Kathryn Montalbano: What is meant by “feminist”–the inherently problematic, unfixed term that often causes pangs of discomfort when mustered as a fighting word–varies not merely across historical and contemporary time and space but also within individual countries and regions. In the 1970s, for instance, the feminist movement in America was starkly divided in the public eye between the likes of sexy Helen Gurley Brown, author of Sex and the Single Girl and editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, and powerhouse Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique who is credited with launching “second-wave” feminism.
Beyond feminists’ self-identification(s), women of political or other prominence are often examined for the degree to which they subscribe to and defend their own femininity. Take Michele Bachmann, for example. The Minnesota Representative officially announced her candidacy for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination on Monday. So far she’s successfully appealed to: A.) fiscal conservatives via her lambast of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan and her commitment to lowering the federal debt, and B.) (social) religious conservatives via directly quoting the Bible, supporting the end of legal abortion and asserting that same-sex marriage should be abolished. The ways in which her evangelical and female identites might collude with her political agenda have begun to surface in the media.
“It’s not that evangelical feminism is entirely new,” R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, tells Dan Gilgoff in a recent article at CNN Belief Blog. “But this lack of fear going into top positions of power is new and astonishing and exciting for this segment of the population.'” Griffith distinguishes secular feminism from evangelical feminism by noting, among other aspects, a distinctive call from God to enter politics, an approval from on high that is hard for resistant constituents, not comfortable with women in positions of power, to deny.
Gilgoff’s article also highlights an emphasis on motherhood in evangelical feminism: Bachmann has mothered 23 foster children in addition to her five birth children. Does Bachmann’s (and Sarah Palin’s) use of motherhood “humanize” the GOPs conservative social platform, noted for its efforts to cut the “least of these,” the poor and minorities, out of “entitlements”? Does “evangelical feminism” leverage progressive, liberal thought or put a female face on predominantly male leadership? Or is it a new form of the Republican brand of populism? Says scholar D. Michael Lindsay,”When you’re the mother of four or five kids up there talking about how their commitment to politics stems from your commitment to kids, which is true for both Palin and Bachmann, that resonates with people who are skeptical of American politics.”
Any surface projections aside, the connection between evangelicalism and the anti-abortion movement remains solidly grounded in desire for legislatively required motherhood. Yet, the gradual convergence of spiritual and political matters that transgressed the American evangelical sphere throughout the 20th century is only now bringing women to the fore of power. Leading women still remain, as Gilgoff notes, an anomaly when it comes to most denominations of the church.
Despite speculation, Bachmann seems to adhere to her evangelical foundation by carving her own path–seemingly diverging from a Palin-esque, self-proclaimed feminism to embrace the gender-neutral catchphrase, “empowered American.” Whether or not we agree with the philosophical and/or religious reasons for her claim of this title, one may more comfortably conclude that by entering the 2012 Republican race in unabashed female form while renouncing her own bodily limitations (in classic Cixous-esque mode), Bachmann may not win the GOP ticket, but she will have the last laugh.