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Michele Bachmann Gets Migraines. So What?

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.


  1. Avendya wrote:

    s.e., you are my favorite.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Annaham wrote:

    Yeah, I am of the opinion that anyone who comments on this non-story with “lol migraines” or “severe migraines mean that’s she PROBABLY on a lotta DRUGS!11” or some such piece-of-shit “witty” comment has probably never experienced a migraine.

    Much as I find Bachmann’s political beliefs totally repugnant, there are many perfectly valid reasons to dislike or mock her political position(s), and the fact that she gets migraines should not be one of those reasons.

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink
  3. n wrote:

    great post! I was reading about this on other feminist blogs and thinking, “yes, yes, the sexism, but what about the ableism?” but not being able to articulate my thoughts. so glad to have your post to point people to!

    Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  4. B wrote:

    Great post, s.e.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  5. Andrea wrote:

    Ooo, the “she’s failing to control her condition!” crowd. As if chronic medical conditions are failures of personal will and effort, or perhaps pet dogs that can be trained.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  6. Thanks for this post. Migraineurs are aware of the stigma attached to our condition. I know I try to downplay migraines at my job out of concern I’ll be seen as “unfit.” Sometimes people who have not experienced migraine have the “just shake it off– it’s only a headache” reaction, or as you say, think we are flying high on “feel good” drugs. Not so.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  7. gidget commando wrote:

    Bingo! I’m a fellow migraineur who can’t abide the idea of her being anywhere near the nuclear football, but the political attack regarding the migraines smacks of sexism and ableism.

    IF those reports were at all correct, there might be rational, non-catastrophic reasons she needed more intense care at time A and less at time B. Switching meds is one such occasion. Others include meds pooping out on you, or taking meds for some other reason (e.g., when she had appendicitis) and having THOSE trigger a wave of attacks.

    My condition is more well controlled now. I’m in no shape to be president for a variety of reasons, including the side effects of my medications and my particular set of triggers, but that’s ME. Then again, even at my worst, in unspeakable pain or experiencing the ugliest side effects, I’ve never started inadvisable wars or squashed anybody’s constitutional rights, both things that the last president did WITHOUT migraines. I rest my case.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  8. Abigail wrote:

    Wonderful, wonderful post. I too get migraines, and even feel sympathy for the loathsome Bachmann. I can’t imagine coping with the stress levels her life must bring. The tone around this story has been so sexist. Thanks for calling it out.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  9. samanthab wrote:

    I’m not clear on why it’s so difficult for people to judge her on her accomplishments rather than what they imagine she’s experiencing? I mean, she canceled one appearance vs. made it to a gazillion? It’s a very gendered form of attack given women suffer migraines 3 times as much as men, and that she’s been mocked mercilessly for supposedly suggesting that her migraines are worse on the days she’s worn high heeled shoes.
    Uh, it’s that unreasonable to suggest that you might have a maximum capacity for discomfort? That if your feet hurt like hell, you might be more agitated by your head hurting like hell? It’s well-established that migraines can be triggered by physical stress. Jumping around in stiletto heels doesn’t qualify as physical stress? You might want to literally walk in her shoes some day, smug fauxgressives of the internet.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  10. Travis wrote:

    The “doomsday scenario” school of political analysis is the laziest. I assume the reason she’d be unfit to be president is because there’s a hypothetical where she’ll be in a negotiation with a foreign power on the brink of war and suddenly have to go lay down in a dark room for three hours and start WWIII. Or she’ll just be 420 HIGH ALL THE TIMEZ and won’t be able to do anything.

    It’s like you said: she’s been dealing with it up until now, hasn’t seemed to affect her performance as an ignorant fearmonger. It simply isn’t our business.

    I do disagree with this statement though:

    “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”

    In some places, anti-depressants and other mental health medications are still a major stigma.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  11. 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.

    This quote fucking infuriates me. I was diagnosed with chronic migraines this year (after 15 years of being told I had chronic sinusitis), so I’ve been learning all about what current migraine info is. All those pills described? ARE STANDARD MIGRAINE TREATMENT. There are three types of migraine medications: 1) preventative, which is to lessen the frequency of attacks; 2) abortive, which can stop the migraine from progressing if taken early enough; and 3) rescue, which alleviate pain and/or nausea on the days when #1 and #2 don’t work. She has pills for all those stages because THAT IS EXACTLY HOW YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO TREAT MIGRAINES WITH PILLS. Sorry for getting shouty, but as someone who has a couple chronic medical conditions (and the ultimate chronic medical condition of being female, natch), the “pills are bad” argument makes me breathe fire.

    Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  12. Sarah wrote:

    Thank you for writing this! It was beautifully written, and absolutely valid. I believe Bachmann (and her husband) is a right-wing nutjob, but migraines? Please. Stop being lazy, and attack what’s wrong with her politics, not a medical condition she has to contorl. Migraines are a form of torture, I swear, and to beat down on anyone who manages those and a successful career (well-intentioned, moral, or whatever else) is pathetic. This woman shouldn’t be President, but her medical records have nothing to do with that.

    Monday, July 25, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink
  13. Victoria wrote:

    OMGZ she takes ABORTIVE migraine meds. Does this mean she’s pro-abortion!? gasps.

    political campaigning continues to get more and more absurd by the passing minute.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink