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How Feminism Enabled, Then Buried, Conservative Icon Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly's career of fighting feminism was made possible by the forces she spent her life battling. And in the end, she lost.

by Jill Filipovic
Sep 7 2016, 2:40pm

Schlafly liked to play the part of a housewife, but in reality, she was one of the most ruthless and ambitious women in America. She organized conservative white women who like her were concerned with the changing social mores of the 1960s and 70s—which meant not just feminism but the civil rights movement and moves toward racial equality—to oppose the ERA, a proposal that was overwhelmingly popular and, feminists thought, a foregone conclusion. By 1972, it had passed both houses of Congress, and in the next few years made its way through 35 state legislatures. Already incensed at a Supreme Court decision outlawing mandatory prayer in public schools, Schlafly decided that enshrining equal rights for women into law was simply a step too far away from America's righteously patriarchal past. She rallied her troops, mostly churchgoing Christian mothers like herself, and the ERA turned controversial. Several states rescinded their approval of the amendment, and by 1982, the ERA was dead, having ultimately fallen three states short of the number needed for ratification.

While Schlafly claimed she was advocating for all women, she was really pushing to retain the privileges afforded to affluent whites.

Schlafly's group, founded just after Congress passed the ERA, was called STOP ERA, which stood for "Stop Taking Our Privileges," and their arguments were as contradictory as they were fear-mongering: Women already had equal rights ("Women already have all the rights that men have," Schlafly told the AP in 2007), and the ERA would also undermine the special rights afforded to women. In Schlafly's telling, American women were the luckiest gals in the world, financially supported by their husbands and finding dignity in housework and childcare. The ERA, which put women on equal footing with men, threatened to destabilize that arrangement. Schlafly warned that it could mean the mother wouldn't be almost automatically granted custody of the children in divorce cases, nor awarded alimony. The military would have to allow women in combat. Who knew what would come next: We might have to allow marriage between homosexuals, taxpayer-funded abortions, even gender-neutral bathrooms.

While Schlafly claimed she was advocating for all women, she was really pushing to retain the privileges afforded to affluent whites. Even in the 1960s and 70s, African American and working-class women couldn't afford to stay home with their children at the same rates as their whiter, wealthier peers. In 1970, one in ten American children, and more than one in three African American children, were born to single mothers. For women outside of Schlafly's exclusive demographic, STOP ERA's promise to halt the taking of their privileges was an empty one—those privileges weren't theirs to begin with, and the ERA could have afforded a quicker route to equal pay and better treatment at work.

For women like Schlafly, though, the benefits of wealthy white womanhood came in spades. She was able to have the best of both worlds: A gauzy image of herself as a traditional mother, and a lucrative and demanding career that made use of her intellectual prowess and brought her a deeper sense of meaning and purpose (even if her purpose was making life harder for other women). Schlafly had six children after marrying a wealthy man a decade and a half her senior. She went to law school while her children were still at home and kept up an arduous professional schedule, writing and editing more than a dozen books, speaking around the country, appearing on TV or radio nearly daily at the height of her anti-ERA work, sending out a political newsletter, and running her organization, which became the Eagle Forum. To make herself sound appropriately domestic, she referred to her political career as a "hobby."

Schlafly, like many driven, intelligent, and ambitious women of her time, came into her professional life at a particularly auspicious time, when women's freedoms, slowly expanding in the postwar years, exploded in the 60s and 70s. Schlafly's stardom was enabled by a changing world, even as she set to work trying to change it back.

She was able to go to law school because feminists had pushed to open up institutions of higher education to women, and insisted that one could be a good mother and a good student or employee. She was able to make a career out of opposing the ERA because feminists made women's liberation a political issue, and insisted that women's voices be heard in politics. She was even able to run for office in 1952 at the age of just 27—after the Republican Party asked her husband to run first—because the feminist activists who came before her made it possible for women to run and serve (she won in the primary but lost in the general).

She remained pigeonholed by the right, useful when it came to the woman thing but otherwise something of a nuisance.

But Schlafly was still just a woman in an era where women were not accorded much respect in politics—a standard she wanted to preserve for others, while breaking for herself. She remained heavily influential in Republican politics, but often behind closed doors. She set a standard for right-wing anti-feminism, and GOP leaders quickly realized it was more effective, and made for better optics, to put women at the front of efforts to curtail women's rights. In that sense, she was a precursor to right-wing women who claim the mantle of tradition and oppose virtually any measure to make life better for women who are not themselves, while single-mindedly pursuing their own careers and political futures: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham. But she remained pigeonholed by the right, useful when it came to the woman thing but otherwise something of a nuisance. Which is perhaps fair: Even at the height of her influence, she was a bit loopy, hyper-paranoid about Communist encroachment, and convinced that a small group of media elites and bankers ran the world.

The anti-feminism espoused by Schlafly and the modern GOP she helped shape didn't end with the defeat of the ERA. Schlafly claimed sexual harassment wasn't an issue at work, because "virtuous" women would avoid it. She said there was no such thing as marital rape—by getting married, women simply consented to sex anytime their husbands wanted it. She claimed sex education in school is "like in-home sales parties for abortions." She always managed to make waves, and while she never repeated the legislative success of her anti-ERA campaign, she did her part to enshrine hostility to gay rights and feminism into the GOP's identity.

Schlafly won that battle against the ERA, but she and her cohort lost the war. Same-sex marriage is now legal. Child custody decisions are made by evaluating the best interest of the child, not privileging the mother. No-fault divorce is the norm. Most women work outside the home, even when they have children. Many schools (if not enough) teach comprehensive sex ed. Women outnumber men on college campuses and in many graduate schools. A federal law bars federal Medicaid funds from covering abortion services, but many state Medicaid programs do cover the procedure. Raping your wife is illegal in all 50 states. Paid parental leave and subsidized childcare for working parents are important campaign issues in the current presidential election, and have even been endorsed (in theory) by Donald Trump. Sexual harassment is increasingly taken seriously in workplaces and in the courts. Women still don't make as much money as men, but the gender pay gap is narrower, and women are increasing their share of leadership roles across industries. Businesses and institutions are gradually offering gender-neutral bathrooms, in part to adequately serve a transgender population who may be uncomfortable using sex-segregated units. Even the president has taken a stand for the rights of transgender kids to be accommodated at school.

Schlafly's dystopian feminist landscape has more or less come into being, and feminists are continuing to make it even more expansive. It looks marvelous. I'm glad she got to live to see it.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist and author of the forthcoming The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.

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