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Column: A submissive president?

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WASHINGTON -- I didn't want to write a column about Michele Bachmann, but my husband told me to.

Naturally, I listened.

Not! Poor man, he can hardly get me to pick up the dry cleaning.

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Apparently, things are different Chez Bachmann. Running for Congress in 2006, the Minnesota Republican explained her decision to specialize in tax law.

She'd never taken a tax course in law school, Bachmann told the Living Word Christian Center, but her husband decided she should pursue an advanced degree in the subject.

"Tax law! I hate taxes! Why should I go and do something like that?" Bachmann recalled thinking. "But the Lord said, 'Be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.'?"

Welcome to the ever-evolving world of gender politics, evangelical edition. Someday, perhaps, after the first few female presidents have served their second terms, the country will have worked its way through the thickly seeded minefield of gender and politics: Will she be strong enough? What to call the first husband? Is it safe to talk about her clothes? Until then, every succeeding election, I suspect, will present its own set of gender-related wrinkles.

The 2008 campaign simultaneously showed that a woman could be tough and knowledgeable enough -- and that being a woman was not enough in itself. Hillary Clinton's never-say-die primary battle put to rest questions about female grit. Sarah Palin's never-learn-substance vice presidential campaign showed that the Geraldine Ferraro moment -- plunking a woman on the ticket merely for the sake of two X chromosomes -- was long past.

The Bachmann candidacy evokes some of the familiar questions about female presidential candidates and poses new ones. On the familiar side are the twin questions of looks and intelligence. For female candidates, much more than for men, appearance matters. Yet it is the factor that dare not speak its name. Of course Bachmann's attractiveness, like Palin's, contributes to her success.

But mentioning appearance is the third rail of gender politics, as Vin Weber, former Minnesota congressman and current Tim Pawlenty supporter, discovered. "She's got hometown appeal, she's got ideological appeal, and, I hate to say it, but she's got a little sex appeal too," Weber told The Hill newspaper about Bachmann's prospects in Iowa. It is safe to mention Mitt Romney's chiseled chin or, on the flip side, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel's balding pate and short stature. Commenting on female candidates' looks? Never a good idea.

Raising doubts about a female candidate's intelligence is similarly treacherous. Bachmann's historical gaffes -- moving the battles of Lexington and Concord to New Hampshire, for example -- are fair game. Yet some of the questioning -- Are you hypnotized? Are you a flake? -- has decided, if unintended, undertones of sexism. It is difficult to imagine male interviewers using that same dismissive language with a male candidate.

Then there is the matter of Bachmann's views about subservient wives and how that would translate to the Oval Office. I want to be respectful here of Bachmann's beliefs about appropriate gender roles and the marital balance of power. I couldn't disagree more with her views, but I recognize that they are biblically based and in the evangelical mainstream.

The classic version of criticizing the candidate's spouse involves fears of the meddling, overbearing wife. Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign promise of "two for the price of one" did not exactly go over well with voters. Ordinarily, the gender tables-turned version of this critique -- female candidate's husband as behind-the-scenes Svengali -- would be dangerously imbued with elements of sexism. Can't she think for herself? Who's pulling the strings?

But Bachmann's candidacy poses the question of how to accommodate the evangelical worldview of women's proper relationships with their husbands with what seems to me the inherently feminist notion of a female leader of the free world.

One way to thread the theological needle is to argue that the Bible assigns leadership roles to men in the family and church but is silent on, and therefore leaves room for, women in politics. This seems like a stretch, especially since Bachmann has credited her husband with directing her professional life.

I don't lose sleep over Marcus Bachmann as Oval Office puppeteer, mostly because I cannot imagine Michele Bachmann making it there. But given where she is in the polls, it is fair and necessary to ask her about how she would reconcile the tensions between her understanding of the biblical view of woman's role and the demands of the presidency. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind hearing from her husband, too.

Ruth Marcus' e-mail address is ruthmarcus@washpost.com.

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