Saints and martyrs

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, July 18, 2011 11:44 EDT
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One of the great mysteries of Tea Party politics has been the place of female leaders in their pantheon, from the whole coinage of "Mama Grizzly" to the baffling enthusiasm for Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.  It's not that Tea Partiers have suddenly decided their lifelong hostility towards feminism was misguided; Palin and Bachmann's prominence has been accompanied by a dramatic turning up of the volume of anti-feminist hysteria.  Of course, that anti-feminist hysteria has been focused mainly on controlling and punishing female sexuality, which I think gives us a path to understanding what seems contradictory on its surface.  

But when I started to read Roy's column about rightbloggers trying to pretend the latest propaganda film about Palin is some nationwide hit, something clicked.  I realized that Palin's main role is to be a saint and a martyr in the civic religion of Tea Partyism.  Think about it: while the Tea Party is incoherent enough that a lot of people with diverse approaches to being resentful wingnuts feel welcome, the language of Biblical literalism has been amply applied to their illiterate readings of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers.  (It's why I blanch at the word "literalism", which implies having actually read and attempted to understand the text, when what it means is coming to a text with authoritarian leanings and claiming, regardless of the evidence, that an immoveable object or deceased authority supports your contentions. There's nothing literal about it.)  Because fundamentalist Christianity is being wound up into it, the distinction between religious figures and political figures has collapsed. And that explains how women can somehow rise to prominence in a world that quite literally depends on a hyper-chauvinist take on patriarchy as the source of virtue, where a comic book masculinity takes the place of the garments of priesthood. Even in societies where women have almost no real life outside of the home, female figures can be prominent in faith.  In fact, often prominent female figures exist to shore up misogyny—the figures are idealized women who are used to punish other women for being merely human.

Fundamentalist Christianity has mostly missed the train on this, until somewhat recently.  Catholics have it down cold.  I mean, their most prominent female figure is a woman who managed to be both a virgin and a mother—the two ideals of woman a misogynist society holds up above others.  But of course, the two roles contradict each other, so if you're one, you're failing at the other, because the first rule of patriarchy is Women Are Always Failing.  The Virgin's role is to drive home how every other woman who has ever lived is an utter failure.  But Catholicism also has a role for prominent female martyrs, and yeah, virginity is practically a requirement—some died so they could stay virgins.  

Obviously, what's required of female ideals and martyrs changes from culture to culture depending on their needs.  But I'd say that Palin and Bachmann are, for the Tea Party faithful, playing the role of both idealized women and martyrs.  Their popularity depends on using them as a weapon.  They're packaged as hyper-fertile but chaste, sexy without having sexual demands.  So as the Virgin can be used to bash women who can't be both a virgin and a mother, Palin/Bachmann are there to bash women who can't be sexy but chaste, submissive without losing that appealing spark, and able to raise huge herds of children without losing their waistlines or two hours in the morning to get beautiful for their husbands and the world.  Right wingers try to bash feminists with them, but suddenly it occurs to me that they're being venerated for the effect on the ordinary women of the Tea Party faith as much as anyone else.  When right wingers solemnly intone that feminists are jealous, we can laugh because hey, most of us don't see any virtue in the sexy-but-chaste thing, much less the huge herd of kids thing.  (The fertility goddess thing is particularly important during a stampede to force women to link childbirth and being sexual, no matter how unwilling or unable they are to have more children.)  But for women who are involved in that values system and having to traverse the impossible contradictions every day, well…. And hearing the line that "feminists are jealous" would be remarkably effective at tamping down your resentments if you were a female conservative.  You can't point out that Palin/Bachmann are promoting an impossible myth, because next thing you know, you're going to be called a feminist.  And you can't have that. 

And of course, they're also martyr in the Tea Party eye—sacrificed for their devotion to chaste motherhood, just as the virgins of old were forced to commit suicide instead of allow rapists to take your virginity.  Which also means you can't complain, if you're an ordinary woman.  After all, you aren't as brave as the saints and martyrs, right? 

Of course, the question remains, "Why do they give them leadership roles, if they're more idealized women in this civic faith?"  And the answer is, because they have to.  I mean, how else do they show support?  Palin is trying to make it as a more media/commercial figure, but that requires some coverage from the political media, and they aren't going to give it to her if she's not considered, you know, an actual politician.  Bachmann's position is even more precarious.  They need media to feed the faithful, but the media needs politics to consider them relevant.  But also, their ability to be politicians while still playing the submissive wives is just one more contradiction that makes emulating them impossible for ordinary women, and after all, isn't that the point? 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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