Friday, July 8, 2011

Bachmann, Palin, and the Trouble with 'Evangelical Feminism'

July 8, 2011

Feminists say Bachmann and other conservative women can't join their club. I say the club needs some new ground rules.

When I heard rumblings about Michele Bachmann’s run for the presidency, I got nervous — though not the reasons you might think.

I’m not nervous about the political leanings of the Minnesota senator and conservative Lutheran mother of five. In fact, I often agree with the way she votes. Instead, I’m nervous about ensuing conversations in my circles of feminist friends. As a fish-out-of-water, conservative feminist, I know what awaits the presidential hopeful.

Feminists don’t exactly have the best history of supporting politically conservative women. Even as Elizabeth Dole, Arizona governor Jan Brewer, and Sarah Palin sought to shatter some of the last panes of the American Glass Ceiling, they were derided among secular feminists, and others, for supporting traditional moral and economic values. Essentially, they belonged to the wrong party. And women who charge Democratic men with criminal actions certainly get a different response from those who charge Republicans: think Paula Jones’s reception versus Anita Hill’s.

Feminists of the Jesus-loving persuasion aren’t always much different from their secular sisters, if a recent Washington Post guest column by Rachel Held Evans says anything. The author of Evolving in Monkey Town writes, “As a Democrat, an evangelical, and a strong supporter of women’s equality, I can’t bring myself to call Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin ‘evangelical feminists.’ ”
I want to give the witty and wise Evans the benefit of the doubt, especially since in the paragraph before this, she calls evangelical feminism — the new media moniker for us conservative feminists — “meaningless.” But her “as a Democrat” affiliation seems to support the notion that feminism is a Democrats-only club.

In fact, Evans left me scratching my head even harder when she states, “If [Bachmann’s and Palin’s] ambitions force the evangelical community to confront the mixed messages being sent to young women in churches across this country, then I think their presence in this election is a good thing.”

Evans is right that exposing hypocrisy or mixed messages in our churches is good. But she misses something huge: the opportunity for the feminist community to face its own hypocrisy and mixed messages. Frankly, there’s so much of it, it’s no wonder Bachmann herself has rejected the feminist label.

While Evans may even be right about the meaninglessness of the term evangelical feminist, she’s wrong about why. What might make evangelical feminist meaningless isn’t the evangelical part. Some of us were actually raised evangelical Christians and feminists right in the same buildings: in our churches, our Christian schools, and our Christian homes.
Rather, if evangelical feminism lacks meaning, it’s because feminism today lacks meaning, drifting far from its original goals and tone.

When I was little, my teachers, pastors and Sunday school teachers, mom, mom’s friends, and friends’ moms told me that I could freely use my God-given gifts, form my own thoughts, and create my own stories. These early “feminist” influencers broadened my horizons. They opened up words and worlds for me. They offered huge vistas of what it meant to be a woman, and a Christian. I didn’t have to think or feel or worship or vote a certain way to be both.

Now, instead of being liberating and expansive, feminism offers women something quite narrow, at least politically. Contemporary feminism assumes all women must support and strive for unlimited access to abortion and birth control. Large chunks of today's feminism also support the idea that women should use their sexuality — not their gifts and intellect — to gain power in the corporate and political arenas. Any deviations have to be carefully constructed. Where feminists once fought to fling open doors and even escape hatches, it now busies itself putting women back into tidy boxes.

Whether it’s a conservative evangelical box telling us what or where a real Christian woman is, or whether it’s Rachel Held Evans’s box telling us how a real feminist votes, Christian women — whether or not we call ourselves feminists— must resist attempts to exclude women from full participation in public life. Instead, we must encourage one another in sisterly Christian love. Which, getting back to topic, is what evangelical feminism should mean.

In her Washington Post article “”A privilege to be an ‘evangelical feminist,’ ” Anne Graham Lotz writes that while the term evangelical feminist is new to her, Lotz identifies with it, “if it describes women who are strong, bold, free-spirited leaders inside and outside of their homes, unashamed of their faith in God, his Word, his Son, and his Gospel . . . .”

I concur, but would take it few steps further.

As Christians we are called to lift each other up in the loving and dignifying spirit of Christ, calling out each other's God-given gifts. Combine this with the sort of old school, bare-bones feminism that believes that women are made in the full image of God, therefore deserving to be treated with dignity and equality, and you have the potential to change the world.

In the political realm, evangelical feminists can change the world by encouraging and supporting other women, even when our opinions differ. They can engage in civil discourse and debates, assuming the good about one another even as we disagree. But maybe most importantly, evangelical feminists can change the world by offering the very thing God created us to offer: telling women across the globe that God loves them no matter what, that Jesus' cross frees us from shame and degradation, and that the Holy Spirit transcends restrictions and equips all of us with fearlessness and power, even those among us who have much to fear and little power.

Women reaching women with the Good News of a God who loves them — no matter what they think or how they vote — is the feminism Jesus modeled for us.

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