Is evangelical feminism an oxymoron?
A slew of writings has recently emerged about the "evangelical feminism" represented by women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Since I studied women like these for my first book, "God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission," I've been on a few reporters' call lists for commentary. A lot of confusion remains, however, and I hope I can contribute something more substantial to this discussion.
First, everyone should realize that the version of evangelical feminism we're witnessing in current Republican politics is a far cry from this term's original meaning. As Pam Cochran has written in her important study, "Evangelical Feminism: A History," the movement in its earlier form emerged in the 1970s. Its promoters were 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. While evangelical feminism has taken a number of different directions since then, it typically leans moderately left on most political issues, which is one reason why it has captured the wrath of hardline complementarians like Wayne Grudem and John Piper. ("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.)
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 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.
To the feminists who make their homes in secular or religiously liberal circles -- such as member of the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the Center for Women's Global Leadership, the International Alliance of Women, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights -- women like Palin and Bachmann represent a dangerously regressive form of womanhood: a sort of capitulation to the hierarchical gender norms of yore. Even to hear them called feminist feels anathema, especially since their politics show a willingness to execute policies that do nothing to empower individual women, men and children on earth. And I expect that many of the earlier evangelical feminist pioneers (the late Nancy Hardesty, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, etc.) have been just as unhappy to see the media now using this term with no apparent recognition of its origins.
The more interesting phenomenon here is to see how surprised so many pundits continue to be at the fact that so many American women and men actually LIKE newfangled evangelical feminists such as Bachmann and Palin. Of course they do! These women embody that combination of conventional beauty (with a wink of sex appeal), earnestness, piety, accessibility and steely certitude of their own godliness that comprises the highest ideal of white conservative evangelical womanhood today. They're like those pretty, popular girls at church camp by whom awkward girls like me hoped to be acknowledged, or even (gosh) befriended. Always, the boys liked them best, but you felt cooler just basking in their aura. If these girls accepted you, you knew you were OK.
Palin and Bachmann are also excellent at embodying the female victim: a woman who works hard to make it on her smarts and hard work but who gets criticized for her looks and scorned as a dumb girl, over and over again. Liberals may scoff at Palin's criticisms of the lamestream media's obsessive derision, but she's frankly got a point. I am no fan of the political programs of either woman, and yet -- I'll admit it -- the appallingly sexist mockery of them has more than once inspired me to identify with them against their smug denigrators. For me, raised by a feminist mother and a feminist myself since adolescence, that's saying something.
Even today, many American women from all walks of life experience feelings of degradation that stem from the socialized devaluation of their femaleness. Conservative and liberal women alike endure subtle forms of misogyny every day. In my experience, sharing these war stories is one practice that bridges women across many other kinds of social divides. For evangelicals, to be persecuted is to be blessed; and the more Palin and Bachmann are belittled (rather than civilly debated), the greater their popularity. Surely, we are smart enough to understand that.
Perhaps we should take heart that the evangelical feminism represented by Palin and Bachmann is so wildly popular among segments of conservative Americans. Even if its appeal is as much about style as about substance, a door has opened that will not be easily shut. There's no reason why feminists of another, more progressive sort couldn't take a lesson here, if we pause to consider what it may be.