Evangelical women rise as new ‘feminists’

July 28, 2011

In evangelical Christian circles, “feminist” has traditionally been a dirty word. The three short syllables have done heavy work, telegraphing all the things the “Christian right” loves to hate about the “secular left.”

A feminist, according to this definition, favors “abortion on demand, government-funded abortion, redistribution of wealth, same-sex marriage and is antiwar, anti-defense,” says Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, the antiabortion group. In this most pejorative view, a feminist puts her personal ambition ahead of the needs of her children.

Now, in a reversal, some conservative Christian women are tentatively claiming the feminist label for themselves. In the reframing, feminism has nothing to do with a woman’s right to choose an abortion or with government programs for the poor.

Instead, a “feminist” is a fiscally conservative, pro-life butt-kicker in public, a cooperative helpmate at home, and a Christian wife and mother, above all. Rep. Michele Bachmann is Exhibit A. With her relentless attacks on big government and a widely circulated 2006 video in which she credits her professional success to the submission of her will to Jesus and her husband, Bachmann represents “a new definition of feminism,” says Stephen Bannon, director of “Fire From the Heartland,” a 2010 movie about the female leaders of the tea party.

Last year, Sarah Palin connected herself with feminists in a speech — not the kind who loaf about “in the faculty lounge at some East Coast women’s college,” as she put it, but a gun-toting, self-reliant, pro-life Christian woman who credits her gender as the source of her power. Bachmann hasn’t gone so far, but in “Fire From the Heartland,” she talks about why women should engage in the political process. “Women feel it in our gut and in our heart — and that sense is coming over us that something is terribly wrong,” she says.

Religion historian Marie Griffith has been watching this shift, and recently wrote an essay titled “The New Evangelical Feminism of Bachmann and Palin.” She caught all kinds of heat from feminists on the left who say that neither Bachmann nor Palin, whom some have dubbed “the spiritual heads” of the tea party, can remotely be regarded as their conceptual colleagues.

While Griffith agrees that these women do not resemble traditional feminists in their political views, she believes that they have captured the hearts and minds of conservative Christian women in a historically significant way. Two generations ago, a conservative Christian woman would have been encouraged to have babies and keep house; work would have been seen as an economic necessity, not a higher calling.

“Now,” says Griffith, director of the new John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, “I really see evangelicals taking hold of that view that women can speak about righteous godly things, just as men can. They can make an impact on the world. Not only that, they should make an impact on the world.”

Nance points out that the abortion wars used to be fought by men. Today, the most prominent antiabortion warriors are Christian women, most of whom have young children.

It’s their focus on motherhood, I think, that makes these new Christian feminists so appealing to millions — their unflinching insistence that their families come first, that even the most ambitious among them occasionally have spit-up on their blouses.

Palin has her entourage; Bachmann, her brood, which includes that staggering number — 23! — of foster kids. Nance describes taking a call from a member of Congress while in her car with a baby screaming in the back seat. “Sir,” she said, “you’ll have to listen to the baby crying — or you can wait.”

The travails of working mothers are not unique to conservative or Christian women. They are disconnected from party affiliation or one’s views on abortion. But these newfangled feminists are savvy politicians. They know that by building a political movement that appeals to America’s working mothers, they are filling a void created by the political left.

Lisa Miller’s column will appear Saturdays on the On Faith page and Fridays at washingtonpost.com in the On Faith section. She will also chat regularly online about her column.

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