What Feminism Owes Phyllis Schlafly


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Despite having studied in the USA, I first heard of Phyllis Schlafly this September when I read “Freedom Feminism: It’s Surprising History and Why It Matters Today,” penned by another political powerhouse, Professor Christina Hoff Sommers. 

Schlafly’s story leapt off the pages like a novel. Born into a Catholic family in St Louis, Schlafly’s parents struggled to keep their family afloat during the Great Depression. She worked gruelling night-shifts in a munitions factory to fund her college degree. She earned two postgraduate degrees, published prolifically and raised six children with her husband. Even after running twice for Congress and spearheading numerous high-profile campaigns, in true Elle Woods fashion, Schlafly continued to refer to politics as her “hobby.” 

What, like it’s hard? 

Interest in Schlafly, who passed away in 2016, spiked earlier this year when she was portrayed by Cate Blanchett in the FX miniseries Mrs America. The anti-ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) is explored in the series and is what put Schlafly on the political map. 

The ERA waxed and waned in congressional committees since the 1920s, but, by 1970, its ratification seemed imminent. The Bill, which read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” began to command cross-party approval. It was endorsed by Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford, and, by 1972, it passed in both the House and the Senate. 

No one was paying the naysayers much attentionuntil Schlafly entered the ring.

Schafly began to investigate the ERA in detail, after confessing her ambivalence toward the Bill. Schlafly’s argument emphasized how the Bill claimed to fight for the removal of sexist barriers that had been dealt with in the Equal Pay Act (1963) and the Civil Rights Act (1964). She then emphasized the reality that the Bill, although appearing milquetoast, could provide a legal basis for ushering in radical change. 

She exposed how the Bill might provide for the removal of any and all activities deemed segratory: single-sex schools, mother-son picnics and the military draft. These were not the wishes of most American women (or men) and Schlafly made sure they knew it. She organized a mass grassroots campaign and participated in a string of debates and demonstrations in which her leftist opponents defended the radical potential of the bill, to their own detriment. 

It was to her credit that the bill was finally defeated in 1982. 

Her role in the ERA dispute aside, Schlafly provoked her fair share of controversy. During a March 2007 speech, she spoke against the concept of marital rape, claiming, “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.” It seems this off-color (in frankly, incorrect) comment inspired the bizarre fictionalized scene of her own marital rape in Mrs America, in which it was also implied that her husband scorned her political success. Neither of these suggestions has ever been evidenced by Phyllis or her family and it seems their marriage was happy, and that her husband encouraged her activism. I can just imagine the Mrs America writing room.

“OK, so Schlafly is this fuddy-duddy woman. She is educated, yet she’s conservative. She’s Catholic. She thinks being a wife and mother is something to celebrate. We’re going to portray her professional successes because this is a historical drama about them, but we have to make sure that she is shown to be a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, courtesy of an abusive male. We want to make sure the viewers realize that her idea of women choosing motherhood and marriage is damaging and that Schlafly was really just lying to herself. No woman can be conservative and a woman, and remain faithful to both of those facts.”

Echoing this line of thinking, a Politico op-ed around the time of Schlafly’s death titled “What Phyllis Schlafly Owes Feminism” highlighted her illustrious career, but took an equally patronizing tone.

In reality, Schlafly and other conservative women do not in fact “owe” anything to radical egalitarian feminism. Conservative women have participated in women’s rights movements that have promoted choice while refusing to scorn motherhood and marriage. We are not required to “thank” the likes of Betty Freidan, who referred to the home as a “comfortable concentration camp,” nor her intellectual descendants who smear to Republican women as “gender traitors.” 

Schlafly commanded a national campaign from her kitchen. She mobilized millions of conservative women who had previously been inactive in politics. She showed the country that the revolutionary feminists were just part of the story. She showed America, and the world, that women did not want federally enforced equality but the freedom to choose.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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