Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly

A side point jumped out at me while reading this story in The Economist. The author asserted that evangelical women like Michele Bachmann, Nikki Haley, and Jan Brewer turn to politics because it is easier to thrive there than in “the stiflingly male evangelical subculture.”

The evangelical woman is an endlessly fascinating, complex and usually completely contradictory creature. Molly Worthen captured the contradictions beautifully in her recent New York Times Magazine story, “Housewives of God.” Phyllis Schlafly, the old-guard anti-feminist who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment, is Catholic but is still the perfect political embodiment of the conservative woman’s contradictions. She was a political organizer, a lawyer, a revered figure for both men and women in the Christian subculture, a powerful figure in her own right—and also a wife to a man we’ve never heard of and the mother of six children. (Her husband does not, indeed, merit his own Wikipedia entry, which in modern terms means he fails the test of extraordinariness.)

Yet Schlafly made her career by fighting the notion that women should have careers, saying, “women find their greatest fulfillment at home with their family.” And she felt she could dismiss this glaring inconsistency by listing “mother” as her occupation and saying she cancelled speeches if her husband thought she was spending too much time away. This is the contradiction that nearly all evangelical female leaders have had to embrace, as Worthen demonstrates: You have to lead while claiming that really, your husband is doing all of the leading. You have to repudiate all of the feminist gains that have personally benefited you.

And yet The Economist may be on to something. Perhaps this is changing, and female evangelical politicians are no longer trying to reconcile these contradictions. Am I wrong, or is  Sarah Palin actually the first female evangelical leader who is both firmly entrenched in Christian conservatism and also says you’re a Neanderthal if you think women have to stay home? In her own words to Geraldine Ferraro:

“There are still the Neanderthals out there who pick on the petty, little, superficial, meaningless things—like looks, like whether you can or can’t work outside of the home if you have small children—all those type of things where I would so hope that at some point those Neanderthals will evolve into something a bit more with it, a bit more modern, and a bit more understanding that, yeah, women can accomplish much.”

I realize that more traditional feminists will still scoff at Palin and her “Mama Grizzlies” as inauthentic feminists—and of course the Mama Grizzlies regularly distort feminist history to suit their own ends. But the fact that they’re willing to call themselves feminists seems like a positive step toward dispelling the cognitive dissonance that often characterizes strong Christian women.

About The Author

Alisa Harris

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