Breaking political news on US shores today revolved around a Daily Caller expose on Michelle Bachmann’s migraines, complete with lurid suggestions about drug use and the implication that migraines make a person unfit to be President. (I’m glad we’re so worried about Bachmann’s fitness for the Presidency at this early stage, let me tell you.) Now, full disclosure: I think that Michelle Bachmann is a bad, bad person. I think that she is not fit to be President of the United States because her politics terrify me and the thought of someone like her with access to the nuclear football scares me silly. Should her campaign move forward, I intend to vigorously oppose it on the grounds that her stated opinions, platforms, and political positions are antithetical to pretty much everything I believe in.
But, this attack on Bachmann, and the response to it, reveals some important information about politics in the United States, and two very familiar old friends are showing up all over the Internet today; sexism and ableism. Despite the fact that there are plenty of reasons to oppose a Bachmann presidency that have nothing to do with her gender or ability status, these are the two things that people on all areas of the political spectrum appear to be zoning in on for ‘critical’ discussion. Some of the comments on this Gawker piece (h/t Annaham) provide a primo example of what liberal-minded people think about people with migraines; migraines are hilarious! They are evidence of untreated mental illness (which of course makes people, you know, CRAZY, and therefore unfit for political office)! They are awesome retribution for being an evil person!
Unlike Jessica Grose, I believe that this expose and the response are absolutely sexist. Yes, it’s true that campaigns to ferret out dirt on politicians are equal opportunity, but there are some distinctly sexist overtones to the framing of this case. We’re looking at a condition that tends to impact women more than men, and a condition surrounded with mythology; ‘not tonight, dear, I have a headache’ is a catchphrase for a reason. So yes, suggesting that a woman is unfit for the Presidency because of her migraines carries sexist overtones.
Specifically seeking out information to discredit female candidates is also sexist, as is much of the commentary about what Bachmann’s migraines are like. The descriptions in the Daily Caller piece are dripping with misogyny; I wonder how these anonymous staffers would describe the same symptoms in a man? There are also, of course, the inevitable hints that women can’t take the stress of public office and the Presidency in particular. Also sexist.
There’s also substantial ableism here, starting with the fact that discussions about private medical information are made so public for public figures in the first place (check out the indignation that campaign spokespeople refused to discuss private medical history!), and in the way the Daily Caller reported the piece, and in the way people are responding to it. The idea that disabilities of some form or another (and we don’t know if Bachmann identifies as disabled, I rather doubt she does, but she definitely does have a chronic medical condition) make people unfit for Presidency are nothing new, and attempts to hide disabilities? Also nothing new. Look at Roosevelt. Or, for those who prefer their pop culture, look at Bartlet. The Daily Caller’s expose is playing on ableist attitudes, and it’s disappointing to see so many progressives seizing on this as evidence that she shouldn’t be President; there’s so much low hanging fruit with this candidate, people, seriously, you don’t need to try that hard.
I am disinclined to take the Daily Caller at face value when it comes to the severity of Bachmann’s migraines, but as someone who experiences migraines myself, I know how debilitating they can be. I also know how much support and assistance is provided to the President, and to Bachmann in her current life; Bachmann has managed to build a very strong political career, so clearly her migraines do not limit her ability to function in politics and public life. I’m sure if I had a full staff, my migraines wouldn’t be nearly such a problem. I’m also someone who takes drugs for management of migraines, of course, which apparently makes me bad and unreliable:
The migraines are so bad and so intense, she carries and takes all sorts of pills. Prevention pills. Pills during the migraine. Pills after the migraine, to keep them under control. She has to take these pills wherever she goes.
That nice juicy anonymous quote raises a terrifying spectre of a pill-popping junkie cramming who knows what into her mouth (or her veins; some medications, like mine, are injectable, quelle horreur!) at every opportunity. Pills are bad! Especially pills for pain management! And enter sexism, again; chronic and severe pain have a higher incidence in women than men. Women tend to be ignored when seeking treatment for severe pain (‘just take a Midol!’) and may receive inadequate pain management because of sexist attitudes about pain and the capacity to deal with pain. Women with conditions associated with chronic pain are often accused of drugseeking behaviours when all they want is to not be in pain anymore. (And for those not familiar with how pain management works, let me just tell you that it doesn’t leave you high as a kite and floating on a featherlight cloud with sparkly pink unicorns gamboling across the horizon.)
Dana Goldstein, who also experiences migraines, weighed in on this topic (h/t abby jean), supposedly in opposition to the Daily Caller piece. She’s got a funny way of showing loyalty, though, because she proceeds to question Bachmann’s treatment regimen and lifestyle choices; I had no idea that reading a single article qualified you to act as a personal medical advisor!
I wonder if she is under the best neurological care. She is described as occassionally checking in to hospitals and urgent care centers to deal with the pain, which suggests a condition that has not been brought under control by the most aggressive treatment.
Goldstein goes on to say that ‘most migraine sufferers are able to get the condition under control.’ But admits that not everyone does, and that stressors like travel can play a role in the development of migraines. And remember how we discussed sexism and pain management above? That could be playing a role in her ability to access the care she needs. Goldstein and the Daily Caller seem to assume that Bachmann’s (reported) struggles with medication and treatment are indicators of instability and inability to control the condition, when in fact they may just be indicators of an adjustment period, breakthrough incidents, or other issues that are not our business. She gracefully concludes that this doesn’t mean Bachmann couldn’t be President, so long as she pursues a presumably Goldstein-approved treatment option, while the Daily Caller uses scaremongering tactics to suggest that the United States would be under the control of a drug-addled harridan were Bachmann to somehow get elected to the Presidency.
In fact, many people rely on medication to survive or improve their quality of life. This is generally only viewed negatively when that medication is used for pain management, however. Furthermore, most people with chronic conditions also need to periodically adjust their medications, for a variety of reasons; they aren’t working as well anymore, side effects become intolerable, new risks develop, their medications are too expensive to keep using, they aren’t recommended for long term use. While in transition between medications it is in fact quite common to be ‘constantly’ in contact with your doctor to discuss the situation, and for dosage tweaks to happen on a constant basis; hell, dealing with my cat’s recent terminal illness I was on the phone with the vet four to six times a day to discuss medications and adjust dosages. This is not unusual for human patients with chronic illness, many of whom keep the doctor’s inside line on speed dial.
I think we should all be able to discuss the myriad reasons why this woman should not be President without discussing her gender, or her private medical information, and the same holds true for discussions about any political candidate. Gender and ability status are not what matters; what matters are ethics, platforms, positions, stated beliefs.