Michele Bachmann, evangelical feminist?
June 27th, 2011
06:09 PM ET

Michele Bachmann, evangelical feminist?

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

(CNN) - If Hillary Clinton, the woman who came closest to becoming a major party presidential nominee, is a feminist icon, could something similar be said of Michele Bachmann, who officially launched her presidential campaign on Monday?

Bachmann is seldom described in those terms; the conservative Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party darling might cringe at the feminist label.

But some religion and politics experts say that she exemplifies an evangelical feminism that is producing more female leaders in Christian nonprofits, businesses, and education and politics, even as more traditional gender roles prevail in evangelical homes and churches.

“It’s not that evangelical feminism is entirely new,” says R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. “But this lack of fear going into top positions of power is new and astonishing and exciting for this segment of the population.”

Though evangelical women have long been involved in political activism, including helping to lead the temperance movement and campaigning for and against women's right to vote, seeking the White House is a more recent and dramatic step.

“It’s a trend that was started by Sarah Palin,” Griffith said, referring to the former Alaska governor, who was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.

D. Michael Lindsay, a scholar who has studied evangelical leaders, says that evangelical feminism largely followed the trend in secular feminism, even if it was delayed by a decade or so.

“Evangelicals are not traditionally the innovators in gender roles, so they’re not going to be at the vanguard,” says Lindsay, who was recently appointed president at Gordon College and who wrote the book Faith in the Halls of Power. “But they also don’t trail too far behind.”

Lindsay says that evangelical feminism took off in the 1980s, pointing to Ronald Reagan tapping Elizabeth Dole, a Christian with strong connections in the evangelical world, to be his secretary of transportation as one example.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, appointed evangelical women to top roles in his presidential administration, including Karen Hughes as a top adviser and Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.

At the same time, there are distinctions between evangelical and secular feminism. Many female evangelical leaders, for instance, talk of being called by God to pursue professional careers.

“This idea of women being out in the world when they’re doing God’s work – that’s the key,” says Griffith, who is author of God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission. “You have to be called.”

Bachmann, an evangelical Lutheran, has talked of being called to run for president.

“When I pray, I pray believing that God will speak to me and give me an answer to that prayer, and so that’s what a calling is,” she told CBS News on Sunday, explaining that she had prayed about her decision to seek the presidency. “If I pray, a calling means that I have a sense from God which direction I’m supposed to go.”

Another difference between some evangelical and secular feminists is a public emphasis on motherhood. Bachmann’s political identity is constructed largely around her role as a mother of five kids and her experience of taking in 23 foster children.

Palin, who was raised in the Pentecostal tradition, has also emphasized her role as mother, frequently discussing her children and famously using the term “mama grizzlies” to describe female political candidates for whom she campaigns.

Lindsay says that the motherhood angle could be refreshing to evangelical voters, who constitute a majority of the Republican electorate in early states like Iowa and South Carolina.

“A lot of male evangelical politicians have trumpeted family values, but we’ve seen time after time how many break their marriage vows and have tense relationships with their kids,” he says.

“When you’re the mother of four or five kids up there talking about how their commitment to politics stems from your commitment to kids, which is true for both Palin and Bachmann, that resonates with people who are skeptical of American politics.”

The emphasis that some women evangelical leaders place on motherhood appears to be connected to women taking on more prominent roles in the antiabortion movement, which is closely tied to the evangelical subculture.

“There were a lot of women who were representing the old guard abortion center feminism and there were very few pro-life women who were credentialed in state legislatures and running at the federal level,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List, describing the organization’s founding 20 years ago.

Dannenfelser’s group works to elect women candidates who oppose abortion rights, raising roughly $11 million in the 2010 election cycle.

“The constant line from Jane Fonda and Barbara Boxer on abortion was ‘You can’t possibly know how a woman feels - how dare you speak on an issue you have no knowledge of,'” says Dannenfelser, referring to the pro-abortion rights actress and U.S. senator.

“Now we have women communicating the truth of the matter, which is that abortion is really destroying a lot of women,” she says.

Though Bachmann is widely considered to be a long shot for the GOP nomination, a weekend poll from The Des Moines Register had her running second only to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney among likely Republican caucus-goers, with 22% support.

Even as more evangelical women pursue top jobs in politics, there is little sign that they will be invited into similar roles in evangelical churches, which continue to be led by men, with some exceptions. Some evangelical denominations, including Southern Baptists, have recently moved to put more restrictions on women serving as pastors.

“It seems to me that most evangelical congregations make a sharp divide between the sacred and secular realms,” says Lindsay, “so that church is the last context where you’ll see women in ordained roles.”


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Filed under: Politics • Sarah Palin

soundoff (3,401 Responses)
  1. fundies

    she's gay.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Zelda

      If she is then she is surely going to hell.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  2. lance corporal

    evangelical feminist = oxymoron

    June 28, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  3. James

    Did Evangelical-feminists have a "face" before this article was written? Thanks for attempting to give them one, cnn.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • NorCalMojo

      I think it's CNN code for:

      "It's change the focus of our woman bashing from Palin to Bachman"

      June 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      I think it's CNN code for:

      "It's time to change the focus of our woman bashing from Palin to Bachman"

      June 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  4. Jasper Wrath

    "Evangelical Christian" and "Feminist" in the same sentence? Sounds like someone needs to take a further look at what "feminism" really entails - namely, empowering women and establishing their equality with men in all aspects of society, the workplace, and the law. I have never come across an evangelical church that can claim to treat women equally. The very nature of their beliefs preclude that possibility.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • P.J.

      Do you honestly think that Hillary Clinton would have been elected a US Senator from New York and later become the Secretary of State if she had not rode the coat tails of her womanizing husband? She'd be a professor at some college, and that would be about it. At least Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin got to where they were on their own. Blinders seem to be a critical piece of attire for liberal feminists these days.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  5. JoJo

    The Repubs are reaching so hard these days, but it's just one clown after another. So old and out of touch, it's nearly pitiful.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  6. Doug

    Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't the feminist movemnet a liberal agenda. All we got out of it, is women that look like Arnold Schwartzeinegger. Who wrote that headline, a twenty year old intern? Doug.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • cregis

      Well, Doug, you obviously were not asked what kind of birth control you used or to turn around and let me look at your shape, as I was in the 1970's for a job as an attorney.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Peace and long life

      yea alot of good came out of the feminist movement. But like with any thing it goes too far. But at least women are more respected now. What I mean by too far is things start to look like a joke when things get beyond fair or practical..

      June 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  7. VIC

    Another DOOM case ! So Sad/.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  8. Dale

    Just what we need. Another politician who believes in a silly fairy tale.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  9. Vonteller

    Go BACHMANN, and take this country from the hands of the TECHNOPHOBE MORON IN THE WHITE HOUSE. BACHMANN2012 restoring America as the beacon of hope once again

    June 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • VIC

      and a DOOM case it is.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • bachmanntwit

      Surely you jest

      June 28, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Ugh

      ...and the downward spiral continues.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Peace and long life

      yea i would love to see that presidential debate. My stomach would be sore for weeks. FROM LAUGHING AT BACHMANN!

      June 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  10. Eb

    "Evangelical" and "Feminist" are two words that are polar opposites... since the traditional "Evangelical" role for a woman is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. face it folks, Bachmann is just another Palin; a semi-photogenic person cashing in on a niche' that the angry, hypocritical faction of the lily-white far right wing has created in response to the black guy in power.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  11. AG

    Evangelical Feminism? Seriously? I hate that the media defines evangelism as something totally different from what it actually is. I'm an 'Evangelical Christian' and the Tea Party, Michelle Bachmann and the GOP at large DO NOT REPRESENT ME!

    June 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  12. boka

    She gives women in politics a black eye.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • VIC

      I thought that they all had black eyes...

      June 28, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  13. Peace and long life

    really, why are you giving evangelicals a bad poster child. this woman is not in reality. Remember those bad high school debates you would see in movies. Ya know where they spit out a few buzz words and shout something dumb at the end and everyone cheers cuz it sounded good. Yea that's probably a more accurate analogy of snapshot of what Bachman is that evangelical feminism.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  14. Skeptic

    She is too hypocritical about her farm subsidies for me to take her seriously.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  15. Art

    Bible's pretty clear...we should know them by their fruits.

    The problem is that the "fruits" have been given an Americanized twist.

    Humility, compassion and love have been exchanged for power, influence and wealth as benchmarks of the faith.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Ugh

      The Bible is "clear?" WRONG on *so* many levels.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  16. George Guadiane Austerlitz, NY

    So, is she the new/next Anita Bryant?

    June 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  17. wial

    I suppose progress is progress, even in the backwaters of our culture. Anything that alleviates the oppression of women is good, even if it means magnifying the ideology that caused the oppression in the first place. Once the patriarchal hierarchies start to break down, the authoritarianism at its heart will start to lose energy. Unfortunately though there are some things that just can't make the jump to modernity, any more than theories of the sun rotating around the earth can be used for astrophysics. Some might claim that can work, but that doesn't mean it really does.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • cregis

      I think a lot of the hatred against Obama is because he is not a white male. He is the object of the white male's fear that they are being pushed aside. It's about time.

      June 28, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • David L.

      "Progess" for the sake of progress isn't always progress, depending on how you look at it. Assuming Bachmann gains and remains a serious contention in this election, and even if she wins, would be a big win for feminism, and a big win for women's rights in an otherwise male dominated world.

      Unfortunately, her views on civil equality show me that anything she would do in office would be counter-productive to the progress she made for women everywhere.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  18. Willyboy

    Oh! for pity's sake, CNN get this vile creature's demented visage off your main page.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  19. Marie Kidman


    June 28, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • SnarkyMom

      Yes, butterfly. We get it.

      June 28, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    Unfortunately Bachmann is Tea Party damaged goods. Anyone who wants to represent all Americans would have spoken out when the Tea Party marched around the country displaying and chanting the most hateful and racist things and screaming "kill Obama" and Bachmann said nothing but continues to embrace their beliefs.

    June 28, 2011 at 11:49 am |
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