Sarah Palin, False ProphetS

According to the cover story in the latest Newsweek, even if Sarah Palin never runs for office again, she can single-handedly change the face of politics by instructing her loyal army of "conservative feminist" mama bears how to vote. Shudder.

Writes Lisa Miller, "[H]er pro-woman rallying cry, articulated in the evangelical vernacular, together with the potent pro-life example of her own family, puts Palin in a position to reshape and reinvigorate the religious right, one of the most powerful forces in American politics. The Christian right is now poised to become a women's movement-and Sarah Palin is its earthy Jerry Falwell... With her new faith-based message, Palin gathers up the Christian women that traditional feminism has left behind."

Hoo boy. That's a lot to take in, first thing in the morning.

I already covered what I think of "Sarah Palin Feminism," but once more with feeling: Feminism did not leave conservative Christian women behind. Conservative Christian women rejected feminism. This is not a trivial distinction.

Here's a story. My late dog, Lucille, hated bananas. But more than that, she hated my dad's late dog, Guinness, getting anything edible that could be hers. So one day, my dad drops a banana chunk on the kitchen floor, and we both watch Lucille pick it up in her mouth, make a face, then drop it again. Guinness swoops in for the banana chunk, at which point Lucille immediately picks it up again — only to remember it grosses her out and drop it. But then Guinness moves in once more, so she growls and picks it up. Except... still gross. Drop. Swoop. Grab. Ew! Repeat. Comedy gold, as long as you had nothing invested in that banana chunk.

This is what I think of whenever I hear people talk about conservative Christian women "reclaiming" feminism, or blaming those mean and nasty "traditional" (read: "actual") feminists for keeping them out. You don't even want the fucking banana. But you'd rather turn it into a lump of mush that nobody wants than let anyone else have it.

It doesn't help when people say things like, "You hate to say it, but mainstream feminism has had an antireligious bias for a really long time" — which R. Marie Griffith, author of God's Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission, does to Miller. That is precisely the opposite of the point, which is that many organized religions — and evangelical Christianity is certainly among them — have an anti-woman bias. So historically, folks have found it difficult to believe simultaneously in full gender equality and a god who dictates that, say, wives must submit to their husbands, no matter what. Go figure!

But Sarah Palin and her loyal fans are changing all that, by crafting a "feminism" that says we CAN have it all: Gender equality and obedience to men! Writes Miller, "These Christians seek a power that allows them to formally acquiesce to male authority and conservative theology, even as they assume increasingly visible roles in their families, their churches, their communities, and the world. Palin shows them a path through this thicket of contradictions." So basically, they're doing what women have been doing to get by forever — working outside the home as necessary, fiercely defending their children's interests (if not their own), quietly exercising whatever power they can behind the scenes, acting dumb and making their men look good in public — and calling it The New Feminism instead of The Old Coping Mechanisms.

The patron saint of this movement, evidently, is Queen Esther of the Hebrew Bible, who exercised great power by using her beauty and charm to persuade her husband to do the right the thing (save the Jewish population, of which she secretly was one). As David Gibson wrote at Politics Daily last year, questionable Esther analogies are a big thing in the evangelical Christian community — everyone from Palin to Katherine Harris to Carrie Prejean has been compared to her — and her name now seems to stand for what Griffith calls, "an image that blends this kind of submissive, pretty, aw-shucks demeanor with a fiery power, a spiritual warfare."

As Gibson notes, Esther is an ideal role model for people who feel like a persecuted religious minority, and who, in the words of Anne Lapidus Lerner, director of the Program in Jewish Women's Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, "are interested in seeing women as subservient but not totally powerless, and to see their beauty as something that carries them to whatever modicum of power they achieve."

"Traditional" feminists, on the other hand — those of us who feel like "not totally powerless" is a bit of a lackluster goal for women — are probably more likely to identify with Esther's predecessor, Vashti, who was deposed (and maybe banished or killed) because she refused her husband's demand that she show off her fine body for all the guests at a feast. (Esther won a beauty contest to replace the stubborn bitch.) Lerner points out that "Vashti is the only woman in the Bible who when issued a direct order by a male didn't take it." If you're wondering why feminists and conservative religious folks haven't been BFF over the years, you might start right there.

Oh, but it's so much more fun to blame the dirty liberals."Palin has her faults, but the left is partially to blame for her ascent," writes Miller. "Its native mistrust of religion, of conservative believers in particular, left the gap that Palin now fills." Oh, horseshit. The left has no "native mistrust of religion"; we have a learned, reasoned mistrust of people who would like to make America a theocracy. There is a big freakin' difference between people who just want to practice their religion in peace and people who object to the separation of church and state. (And when the religion in question is hostile to women, feminists get especially upset about the latter.) Creating space between progressive values and the specter of theocracy is not unwisely or accidentally "leaving a gap"; it's a drawing a reasonable boundary.

And this idea that the Christian right has gained so much ground because liberals and feminists are out of touch with the "real America" is fiction, one of the lies they tell to carve a path through their thicket of contradictions. It's actually because charismatic people like Sarah Palin go out there and tell people whatever they want to hear without being bound by logic or facts. If they can inspire pure faith and loyalty, they can get people excited about the idea of a theocracy with liberty and justice for all, and a pro-woman patriarchy, and a unicorn in every pot. That doesn't make any of it real. It doesn't make Sarah Palin a feminist. And it doesn't make the left exclusive and intolerant and out of touch. It just makes people like Sarah Palin powerful enough to tell lies and have a substantial number of people believe them.

Saint Sarah [Newsweek]

Related: Another Winner On Tuesday: The Palin Endorsement [Time]
Queen Esther's Legacy: From Hebrew Heroine to Miss California [Politics Daily]
Sarah Palin's Grab For Feminism [Salon]

Earlier: 5 Ways of Looking at "Sarah Palin Feminism"