieth century. In this blog post, Delegard looks at a contemporary political woman, Michele Bachmann. In spite of Bachmann's withdrawal from the presidential campaign, Delegard doesn't expect this right-wing mom to stay at home.
On Sunday, the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade decision, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann made her first public appearance since pulling out of the presidential race on January 4. At a protest against abortion at the Minnesota State Capitol, the conservative congresswoman was in her element as she rallied the faithful.
Bachmann's last-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and subsequent withdrawal from the presidential running had undoubtedly disappointed that audience.
Outside of those circles, many observers viewed Bachmann's candidacy as a manifestation of our collective political dysfunction. Yet any relief at her poor showing needs to be tempered by caution.
Bachmann's detractors run the risk of repeating the mistake liberals made in the wake of Barry Goldwater's 1964 defeat, which many interpreted as a repudiation of his politics. Goldwater's trouncing at the polls served to mobilize his sympathizers, who made his version of conservatism ascendant in American politics during the last decades of the twentieth century.
As speculation mounts about Bachmann's next move, her enthusiastic reception in St. Paul provides a reminder that her influence will likely not wane.
While Bachmann was unable to secure a primary win, the Iowa campaign allowed her to expand her national political reach, giving her a platform she could use to consolidate her influence within both the Republican Party and in the larger realm of political opinion.
Bachmann's last-place finish only enhanced her status in the eyes of many of her followers, who took it as proof she was a political outsider, prepared to speak truth to power regardless of the consequences.
As long as the country remains mired in political disaffection, Bachmann will remain irresistible to many Americans who want to jettison politics as usual.
Bachmann relishes her role as the leader of a grass-roots insurgency, bringing to that task a commitment she lacks as a serious policymaker. This is not surprising in light of the fact that her political model, the woman she calls her "heroine," never won elected office.
Forty years ago, conservative populist Phyllis Schlafly became a household name through her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, which infused traditional anticommunism with emerging anxieties about sexuality. A political lightning rod, Schlafly sparked firestorms, illuminating deep fissures in the political and cultural bedrock of the nation.
Bachmann calls Schlafly "the most important woman in the United States in the last 100 years" and has consciously embraced the incendiary politics of the woman she followed closely as a young mother.
While closely associated with the Republican Party, Schlafly's leadership skills were nurtured by women's groups, especially the Daughters of the American Revolution.
That organization helped her to build her political base, giving her a platform she used to develop her message over the 1950s and 1960s. She relied on the group's stalwart support through these years, when both major political parties wanted women to follow but never lead.
By the time Schlafly became active in the DAR, the organization had been rallying women against radicalism for almost thirty years.
In the first decade after the Ninteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, the group had teamed up with the American Legion Auxiliary to address fears raised by the Russian Revolution, offering female activists new outlets for political expression and a novel political identity.
These zealous women transformed women's politics, linking progressive female reform to international Bolshevism.
They created a vibrant subculture that trained generations of women to crusade against communism; it was these grass-roots activists who rallied behind Schlafly for almost two decades before she became a national sensation in the 1970s.
As the first conservative woman to make a serious bid for the American presidency, Bachmann builds on these decades of grass-roots organizing. Inspired by Schlafly's example, she is merely the latest in a line of women who have worked to mobilize their communities against what they see as radical influences.
Like her foremothers, Bachmann may ultimately find the ballot box to be her least effective political weapon. But it is certain that her electoral defeat will do little to diminish her influence over national political debates.
Kirsten Marie Delegard is an independent researcher and historian based in Minnesota. This blog post was first published in the commentary section of the Minneapolis StarTribune.