“Bachmann Feminism Overdrive”
by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large
The narrative presented by Congresswoman — and former presidential candidate — Michele Bachmann is divisive, but simple at its core: a small-town Iowa girl finds God after her father leaves, and her devotion to religion and family propels her to political action. It is the sort of tale appropriate for a female right-wing politico, rooted in gender traditionalism and motivated by a sense of Bachmann as an idealized mother figure. The nuclear family is writ large in the story of Bachmann, even as details remain elusive — yes, Michele’s husband Marcus was a fixture on her campaign, and her children have been in photo ops alongside their mother; but Bachmann comes with a sprawling assortment of siblings and stepsiblings and foster children, who are rarely allowed to share the spotlight.
Michele Amble was born the only daughter of David and Arlene Amble, in Waterloo, Iowa; when she was thirteen years old her parents divorced, and her father moved to California. Arlene moved Michele and her three brothers to Anonka, Minnesota, where Arlene worked at a local bank and married a widower with five children of his own — the Amble-LaFave clan was a midwestern Brady Bunch, and Michele — a high school cheerleader — became close to her stepsiblings.
Perhaps Bachmann rarely speaks of the family she grew up in — focusing instead on the family she has created — because they contradict the image she presents of wholesome, down-home religiosity: one of her brothers is a professor of psychiatry at Yale (how much more elitist does it get?), while stepsister Helen LaFave is an out-and-proud lesbian and Obama supporter. Bachmann’s own mother is a lifelong Democrat, of the small-town, working-class, for-the-people variety; none of these figures fit comfortably into Michele’s right-wing zealotry.
And then, there is raevyn.
raevyn came to the Bachmann household in 1997, one of twenty-three girls in foster care who passed through the home over the course of a decade. None of the girls have yet come forward to speak about their foster mother, save one who anonymously told the New Yorker that the Bachmanns had provided her with a sense of structure and family, that she was grateful for their care. raevyn (who considers both last names and capitalization symbols of the patriarchy) is the first to go on the record, meeting me in Toronto, at an independent, fair-trade coffeeshop on Bloor Street. She arrives ten minutes late, rangy and freckled, hair dredlocked and wearing Hammer pants and a tunic top, all made of hemp. The barista greets her by nickname — rae-rae — and she orders a mate.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says breezily, sitting and propping a knee against the table. “Anti-rape street theater. You know how it goes.” I comment that she seems awfully comfortable in this space. “My last lunar partner worked here,” she tells me.
“Conventional terms like ‘girlfriend’, ‘boyfriend’ — this language is so gendered, and so limiting. Some people say ‘friend’, or ‘partner’ — but that’s ambiguous, and doesn’t honor the particular intimacy of sexual contact. But ‘sexual partner’ just has a clinical feel to it, so my preference is for ‘lunar partner’, which offers a poetic invocation of the night as well as calling to mind the unique female connection to the moon — it’s a label for a sexual partner which is finally empowering to women.”
raevyn is not at all like her foster mother.
The barista brings the mate, in a large, traditional bomba. raevyn offers the first sip to the lanky, androgynous man, who drinks deeply before handing it over, running a suggestive hand across raevyn’s shoulders as he walks away. Was that her ex?
“He participated sometimes, but no — Ashleigh is off today.” raevyn offers the mate, and I decline. “Look, I know what you’re going to ask. It’s all stuff I’ve thought about for years, you know; I’ve talked about it with Michele, or tried to talk about it. Stuff like this — her deal was that society has devalued women by oversexualizing them, making female sexuality into this cheap thing. As far as that goes, I was on board; it was eye-opening to hear her discuss this stuff — it’s just that her solution is to take things back, to raise the value of female sexuality again with all this purity religious bullshit, instead of raising female value generally by de-emphasizing the social power of sexuality altogether. It doesn’t matter who you fuck — so long as there’s consent, of course — or how much you fuck, or how often you fuck, how many partners you’ve got — because fucking is beside the whole point. It’s fun, sure, but so is going camping, and we don’t accord dignity based on how people do that. Why is sex such a special case?”
Well, I start to say, probably because of —
“Religion.” raevyn stabs a finger in my general direction. “Exactly. And that’s the thing about Michele. Take away the religion, and she’s actually kind of awesome — I mean, I don’t know if I’d vote for her, but the thing is, she home-schooled her kids, she started getting involved in politics with us, the foster girls, because we had to go to public school. And she just thought it was sad, that we would go into school and be treated like a number, ignored, not encouraged to our full potential, not made to develop to the best of our abilities — there’s something that’s very empathetic and idealistic about that reaction, you know?”
raevyn takes a drag of mate. “She might be batshit crazy, but in a weird way, she also awakened me as a feminist.”
raevyn didn’t use the f-word under the Bachmann’s roof — she began to self-identify with such liberal labels when she attended Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, a small liberal arts school with a progressive reputation.
“I had no money,” says raevyn. “None. But Michele pushed all of us to think of college, to achieve. I wound up getting scholarships, making it work — I was out of her house by the time I applied but I still had her voice in my head, telling me to go for it. She’s very persuasive when she believes in something. I got to Hampshire, read some stuff, became a pansexual, became an activist — I don’t know that I would have done any of this without Michele. If she hadn’t been there for me, I probably would’ve just stayed in Minnesota, had a kid or something.” raevyn raises an eyebrow towards me, aware of the irony.
(raevyn is not alone in ironic reactions to Bachmann’s politics. Shortly after the congresswoman railed against funding the federal public service program Americorps — calling it a gateway to “reeducation camps” — her son Harrison went to work with Teach for America, an Americorps program.)
raevyn moved to San Francisco after college, and to Canada two years after that; she began the application process for Canadian citizenship last month, forever giving up the opportunity to vote her foster mother, the woman whose activism and convictions inspired raevyn’s own politics.
“Oh, I would never vote for her,” says raevyn, slurping the dregs of her mate. “Have you listened to a goddamn word she says? Bitch is crazy! But as far as having an inspiring female figure in your life goes, she’s smart, ambitious, sticks to her guns, and cares about people. If she weren’t such a nutcase, she’d really be amazing.”
raevyn stares off into middle distance.
“We kinda stopped talking when she became a national figure,” she tells me, a note of hurt in her voice. “Went our separate ways. I wonder, now that her presidential campaign is over — maybe I should give her a call.”