Feminisms and the Catch-22 of Political Life

My colleague and mentor Karrin Vasby Anderson recently wrote and outstanding piece for BagNews on the redundant visual trope of the crazy eyed woman politician. A trope most recently mustered to depict Michele Bachmann as crazy. Anderson argues that there is:

a troubling trend in which political women are critiqued as crackpots and lambasted as lunatics. This approach relies on a specific set of visual cues that are applied to women of various ages and ethnicities across political parties.

In essence, crazy eyes (as a political tool) drips with an air of condescension and is used to delegitimize female candidates by playing off long dispelled (yet even longer held) suspicions that women are less rational than men. Such attitudes were mainstays of arguments against women’s suffrage,  underpin the modernist notion of the public sphere, and even persist today as a means of discounting the intellectual tenacity of female public figures.

This all sadly points to a continued social bias that prevents women, in the eyes of many, from appearing presidential enough to warrant them as rational candidates. While this is not true of all female politicians, women as candidates face a specific set of challenges their male challengers do not. Often, because of our stereotyped and bifurcated political system liberal candidates and conservative candidates face the inverse outcome of similar political conundrums.

Sarah Palin’s has an ongoing tenuous relationship with feminisms, one that makes visible the  trouble of pop cultured versions of third-wave feminism. The LA Times explains

She’s talking not about your mom’s or Gloria Steinem’s feminism but, as she put it, an ’emerging, conservative, feminist identity.’ [Palin’s] talking not about your mom’s or Gloria Steinem’s feminism but, as she put it, an ’emerging, conservative, feminist identity.

Third-wave feminism is often described as a fragmented movement that has yet to recover/is in the process of recovering/has recovered from the splintering of the second-wave feminist movements. Karrin Vasby Anderson & Jessie Stewart argue third wave feminism makes for extremely difficult intellectual terrain and when it gets lost in the milieu of pop culture, it loses its intellectual integrity. They claim,

This emphasis on self, on personal rather than political empowerment, and on dominance through sexual and/or economic channels is what prompts many critics, feminist and otherwise, to be skeptical about the political utility of third- wave feminist theories—particularly those popularized by the media. (Abstract available here)

The dispute of feminisms in the third-wave struggles over the issue of whether or not feminist goals can be attained by a rugged capitalist individualism that often is entrenched in logics of patriarchy and sexism.

If conservative women stay mored to family and pursue political ambitions later or as secondary to family ambitions (as traditional gender roles dictate) then their political life is always at a temporal disadvantage to their male counterparts. On the other hand, when liberal female candidates pursue political careers with primacy over other choices, they often face criticism and skepticism for not cherishing traditional values. While I contend that these two positions often line up along these political lines, it may be a kind of false dichotomy as these are some of the challenges women pursuing any career face, but the public spotlight simply casts a more visible shadow. In essence, to be feminist or not to be feminist, may no longer be the question. Instead, it is a question of deploying a politically effecacious iteration of feminism, one that may or may not contain the intellectual heritage and sacrifices of the intellectual project of feminism.

Further, I have been perplexed, angered, and intrigued (both as someone who is religious and teaches Gender & Communication) by Slate.com‘s article “Hail to the Housewife” by Libby Copeland. The crux of Copeland’s argument is that an often invoked conservative evangelical edict in the covanant of marriage demands women “Be submissive wives; you are to be submissive to your husbands.'” Though this verse has been translated a multiplicity of ways, the language of submission is popular in many conservative evangelical circles. This leads Slate to wonder if Michele Bachmann, as elected leader, would need to submit to her husbands political will even if such submission causes her to violate her oath of office. Copeland argues,

This apparent contradiction—how you can be leader of the free world and yet subordinate to some guy —has proved no less confusing to the nation’s conservative evangelicals.

The emphasis on male political spouses, from the first dude Todd Palin to scrutiny over Marcus Bachmann’s pray away the gay clinics, suggests the question of male political spouses has a different sort of traction then the awful scrutiny directed at Michele Obama and in the past at Hillary Clinton

What makes the Slate article so frustrating is that is forces either a position of equivalence that argues that the submission doctrine delegitimizes any candidate who takes such a vow and thus forces them to subvert any other oath, including an oath of office, to the will and whim of their husband. Such questions tread very closely to the anti-catholic campaigns that argued that a catholic’s fist duty was with the Pope and as such they were unfit for office and shares a contemporary logic in the anti-muslim views of many candidates, including Herman Cain’s controversial comments about his unease with appointing a muslim to his cabinet.

On the other hand, is it unfair to ask Bachmann a hypothetical question that if her husband’s wishes contradicted her oath of office, what her response would be? This is a disturbing road to go down, because while the question may be fair it is, at one and the same time, sexists and politically charged. What then to we make of political lives, wives & husbands, and vows, submission, and oaths of office? These are the difficult questions that may continue to gain traction as Bachmann enjoys her time charging to the front of the 2012 GOP primary.

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1 Comment

Filed under Cultural Studies, Feminisms, news and Culture

One response to “Feminisms and the Catch-22 of Political Life

  1. cR4zy3yeZ

    But Bachmann really does kinda have crazy eyes. So what do we do about that.

    (Hey wait…those eyes might be the reason for the migraines!)

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