If we forget about her politics for a second, it’s almost shame that Michele Bachmann isn’t running for another term in 2014. Even though a record number of women were elected to Congress in 2012, they still comprise only around 18% of representatives, which is far less than women need for equal representation. Bachmann's parting will make women’s representation dip even lower than it already is. But women like Michele Bachmann, with radically conservative social agendas, call into question the idea that more women in office is always good for women.
The idea behind calling for equal, or proportionate, representation for any group is that members of that group will protect its interests. Black representatives will fight racism. Gay representatives will fight homophobia. Women representatives will fight for women’s rights. But women like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are perfect examples of how getting a woman in office, though itself a feminist achievement, doesn’t necessarily lead to policies that are good for women.
Bachmann and Palin’s dangerous and often hysterical Tea Party politics are radically counter to social justice. When it comes to women’s rights, both women are virulently anti-abortion and tout traditional, restrictive gender roles in the home. Of course, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are women, and women with a right to their opinions, and undoubtedly many of their female constituents support and agree with their positions. But that doesn’t mean that their policies are pro-women. Sarah Palin decided to call herself a feminist somewhere around 2010, but that doesn’t make her one.
At a basic level, using the word “feminism” this way is related to “choose my choice” feminism, an annoying tendency to call any individual choice a woman makes feminist because it was her choice, regardless of the structural implications or limitations of said choice. There is a fundamental difference between putting an individual woman in power playing by patriarchal rules, and creating social change on a structural level. Feminism should lift all boats.
Bachmann and Palin’s claims that they know what’s best for women, and that they represent women’s best interests, are likely just a cynical ploy for women’s votes. “Palin's 'feminism' isn't just co-opting the language of the feminist movement, it's deliberately misrepresenting real feminism to distract from the fact that she supports policies that limit women's rights,” writes Jessica Valenti.
Conservative women politicians who play the Tea Party game are subject to a paradox where a boy’s club establishment that disparages women brings them to power, and they then must play by those rules. “The problems arise when anti-feminist women start to seek real power for themselves… [The conservative] base is unable to grant serious power to a woman, no matter how much she promised to use it to disempower other women,” wrote Amanda Marcotte in a spot-on analysis of Bachmann’s failed presidential campaign.
This is why 18% female representation in Congress is not enough. We need 50%, enough so that there is a diversity of female voices to drown out self-hating women pushing extreme conservative agendas, so that there are enough women in both parties to form a critical mass and challenge the status quo.