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Palin, Bachmann and the Political Feminism of the Right - The Feminist Wire

Palin, Bachmann and the Political Feminism of the Right

As the 2012 Presidential election draws nearer, political observers and frontrunners alike are sure to begin reconstructing new and old partisan paradigms, with hopes of appealing to even the most cooperative of political enthusiasts.  To be sure, many grammars of political principle and reason are already underway.  Of particular interest are those structured around women, namely, who and how women are or ought to be, and what women want or at least should want.  One trending topic in the media is who is pro-woman and what exactly does a pro-woman political agenda look like?  Is it “bra-burning” or “home-making” feminism, or something else in between?  That is, if elected, exactly what kind of work will the politician’s feminism do?  Will it disorient the existing social order, or will it compliment dominant hetero-normative patriarchal socio-political agendas?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are as numerous as open water fish in the Mediterranean.  Nevertheless, election season makes even the most dialectic of thinkers temporarily abort their typical “gray areas” for those that are more “black and white.”  Thus, it is critical to mark out political territory so that it is simultaneously explicit and largely appealing.  However, running for office while gendered (meaning female) also includes choosing a brand of feminism and “milking it.” For some, this means proudly wearing a prepared version of the feminist banner when advantageous and discarding it when no longer needed.  For others, it entails ducking the f-word while simultaneously invoking it through words like “empowered” and “pro-woman,” and statements claiming that women and girls can do “everything the boys do.”

Two women immediately come to mind: Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Yes, I know no official announcement has been made about the former, and the latter doesn’t call herself a feminist, explicitly, although she seems to cleverly conjure the term up when useful.  For better or for worse, Palin and Bachmann constructed a feminist territory—what some are touting as “evangelical feminism”—that I find both dangerous and potentially life-giving.  According to Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and author of God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission, evangelical feminism emerged in the 1970s and was advocated by “Christian women who believed that Jesus was a thoroughgoing egalitarian and that Christian principles were perfectly compatible with the ideals of equality emerging from the Women’s Liberation Movement.”

Although typically left leaning, evangelical feminism, much like feminism in general, is incredibly diverse.  That said there is no holy feminist grail to unearth or religio-feminist doctrine of truth to discover.  Instead, evangelical feminism includes a rainbow of positions.  Griffith argues that the version currently touted by Palin and Bachmann seems almost oxymoronic.  Nevertheless, feminists need to not only make room for it, but also recognize its possible value to the movement.

Palin and Bachmann decidedly do not lean left. What is “feminist” about them, for those who want to use that descriptive, is their belief that God calls women no less than men to fight His battles against Satan on earth. Women hold awesome power as spiritual warriors, in this worldview; they’re not doormats, nor should their godly duties be confined to the domestic sphere. This is its own sort of egalitarianism, to be sure, but it is one far more compatible with the complementarian theology[1] of arch-conservative Protestantism than with the feminism of liberal religion. After all, Bachmann and Palin have both made much of their roles as wives, mothers and churchgoers in a way meant to show that their political leadership will not upend the gender hierarchy so crucial in the conservative evangelical home and church sanctuary.

So, what value have Palin and Bachmann added?  For one, they created a massive space for [white] evangelical women to claim a version of feminism, co-opted or not, as their own—black and brown religious women have been doing this, but I guess that’s neither here nor there.  Two, they found a way for [white] evangelical and other women to see the role of mothering as not only feminist but valuable and empowering (for some of us, feminism and motherhood have long been entwined), thus necessarily filling a maternal void in the [white] feminist movement.  Three, they got their patriarchal counterparts to reimagine feminism, not as anti-status quo, but as complementary to the current state of affairs. (In some contexts, this might be interpreted as rather cunning.  Those familiar with trickster tales may recall how Brer rabbit often deployed calculated trickery, to include making the opponent think he had won, only to undermine and defeat him when least expecting.  Unfortunately, neither Plain nor Bachmann strike me as this revolutionary.  Nevertheless, getting evangelical patriarchs to even begin thinking somewhat positively about feminism is no small feat.)  Four, they made media pay attention to all of the above.

Palin-Bachmann supporters at Minnesota rally

Some may find these moves rather insignificant.  However, in the broader scheme of things they are quite notable.  Palin and Bachmann’s “pro-life” feminism, which holds that “women should have every opportunity that a man has,” except of course the reproductive choice, made feminism accessible to women and men who traditionally interpreted the f-word as nothing short of obscene.  This is a small, albeit twisted, step toward potentially large socio-political changes.  Ears historically closed to all things feminism now have tiny openings—openings that could expand in a variety of ways.  Just to be clear, I’m not fantasying a drastic shift toward the left.  I’m celebrating potential movement from the right.  If the mothers aren’t reformed then perhaps their daughters, sons or grandchildren will be.  Finally, Palin and Bachmann’s feminism provides a necessary response to lingering critiques of second-wave feminism for appearing anti-mother/children/family.

Bottom line: Palin and Bachmann stretched the borders of feminism to include religious women and mothers who are proud of this designation, and who want and can do more.  Of course their model provides a perfect blend of female power and patriarchal duty.  But let’s be clear, women appropriate their religion and politics in ways they see fit.  Meaning, they do not always eat the food they are fed, and when necessary women know how to season it just right so that it works for them.  Thus, Griffith is right to warn feminists of the secular and religiously liberal ilk against dismissing Palin and Bachmann’s movement.  At the very least, there is something for us to learn.  Still, I expect founding evangelical feminist Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, is somewhere hot right now!  Palin and Bachmann’s feminism, although largely appealing to evangelical women and mothers, is not what Mollenkott and others imagined.  She isn’t alone.

When asked her opinion of Palin and Bachmann at a luncheon recently in celebration of the HBO documentary about her life, Gloria: In Her Own Words, Gloria Steinem remarked, “They are there to oppose the women’s movement.  That’s their job.”  In May, feminist writer and founder of feministing.com, Jessica Valenti, argued that Palin’s brand of feminism in particular is as real as…well…the gold jewelry I used to get back in the day from the corner-men on Westchester Avenue in Bronx River, New York.  Luckily for me, as long as the gold-plated color remained untarnished, everything remained all good.  The jewelry was an outward display of my participation in Hip Hop culture.  However, fake dookie ropes and bamboo earrings made me look “fly” only temporarily.  Hip Hop resided primarily in my heart.  In addition to style, language and music, Hip Hop is a way of being, thinking, and feeling.  Feminism functions similarly.  You can’t appropriate the jargon while jettisoning the politics—without simultaneously raising serious suspicions.

According to Valenti, Palin’s feminism “is part of a larger conservative move to woo women by appropriating feminist language… not a realization of the importance of women’s rights.”  She posits,

It’s strategy…Just as consumer culture tries to sell “Girls Gone Wild”-style sexism as “empowerment,” conservatives are trying to sell anti-women policies shrouded in pro-women rhetoric.

An example of what Valenti points out here is evidenced in Palin and Bachmann’s stance on reproductive health and rights.  Both oppose federal funding for abortion and groups like Planned Parenthood.  The myth that women are or at least should be “strong enough” to do it all lies underneath their positions.  At the Susan B. Anthony List’s fundraising breakfast in March 2011, Palin touted,

Our pro-woman sisterhood is telling young women that they are strong enough to handle an unplanned pregnancy and give their children life in addition to pursuing a career and pursuing and education.

And, during a Republican presidential debate in June, Bachmann asserted,

I am 100 percent pro-life. I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve taken 23 foster children into my home. I believe in the dignity of life from conception until natural death. I believe in the sanctity of human life.

Women are “strong enough” to do a great number of things—sometimes all at the same time.  However, Palin and Bachmann miss the point about women having a right to choose to do (or not to do) whatever those things may be, including but not limited to reproduction. In many cases women face multiple unforeseen challenges at once—not because they want to, because they have to.  Further, regardless of recent feminist strides, many women lack the proper resources and support networks necessary for handling said challenges efficiently.  Palin and Bachmann should know.  Both support guns and war, yet, oppose everything from education and healthcare reform to federally funded Welfare and Social Security to increasing the minimum wage. Thus, it’s no surprise their girl-power rhetoric lacks structural analyses.  However, female empowerment platforms that negate the operation of gender, power, class, patriarchy, race, hetero-normativity, systemic violence, etc. are idyllic at best and fraudulent at worst.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the recovery job gap between women and men remains substantial.

During the current recovery, men continue to outpace women in employment. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, men’s unemployment rate has dropped by one percentage point from 10.6 percent to 9.6 percent, while women’s unemployment has increased from 8.3 to 8.5 percent.  Since Labor Day last year, men have gained 85.7 percent of the 1.3 million new jobs on payrolls and women have gained 14.3 percent of the new jobs (1.1 million for men and 0.2 million for women). It is difficult to trace the cause for the slow growth in employment among women. Cuts to state and local government budgets have eliminated jobs that are dominated by women, such as elementary and middle school teachers. For example, according to IWPR’s analysis of today’s BLS report, in the past 12 months, government (at all levels) has shed 450,000 jobs and 304,000 of those jobs (or 68 percent) had been held by women.

What is worse, women make only 69-80% of what men make.  In view of this, Palin and Bachmann offer only an escapist fantasy of power, which masks what still needs to be achieved.  Women and girls need equal and available access to quality primary, secondary, post-secondary and professional education, proper healthcare, jobs/vocation, living wages, bodily safety, Welfare, childcare, equal pay, and Social Security.  It’s difficult to speak of girl power as anything more than will, which is necessary but not enough, without these means.

In short, Palin and Bachmann’s idea of girl power barks loud enough to gain the attention of their constituents, but in reality has very little bite.  Someone needs to inform them that girl power requires more than raised fists, loud chants, Rosie the Riveter poses, the strategic positioning of terms like “sister,” “empowered,” “real women,” pompous talk about child-herding, and misleading innuendos about women not only doing what boys do, but in fact doing it all.  The “Proverbs 31 woman” underpinning their pro-woman-mama-grizzly-empowered-American grammar is not empowered.  She’s an impossible religious fantasy of what many men and some women imagine womanhood should be.  She gets up while it is still dark, and stays awake at night, refusing to “eat the bread of idleness.”  Working day and night with eager hands, she watches over the affairs of her household, and like the merchant ships, brings food from afar for her family and servant girls.  She purchases land to plant a vineyard, makes coverings for her bed and linen garments to sell—all the while caring for the poor and supplying the merchants with sashes.

I don’t know a single woman or man who can or even wants to do all of this—with or without proper resources and support.  According to womanist biblical scholar, Renita Weems, the Proverbs 31 woman is merely a template for womanhood.  In her essay, “Who Can Find a Virtuous Husband – Part 2,” she quips,

What man wouldn’t want a wife who is prepared to sacrifice her sanity, health, and life to care for her husband and children? I would love to have a wife like that myself. It’s the kind of poem many Christian women have been made guilty for not living up to. It’s the kind of poem men, Christian and otherwise, walk around with in their heads whether they know it or not as a template for womanhood.

To be sure, Palin and Bachmann’s feminism teeters along one too many disempowering danger zones for me.  Their policies (Palin/Bachmann) on reproductive health and rights, healthcare, immigration, economic recovery, marriage and same-sex domestic partnerships, education, global warming, taxation, foreign policy, gun control, homeland security, unemployment, union organizing, Social Security, Medicaid, affirmative action, the separation of church and state, clean air, and Welfare, do nothing to aid women’s rights and quests for human fulfillment.  Yet, something about their movement is eerily life giving (not enough to trump the bigoted aspects or gain my support, but certainly enough to stop and take notice).  As retrograde as I think their brand of “conservative feminism” is, and as much as their policies make my head hurt, I find their strategic demarginalizing of motherhood incredibly appealing.  Feminists, take note.

As a left leaning mother of two, I believe in prioritizing the special needs of children–for example, unwavering parental love and focused blocks of time, economic stability, safety, access to superior educational means, proper health care and insurance, communal support, etc.  However, feminism sometimes feels antagonistic toward my decision to place primacy on my children’s development.  This is off-putting to say the very least.  Thank goodness my feminism developed long before I knew what feminism was.  It was ingrained in me through the socio-political praxis of everyday black American women who never even uttered the word ‘feminist’ in my presence.  Their love for self, family, community, and their faith traditions (many in black American communities see the religious community as a secondary family) were unspoken, but nevertheless decidedly conspicuous and undoubtedly political.  “Mama grizzlies” of sorts were around long before Palin or Bachmann hit the scene.

Nevertheless, their appeal to motherhood is without a doubt refreshing. Problematically, it’s equally solipsistic and out of touch.  Palin and Bachmann could learn a lot from the unnamed women of my youth. Obviously, setting up a meeting between them is impossible.  The good news is, there is an entire discourse on the radical politics of  black women/black churchwomen by womanist scholars such as Jacquelyn Grant, Delores Williams, Katie Cannon, Kelly Brown Douglas, Emilie Townes, Renita Weems, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, and countless others.  Each provides insightful frameworks for articulating feminist/womanist standpoints within the Christian faith tradition, none of which are antithetical to mothering.  However, reading, and reading black women’s literature no less, probably isn’t their cup of tea.  So…since Palin and Bachmann are pushing a brand of feminism that is commensurate with Christianity, I suggest they have an honest talk with actual living black churchwomen—who quite often, although most times privately, represent a range of complex feminist identities that are likely a lot more radical than Palin and Bachmanns.’

If these suggestions don’t pan out, and they probably won’t, I propose Palin and Bachmann turn their attentions to Kenyan Presidential candidate, Martha Karua.  Although, doing so might seem “anti-American” and is also unlikely to happen.  The voting pubic can learn a lot about feminist politics, not to be mistaken with the political feminism of Palin and Bachmann.  In the meantime, a final word to Palin and Bachmann:

Dear Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann,

Thank you for reiterating that women and girls can do anything, and for creating space for evangelical women and mothers to claim feminism as their own.  For these things I am truly appreciative. Unfortunately, this is the extent of your contribution to the Women’s Movement.  In case you didn’t know, feminism is more than a social stance or sister-girl jargon.  It requires taking risky political positions that enable women and girls to experience the quality of life that they deserve.  Vexingly, you have not come to the political part yet.  To be sure, empowered talk is needed.  However, empowered action must follow.  It’s high time your politics catch up with your grammar.

Sincerely, Tamura A. Lomax



[1] “Complementarianism” is the view that God designed men and women not to be equal but to be complementary, with men as the leaders and women as helpmeets.