Bachmann and Palin: New ‘Feminists’ or Not?

The Washington Post has a very interesting article titled, “Evangelical Women Rise as New ‘Feminists,‘” which suggests, in part, that the new face of feminism is that of the socially conservative political figures most notably represented by Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. The article, written by Lisa Miller, begins with a “traditional definition” of feminism, which describes one who favors “abortion on demand, government-funded abortion, redistribution of wealth, same-sex marriage and is antiwar, anti-defense.” This definition was suggested by Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, the pro-life group.

The article continues:

Now, in a reversal, some conservative Christian women are tentatively claiming the feminist label for themselves. In the reframing, feminism has nothing to do with a woman’s right to choose an abortion or with government programs for the poor.

Instead, a “feminist” is a fiscally conservative, pro-life butt-kicker in public, a cooperative helpmate at home, and a Christian wife and mother, above all. Rep. Michele Bachmann is Exhibit A. With her relentless attacks on big government and a widely circulated 2006 video in which she credits her professional success to the submission of her will to Jesus and her husband, Bachmann represents “a new definition of feminism,” says Stephen Bannon, director of “Fire From the Heartland,” a 2010 movie about the female leaders of the Tea Party.

Last year, Sarah Palin connected herself with feminists in a speech — not the kind who loaf about “in the faculty lounge at some East Coast women’s college,” as she put it, but a gun-toting, self-reliant, pro-life Christian woman who credits her gender as the source of her power. Bachmann hasn’t gone so far, but in “Fire from the Heartland,” she talks about why women should engage in the political process. “Women feel it in our gut and in our heart — and that sense is coming over us that something is terribly wrong,” she says.

The article goes on to explain that a religion historian at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, Marie Griffith, believes that, while these women are not representative of traditional feminist categories, they are capturing the attention of women today. “Two generations ago, a conservative Christian woman would have been encouraged to have babies and keep house; work would have been seen as an economic necessity, not a higher calling.”

The argument, Griffith makes, is that women like Bachmann and Palin offer some form of hope for self-described conservative women who wish to “make a difference in the world.”

“Now,” says Griffith, director of the new John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, “I really see evangelicals taking hold of that view that women can speak about righteous godly things, just as men can. They can make an impact on the world. Not only that, they should make an impact on the world.”

While I cannot speak from the position of a woman, I can speak from the position of one who has been studying the work of several scholars engaged in contextual theology who would have serious concerns about the way the term “feminism” is being appropriated (or misappropriated) today.

One of the most pressing issues is that of the categorical use of “motherhood” as a (if not “the”) signifier of womanhood. This, as contemporary scholarship has shown, can be especially problematic in that it limits the horizon of “authentic” gendered identity to those capable, those who have chosen or those who have repeatedly given birth to children. That motherhood itself, as a category, is so narrowly defined by these commentators and politicians as one who conceives and bears a child is also limiting and in need of some further consideration.

Another pressing issue is the ostensible absence of any effort to advance opportunities for women beyond previously conceived categories of gender identity and social roles. If what most qualifies Bachmann and Palin as symbols of the “woman universal” are their advocation of careers, perspectives and social positions that do not develop beyond that of the typically androcentric categories of social positioning, then I would be very concerned about selecting these figures as representatives or icons for more-than half of the national (and global) population.

What does someone like Michele Bachmann have to offer, for example, to a lesbian-identified woman, perhaps even a mother herself, who does not see herself appropriating the strictures of social and cultural identity because such models do not offer her the opportunities to be successful according to those same norms? What does someone like Sarah Palin have to offer, for example, to a young woman of my generation who might or might not settle down into a long-term relationship or have children at such a young age — if ever? Does her identity as a woman therefore depend on these or similarly limited models of gendered identity? What exactly do folks like Bachmann and Palin provide by way of advancement for a population that continues to suffer professional, social and cultural disadvantage in a variety of contexts?

Something about this sort of article suggesting that public figures like Bachmann and Palin (as opposed to someone like the renowned French feminist writer Elisabeth Badinter, see this recent excellent New Yorker profile on her for some background) does not sit well with me. I’d be interested to see what some of the authors over at Women in Theology and others have to say about this type of assertion found in The Washington Post.

Photo: Washington Post
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5 Responses to “Bachmann and Palin: New ‘Feminists’ or Not?”

  1. I agree with you 100%, Dan. I’m not sure what more I could write that wouldn’t just repeat your points, but I bet some of the other WITs could compose a post.

    One thing that arguments like this–“Who says Sarah Palin isn’t a feminist? Who are YOU to define what ‘feminism’ is?”–reveal, I think, is the inadequacy of an ahistorical approach to phenomena like sexism, racism, and any of the other -isms that are generally invisible to their practitioners. If you define *any* position that has to do with challenging the powers/paradigms that be in static, abstract terms (e.g., Let “feminism” equal “abortion rights, anti-war, same-sex marriage, redistribution of wealth”), then of course you can try to say, “Does it HAVE to mean those things? What if someone holds DIFFERENT views? Wouldn’t that make feminists EXCLUSIVIST, when INCLUSIVITIY is what they claim to be about?” You see this happening in arguments about racism (e.g., “How come a black guy can say the n-word, but a white guy can’t? Isn’t that UNFAIR, and isn’t not being racist about being FAIR?”).

    Definitions like that don’t work because things like racism and sexism are only really visible diachronically. And so are basically all things, I think. (“Christianity,” for example.) But as for the -isms, you can’t see them except within a narrative, because they involve above all the systemic and continuous deployment of power on the part of some people over others, and the exercise of power is best viewed diachronically. If you refuse to see the -isms through a historical lens, you risk assuming that you are a neutral observer rather than an actor within that history. Insisting on seeing themselves as separated from that history is what allows Palin et al. to believe that they are not heirs to the very things that feminists before them fought against. Ahistorical definitions also don’t work because, for whatever reason, many people think that confronting such -isms is first and foremost about making everything “fair” rather than about revealing how an apparent “fairness” would actually only compound preexistent inequalities because our concept of what is “normal” actually depends on the oppression of others.

    Anyway, I think the “Conservatives are feminists too–OR ARE YOU BEING EXCLUSIONARY?” kind of line amounts to nothing more than a “gotcha” game; it’s not a serious argument, and it doesn’t show any interest in actually learning more about feminisim. Its only interest is in co-opting a slogan for its own self-aggrandizement–much like those billboards that have been popping up lately, announcing that “the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb”/”el lugar mas peligroso para un Latino es el vientre de su madre.”

  2. mary hartner Says:

    amen sister. I for one am sick to death of women saying I or any other woman cannot be a feminist if we are a Christian.

  3. [...] Christian Family News Here: Bachmann and Palin: New 'Feminists' or Not? « Dating God Don't miss a single post! Subscribe to my RSS [...]

  4. What I find fascinating is the swift move we’ve made from “feminism is a bad word / you shouldn’t identify as a feminist because all it means to Ordinary People Today is that you hate men” to “Bachmann and Palin are feminists and if you deny that you’re being oppressive.” So it’s simultaneously a word that denotes only anti-male radicalism and a word that has no greater meaning than “doing things a woman couldn’t do 100 years ago”?

  5. I started to write a very long comment, but wrote a blog post instead:

    Can you be anti-choice and still be a feminist? Thoughts here: bit.ly/qrJlb3

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