Fighting (Over) Words: What is an Evangelical Feminist?

Last week R. Marie Griffith had an excellent piece at The Huffington Post on the “new evangelical feminism,” in which she shows why “everyone should realize that the version of evangelical feminism we’re witnessing in current Republican politics is a far cry from this term’s original meaning.”

Indeed, since my own book Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles is about the lives of those who fought for a place for religiously conservative women who felt called to leadership, I have cringed as I have heard pundits refer to Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann by this label. (You can read about the movement and the recent death of one of its founding mothers here.)

Evangelical feminists, or Biblical feminists as they are also sometimes called, were not just women who became leaders but women who fought (and continue to fight) for women’s equality in every sphere of life.

Another of the founding mothers of the movement, Letha Dawson Scanzoni, told RD:

This application of the term twists the meaning of both “evangelical” and “feminism.”  It equates “evangelical” with a far right political ideology rather than its historic definition. And it equates “feminism” simply with a woman’s running for public office even though she may deny full equality and autonomy for women in other areas of life.

As early as the 1980s, pollsters began to see the rise of what they called a gender gap in voter behavior; women disproportionately supporting liberal candidates (or men disproportionately supporting conservative candidates, depending on your perspective). Conservatives made note of this trend and sought to shore up their support among women, in part by putting forth female candidates who embraced conservative, and then later tea party, ideology. Sarah Palin’s initial enthusiastic reception among conservative Republican voters is the most notable example of this.

But to women who advocate the dismantling of patriarchy in favor of women’s equality, these efforts look a lot like the assertion that “some of my best friends are black.”

Later this month the “girls” of tea party nation are meeting in St. Louis for the “Smart Girl Summit.” Honestly, when I first read about the leadership training for conservatives at the website Smart Girl Politics and at the Smart Girl Summit, I thought it was leadership training for girls—probably homeschool and Christian school girls. No. Girls, as in adult females.

Sponsors of Smart Girl Summit include tea party-oriented Freedom Works, Fairtax, and American Majority, as well as a host of others you can see here. Confirmed speakers at the summit include presidential candidate Herman Cain and founder of the anti-feminist Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafey. Schlafly and co-author Suzanne Venker, will be there for a book signing of The Flipside of Feminism, which focuses on social problems and women’s dissatisfaction they claim are caused by feminism. Attendees will be treated to a screening of Sarah Palin’s new “documentary,” The Undefeated, about her rise in politics, opening in theaters not near you this Friday. 

Event sponsor Citizens United will screen its video Fire in the Heartland, which organizers describe as “a film staring Michele Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, S.E. Cupp, and Dana Loesch. The first-ever film to tell the entire story of the conservative woman in her own words… these women are the unintended consequence of the liberal feminist movement.”

Once these girls are all clear on how bad feminism is, they’ll be taught to “fight like a girl” in a workshop on political activism. I am all on board with the idea that the meaning of words is contextual and that words change meaning over time. But when women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann call themselves feminists, it’s not to promote feminism or women’s equality; it’s not just that they mean something different by the term; it’s disingenuous. The intention is really to subvert the term and undermine the values promoted by it in favor of a different set of values. It’s to win the debate, not with a better argument, but to silence their opponents by making language… well… impotent.

jingerso@unf.edu'

Julie Ingersoll is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. She is the author of Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles and is currently writing a book on the influence of Christian Reconstructionism.