Feminism in Disguise By Cynthia Garrity-Bond


Recently CNN ran a feature article on GOP presidential runner Michele Bachmann, an extreme conservative congresswoman from Minnesota, whose political ideologies are shaped and endorsed by the Tea Party [http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/27/michele-bachmann-evangelical-feminist/.]  The article raised the question if Bachmann, like Hilary Clinton, could be considered a feminist icon, with the distinction of Bachmann as an “evangelical feminist.”  While the article gives a brief history of evangelical feminism, starting with the appointment of Christian conservative Elizabeth Dole during the reign of Ronald Reagan, a huge assumption is made by not clarifying what, exactly, is a feminist and what makes one a feminist?  This sin of omission thus renders the term “evangelical feminist” as a binary coupling that locates feminism to a 1970’s reformist notion of women’s equality with men, but men in their shared social status. While Bachmann may object to being identified as a feminist, I find it interesting that the writer for CNN has no difficulty (or sense of clarity) with the consideration of her as a feminist.  What, I wonder, in Bachmann’s political trajectory is considered “feminist”?

In Feminism is for Everybody, author bell hooks takes to task what she identifies as “lifestyle-based feminism” which hooks argues, “suggest[s] any woman could be a feminist no matter what her political beliefs.” Enter Michele Bachmann and her beloved Tea Party. Admittedly the Tea Party is all over the map in their ideology, yet a few constants can be teased out.  For example, they overwhelmingly disapprove of President Obama’s policy of engaging with Muslim countries.  They support Arizona’s immigration laws, feel gay and lesbian couples should not be able to marry, global warming is simply made-up, the repeal of the Health Care legislation, repeal of minimum wage, and reduction or elimination of reproductive rights for women and men.  All of which begs the question, can an individual who invest in a political ideology of extreme nationalism while further excluding those on the margins through racist immigration laws, homophobic fears, classist response to the poor and sick while promoting a misdirected Biblical position of dominance of the earth and its limited resources be consider a feminist?

Recall in the last post Rosemary Radford Ruether’s understanding of feminism as “a critique of patriarchy as a system that distorts the humanity of both women and men.” One form of distortion arises when patriarchy co-opts feminism as power gained through the exploitation and oppression of others.  In what hooks identifies as “power feminism” of the 90’s, wealthy white heterosexual women became the icons of feminist success by appropriating feminist jargon while sustaining their commitment to Western imperialism and transnational capitalism. Which goes back to my initial point, we must clarify what we mean when we use the word feminist or feminism.  Is it a chameleon-like identity or a political movement that seeks to end sexism, exploitation and oppression of women and men?

Real feminism is hard to sustain, just like any systematic change or shift in behavior.  As feminist theologians we are doubly called to divest in social and religious forms of oppression and domination.  This can place us in spaces of vulnerability and stereotypes, which lead us to the margins of church, academia or activism, all-the-while searching for a home base of solidarity.

While patriarchy will continue in its attempt to co-opt feminism, we must continue to make the distinction between feminism as a life-style and feminism as the systematic dismantling of all forms of oppression which lessen the full humanity of all women and men created in the image of God.


So where do you stand?  What is your definition of feminism and how does it inform your scholarship, activism and daily life?



Categories: Feminism, Politics

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. It would be interesting to find out whether Michele Bachmann would ever consider herself a feminist. Bachmann reminds me of Phyllis Schflaly (and Babette Francis in Australia) to a certain degree in that they both are doing or have done things that feminism has fought for women to do. For example, Schlafly is a lawyer, has written books and is a prominent public speaker and Bachmann is heavily involved in politics. All of these things were once considered inappropriate even for women to consider undertaking.

    What I’ve found interesting is that some conservative women are actually using the label ‘feminist’ to identify themselves but using it in a way that reinforces the roles of mother and wife for women. Such women say they, and others who think in a similar way to them, have the best interests of women at heart because they are not forcing women into unnatural roles or forcing them to do anything like feminism is. I actually believe this is a very clever attempt by anti-feminism to counter feminist thought and change.

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  2. Yes, you are so correct in your analysis of conservative women. Bachmann does not define herself as a feminist, instead she asserts she is “pro women” and “pro men,” which of course is a component of feminism. But again, she and others are benefiting from the heavy lifting done by second wave feminist.

    Additionally the motherhood component seems to be very important for Palin and Bachmann, who as you may know has 5 children and was at various times in her marriage has had 23 foster children. This apparently gives her creditability to function as Commander-in-Chief of a super power nation.

    Your comments solidify the need to reclaim feminism as pro women and men regardless of their life choices, i.e. motherhood, career or both. I also find the conservative women’s points on motherhood to be classist since many, many women (more women of color though) do not have the option of staying at home with their children, which is where the inequality of say labor laws is such a feminist issue.

    Enjoyed your perspective comments!

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  3. Cynthie,
    Thanks for your thoughts on this. Very well said!

    I can’t help but wondering– is there any benefit to women like this claiming (or being assigned) the term feminist? Is there a chance that this will make the term less frightening/off-putting to more conservative non-feminists, if they see political figures they like being labeled as such? Or does the application of this label to these sorts of figures just rob the term of any meaning?

    I ask because in my Mormon feminist groups, we often hash out what it means to be a feminist, and many see advantages in having a pretty big-tent approach.

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  4. Caroline,
    You raise important questions regarding either the assignment or self-identitification as a feminist. I think this is why having a sense of what feminism stands for is so essential and important. I don’t believe co-opting the term is helpful. It’s a slippery slope to dilute the political meaning in order to have a larger umbrella of “feminist.” For example, Pope John Paul II was identified by some as either “pro women” or “the feminist pope,’ yet his position always found motherhood or virginity to be the true calling of women. While he does a good job of raising the status of women, it comes at a very high price where biology determines destiny.

    So to answer the question, is the word robbed of any meaning when its definition or understanding is a “big-tent approach,” I would say yes it is harmful and underserves the end goal of feminism by a limited understanding of sexism, domination and oppression.

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  5. These are such great posts! I don’t know where to start. I think, after meeting Michelle Bachmann’s brother while canvassing for children’s obesity and food subsidizes that she would not define herself as a feminist because of the cultural, political, and social ramifications it would have on her career as an elected Republican official.

    Michelle does remind me a lot of Phyllis Schflaly and like with Sarah Palin, if Bachmann does not win the Presidential nomination or she simply drops out, she will become the 21st century reincarnation of Phyllis (moreso that Palin in my opinion).

    I have been having this discussion with quite an interesting group lately. We have such a diverse field for the GOP because on one hand we have a Mormon man who is trying to become President and a Fundamental Christian woman. Which one is better? Who will win?

    What I postulate is that if the GOP thinks they can win, they will nominate Romney (as scary as that is to me) if they don’t, and what this then means for women we can all guess, they will nominate Bachmann. Either situation is a win win for the GOP. If they nominate Romney and win they will have beaten Obama and taken control of the White House for 4 more years even if Congress goes back to the Democrats. If they nominate Bachmann and she loses, all the Republican men specifically will be able to give themselves a “pat on the back” for making history. If they happen to win with Bachmann then they really have something to celebrate.

    Either way, I fear, that feminists, people of color, the GLBTQ community, as well as many others will lose out. I do not even know who I prefer but all I know is that D-Day is fast approaching and either way, we will all soon know if the White Mormon man beats the Christian Minnesotan Fundamentalist or the other way around for the Republican Presidential Nomination.

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  6. I forgot to mention what I ultimately fear is a “Romney/Bachmann” ticket.

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