From the perspective of her religion, Republican candidate-to-be Michele Bachmann is something of a conundrum. Although she draws much of her strength from her evangelical Christian roots, the strict gender roles that accompany these same roots would seem to preclude her serving as the United States’ commander-in-chief. This, as sociologist D. Michael Lindsay writes in a piece for the Washington Post, creates an unusual but functioning paradox, in which Bachmann can garner political support from evangelicals while seeming to fly in the face of expectations for female members of evangelical communities.
Lindsay chalks this up to what Marie Griffith, a scholar of religion and the author of the extraordinary book, God’s Daughters, calls “practical Christian womanhood.” By couching her campaign as a “calling,” and emphasizing her motherhood at every turn, Bachmann can simultaneously be the most traditional and unorthodox of Christian women. She can (at least according to Lindsay) appeal to moderate voters who would never vote for such an extreme candidate, while remaining the darling of the evangelical movement. The question, of course, is whether, assuming Lindsay is right, this is feminism.
I don’t want to hark back to the debates about whether Sarah Palin “counted” as a feminist – those, to my mind, were polarizing and unproductive in the extreme. But Lindsay’s attempts to categorize what Bachmann is doing as “feminism” are somewhat puzzling. Certainly, it’s potentially groundbreaking, and her presence as possibly the only woman in the 2012 race does show that women are becoming increasingly accepted as viable candidates on both sides of the political aisle. However, the premise that the fact that she is a woman running for president makes her a “feminist” does not necessarily follow. It’s not a label that she’s applied to herself.
The term “feminist” is one that can easily cause a lot of political heat. Bachmann appears to be an evangelical woman, rather than an evangelical feminist. As Griffith’s book, which I highly recommend, shows, women of faith tend to reconfigure submission and obedience in ways that are unfamiliar to liberal feminists, which may be one reason that when someone like Bachmann enters the political stage, she must be labeled as a feminist, rather than another kind of evangelical woman. I don’t think Bachmann is a feminist. But she is a fascinating case study in how evangelical women position and articulate themselves within apparently immovable gender roles – and examining (although not necessarily emulating) her trajectory should be fascinating and instructive for anyone who does consider him or herself a “feminist.”
Photo by Gage Skidmore.