Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Palin, Bachmann and the Role of Women

I have to admit I’m rather fascinated by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, as well as their respective political followings.  There are not a lot of women getting attention in national politics, so it gets my attention when there are several concurrently. 

I respect Hillary Clinton, but I never supported her candidacy for president.  I have a few (female) friends who supported Mrs. Clinton’s run for the White House almost exclusively because of her gender.  That sort of thing is repulsive to me.  I voted for Barack Obama in my former state’s primary and caucus, as well as in the general election.  But he did not get my vote because of his skin color.  Similarly, the absence of a Y chromosome does not make a candidate more attractive to me.  I’m more concerned with policy positions and a candidate’s vision for our country.

So, my interest in Ms. Palin and Ms. Bachmann has nothing to do with simply wanting more women to be elected to political office.  It would be nice to have more gender balance in public office, but that is not my primary interest.  Indeed, I frankly can’t see myself voting for either Ms. Palin or Ms. Bachmann in any election.  Even if they moved to my community and ran for city council, their political philosophies are just so contrary to what I think is good for our country.

Nonetheless, I am just fascinated by their recent political followings.  They each appeal to segments of the electorate that are very conservative on social issues.  Many such voters have historically insisted on “traditional” roles for women.  In other words, such voters often want to emulate the gender roles exhibited in the patriarchal culture that wrote the Old and New Testaments. 

The Gospels do not indicate Jesus taught that women should be subservient and confined to the home.  Jesus radically broke with the cultural customs of his day to teach women outside his family.  We know he was close friends with Mary and Martha.  We also know that in his ministry Jesus traveled in a co-ed group.  Men, as well as women, followed him as he taught about the Kingdom of God.  Some women are thought to have supported Jesus’s ministry financially.  Even after Jesus’s death, women were significant in the early church (e.g., Priscilla, Phoebe), and Paul showed them great respect.  Nonetheless, Bible literalists insist that modern day Americans should emulate the patriarchal oppression of first century Palestine. 

I remember when Hillary Clinton was running for president I heard radio interviews with members of a socially conservative (and up-scale) mega-church in Houston, the city where I lived at the time.  The interviews were aimed at getting the perspective of church members on the candidacy of a woman.  I was astounded that in a prosperous, pro-business city like Houston, the interviewees of this influential church were generally very negative on the idea of a woman running for office. 

A few interviewees (they were all men as I recall) indicated that they didn’t have a problem with a female candidate per se, but Mrs. Clinton was too politically liberal. 

Such views were not surprising to me.  But I remember being very depressed by an interview with a young professional woman who indicated that she could never support a female candidate for office because women were supposed to be submissive and men were ordained by God to be in leadership positions in society.  I didn’t support Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy either, but that young woman’s perspective troubled me greatly.  The logical extension is that women should not have professions, and should not be educated beyond basic literacy because their only avenue in life is to be a wife and mother. 

I am a wife and mother.  And to be clear, I absolutely love those roles.  Indeed, I would even say that I consider them to be my top priorities in life—hands down, no hesitation, no doubt.  I’ve written before in my prior blog that my husband has been a stay-at-home dad for several years, but when we decided one of us should stay home with our kids, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would be the one.  I would have been happy to do it, but we determined that was not the best decision for our family for a number of reasons.  The bottom line is being a stay-at-home mom would not be a repulsive or distasteful job to me.  In fact, I think it would be quite fulfilling. 

To me, having a career outside the home is not about fulfilling ambition.  Frankly, I am not really ambitious in my career.  In practice, I never aspired to be a manager or to be a partner in a firm.  I liked practicing law.  In academia, I have no interest whatsoever in being a dean.  I enjoy teaching and writing.  To me, having a career in law is about using the talents that God in his wisdom gave me.  I am not an egotistical or conceited person, I’m pretty humble.  But on many occasions I’ve been given feedback that I’m very good at my profession.  I’m not sure why God gave me these gifts, but I think he must want me to use them.

I’m not alone in this sort of perspective.  Most of my closest friends are Christians who do not believe women are restricted by God to raising children and being a helpmate to their spouses.  Indeed, in my circle, I have a couple girlfriends who are Christians and also the sole breadwinner of their families.  Unlike my family, they did not plan things that way.  But in the Great Recession, their husbands got laid off and despite tremendous efforts, have not been able to find other jobs.  Their families were fortunate to have the wives’ salaries to support them.  The husbands would love to be back at work, but things haven’t worked out that way.  Despite being Christians (and some are very conservative socially and politically) I’ve never heard any of those families opine that women are not supposed to work outside the home.  These women are talented professionals using the gifts God in his infinite wisdom bestowed upon them.

Similarly, if a woman has a gift for leadership and policy making, I personally cannot fathom that the lack of a penis should be an impediment to her putting those gifts to good use.  But even in the twenty-first century, some people (e.g., Bible literalists) don’t see things the same way.  I admit I don’t understand that perspective.  It doesn’t seem to square with Jesus’s teaching in the Parable of the Talents.  Frankly, I think that gendered perspective has more to do with our culture and less to do with divine teaching, but that is another big topic for another post and another day.

Nonetheless, despite the rigid gender roles insisted upon by some Conservative Christian voters, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are apparently quite popular in such segments of the electorate.  I am oddly encouraged by this development because it could have wider implications for the role of women in society.  If it is ok for women to run for president, surely it must be ok for them to be rocket scientists, entrepreneurs and judges.

But I’m still perplexed.  I don’t understand how Bible literalists find it acceptable to back a female candidate.  Even if she eloquently and passionately expresses views, with which you agree, if you don’t believe God wants women to do anything beyond their roles as wife and mother, then I don’t understand how there can be an exception for Ms. Palin and Ms. Bachmann.  Truly, I would appreciate some insight on this point.

Matthew 25:14-28

“For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey.  Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents.  In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more.  But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’

“But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’

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