In early 2008 when Sarah Palin was chosen as the Republican vice presidential nominee, sociologist Abby Scher examined the flurry of commentary among female Christian conservatives in her article Post Palin Feminism.
The nomination of a “traditional” woman—“She wears makeup. She is pretty. She is an evangelical Christian. She is anti-abortion. She is also White.”—to so high a position publicly unearthed the conflicting views on feminist identity buried within the conservative Christian community.
Older conservative women, powerful voices like Kate O’Beirne and Phyllis Schlafly, who spoke at the 2008 Values Voter Summit that year, were gleeful that Palin’s popularity meant an embrace of anti-feminism and, in O’Beirne’s words, a “prick to the liberal establishment.” Yet younger women viewed Palin as a champion of a kind of feminism they could identify with: a pro-life, pro-family, pro-gun kind of feminism that liberal feminists would find all but unrecognizable but was eye-opening to a new generation of modern conservative women.
The debate over what feminism means, or should mean, to contemporary Christians remains. In Scher’s words, “traditional now seems to be someone who embraces the belief in a heterosexual nuclear family and a conservative Christian embrace of ‘family values,’ not a stay at home mom.” In this post-Palin world, how do women of faith, the kind of faith which preaches submission to men and elevates women primarily in their role as mothers, navigate a world in which many doors to positions of influence outside the home have been opened to them? Christianity Today posted two recent articles by young women on the subject of self-identifying as a Christian and a feminist, one which was for the label and one which was against. However, while more moderate voices debate the subtleties of women’s power in the public vs. the private sphere, the loudest discourse on the conservative airwaves continues to be the extreme anti-feminist and anti-choice rhetoric espoused by high profile conservative women such as Ann Coulter and Phyllis Schlafly. These are conservative women in positions of power who, ironically, never miss an opportunity to brandish “feminist” like it’s a dirty word. They represent a more traditionally repressive view of women’s roles and are opposed to the idea that females are equal to males and believe that equal freedoms should not be attributed to both.
Anti-choice feminists have embraced a calling to fight the liberal claim of pro-choice as the only legitimate feminist stance in the national debate on abortion. Their clear desire is to shout down pro-choice feminists, and hijack the conversation about reproductive justice and spin their hard-line anti-choice views as the ideology that best serves the needs of women. Conservative journalist and news anchor, Colleen Carroll Campbell, in her article titled Pro Life Feminism is the Future, argues that the new wave of anti-choice feminists is a natural reaction to a “decades-long campaign to make feminism synonymous with a woman’s right to abort her child and to marginalize any free-thinking feminist who dares to disagree.” The angle of anti-choice feminism is that feminists are ignoring the “realities” of rampant sex-selective abortion and “partial birth” abortion in the United States and additionally giving women the false choice of abortion or a “future” (either in school or career path).
This past January, Time magazine wrote an article on the erosion of abortion rights through widespread legislative restrictions. In the same issue, they included a section titled Pro-Life and Feminism Aren’t Mutually Exclusive written by none other than anti-choice group Susan B Anthony List’s executive director Emily Buchanan. The Susan B Anthony List, ironically named for one of the most famous feminists in American history, maintains a list of anti-choice candidates and promotes their election and re-election. In June, 2013, SBA-List launched the National Pro-Life Women’s Caucus aimed at “foster[ing] community between pro-life women lawmakers across the country, and connect[ing] them with the resources they need to pass pro-life laws.” Internationally, some key anti-choice activists such as Lila Rose have targeted Europe’s generally pro-choice policies as a challenge to overcome through organizing with anti-choice partners abroad. This past May, both she and Jeanne Monahan went to Rome to participate in the Italy’s third annual March for Life modeled after the American version of March for Life which is now entering its 40th year.
As the younger feminists usurp the meaning of pro-woman, the older generation more resistant to change still values a stricter adherence to the separation of the sexes and a preference for the perpetuation of historical gender roles. They are not interested in closing the wage gap, they revile contraception as an encouragement of promiscuity, and are generally opposed to measures which would create a more egalitarian society. Earlier this year, the military put forward the National Defense Authorization Act for 2014 which allows women into combat situations where they were previously barred and, in theory, could make women eligible for the draft. Phyllis Schlafly, arguably the top opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s and 80s, who bills herself as “the flip side of feminism,” wrote an article in March titled Who is Waging War on Women (answer: the government and feminists). Schlafly treats it as a given that women will be drafted imminently, stating “demands from the feminists for 18-year-old girls to register for the draft are already appearing on the internet.”
In the same vein, speaking on Sandy Rios’s morning talk show, Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness equated allowing women to serve combat roles to cheerleaders being forced to play at football games. This pejorative language ignores the fact that military service is, presently, on a volunteer basis, and that women do presently serve in combat roles in the military of countries such as Australia, Sweden and Israel. These conservative women fight the autonomy of other women to expand freely into the roles opened to them, especially those traditionally held by men, despite paradoxically benefiting from the expansion of professional opportunities.
While quieter discussions about feminism and Christianity continue in the comparatively mild conservative forums in the wake of Sarah Palin’s, and subsequently Michele Bachmann’s, respective campaigns, the loudest voices given space in the public sphere continue to be the most radical.