Over the past few weeks various news outlets have run stories on the so-called feminism of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Typical of the media, in order to make that claim, they, of course, had to assume that any woman doing anything in public equals some sort of feminist revolution. It is, however, a rapidly spreading idea. If the concept of successful women must be blamed on feminist action, then successful conservative women must be the result of feminism as well. Granted this new definition of "feminist" is, as Lisa Miller wrote for the Washington Post, "a fiscally conservative, pro-life butt-kicker in public, a cooperative helpmate at home, and a Christian wife and mother, above all." But apparently it's still feminism.
While many from the left were outraged by the idea of associating these arch-conservatives, who stand against many of the things historical feminists have supported, with feminism, others supported the idea. Naomi Wolf, who seems to have a love/hate relationship with feminism, wrote that the problem some have with calling those women feminists is that we don't understand the history of feminism. She argues (rightly in my opinion) that feminism has only become associated with leftist agendas since the 1960's, but was, in its origins, more balanced and open to conservative values. But then she explains her reasoning why:
The core of feminism is individual choice and freedom, and it is these strains that are being sounded now more by the tea party movement than by the left. But, apart from these sound bites, there is a powerful constituency of right-wing women in Britain and Western Europe, as well as in America, who do not see their values reflected in collectivist social-policy prescriptions or gender quotas. They prefer what they see as the rugged individualism of free-market forces, a level capitalist playing field, and a weak state that does not impinge on their personal choices.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that there are many forms of feminism. And I'll even admit that this rugged individualist strain made up of (as Sarah Palin described it) "gun-toting self-reliant women" is, in its own way, a form a feminism. But I am highly uncomfortable with people who, like Wolf, reduce feminism to simply being about "individual choice and freedom" (and I'm not the only one). This reduction is something I encounter in the church-world all the time. Feminist or liberation theology is labeled as merely being about individual rights, and since Jesus didn't come talking about rights but about how we can live communally and eucharistically together as the body, such theologies must be dismissed as simply cultural and therefore unbiblical. Granted, such a dismissal usually allows for the powers that be to continue to assert their own individual preferences and ideas over those of everyone else in the guise of being biblical, but the conversation has already been shut down.
It's like the people who mock or complain about so-called political correctness. They view having to be aware and sensitive to the feelings and situations of other people as infringing upon their rights (like their right to make fun of other people). It's not about loving and respecting others, but about losing their right to oppress. Complaining about other people doing the very thing they're already doing ensures that meaningful conversations that might lead to change never occur.
But, contrary to what those who fear their loss of power might assert, individual freedoms and rights has never been what feminism has been about for me. My affinity to feminism (or postcolonialism or liberationist thought) has always been based on that call to live faithfully as the body of Christ. Loving others as Christ loved us means loosing the bonds of oppression and setting captives free. It means treating people, all people, as image-bearers of God. If that means advocating for rights for some, and for the elite to relinquish some of their power in order to put an end to oppression, then so be it. If that means giving up personal comfort and choices so that I can respect, instead of mar, the image of God in others, then so be that as well. Rights for the marginalized are simply a by-product of the privileged finally attempting to live self-sacrificially as part of the body of Christ. Conversations about feminism or postcolonialism help me become aware of who the people are who need love and what ways I can make myself a living sacrifice in order to do so.
Holding so tight to privilege that one rejects discussions about helping others, or disdains collectivist social-policies that mirror the sort of eucharistic life Christ expects of us, is more in line with rugged individualism than the feminism I have known. Associating feminism with that selfish, individualist, and blatantly unchristian way of living that the far right preaches these days, hurts. Just as I often have to say in response of some far-right Christians' attempts to neglect the poor, destroy God's creation, and keep people captive, that that sort of Christianity has little to do with the message of Jesus I find in the Bible, I guess I now have to start saying to the rugged individualist feminists that I am not that sort of feminist. Palin and Bachmann can have their "it's all about me and my privilege" feminism, but, as a Christian, that has nothing to do with me.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.