The Tragedy of Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly's anti-feminism denied women like herself the full measure of their talents.

Phyllis Schlafly demonstrates at the White House against the Equal Rights Amendment in February 1977.

Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime conservative anti-feminist who helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and propel the Republican Party to power, has died.

Despite the tremendous damage she did to women, and progressive causes more generally, I had a great deal of respect for Schlafly, not least because she was a woman who managed to navigate — and amass — power in a man’s world, all the while denying that that was what women wanted at all.

That denial, coupled with the rampant sexism of her world, cost her dearly. It was none other than Catharine MacKinnon, her most formidable antagonist, who caught the full measure of Schlafly’s greatness, and tragedy, in two 1982 debates with Schlafly over the ERA:

Mrs. Schlafly tells us that being a woman has not gotten in her way. That she knows what she is saying because it happened to her. She could be one of the exceptional 7.8 percent, although who’s to know?

I do submit to you, though, that any man who had a law degree and had done graduate work in political science; had given testimony on a wide range of important subjects for decades; had done effective and brilliant political, policy, and organizational work within the party; had published widely, including nine books; was instrumental in stopping a major social initiative to amend the Constitution just short of victory dead in its tracks, and had a beautiful, accomplished family — any man like that would have a place in the current administration.

Having raised six children, a qualification not many men can boast of (and if so probably with less good reason) did not make the difference. I would accept correction if I am wrong, and she may yet be appointed. She was widely reported to have wanted such a post, but I don’t believe everything I read, especially about women. She certainly deserved a place in the Defense Department. Phyllis Schlafly is a qualified woman.

I charge that the Reagan Administration has discriminated against Phyllis Schlafly on the basis of her sex.

It was a devastating rebuttal to Schlafly’s position, yet it captured, with uncharacteristic tenderness and solicitude, a poignant truth about Schlafly: she was extraordinarily talented yet denied the full measure of her greatness by the forces she most faithfully served.

I said this about Schlafly in The Reactionary Mind:

“Even without directly engaging the progressive argument, conservatives may absorb, by some elusive osmosis, the deeper categories and idioms of the left, even when those idioms run directly counter to their official stance. After years of opposing the women’s movement, for example, Phyllis Schlafly seemed genuinely incapable of conjuring the prefeminist view of women as deferential wives and mothers. Instead, she celebrated the activist ‘power of the positive woman.’ And then, as if borrowing a page from The Feminine Mystique, she railed against the meaninglessness and lack of fulfillment among American women; only she blamed these ills on feminism rather than on sexism.

When she spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment, she didn’t claim that it introduced a radical new language of rights. Her argument was the opposite. The ERA, she told the Washington Star, ‘is a takeaway of women’s rights.’ It will ‘take away the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home.’

Schlafly was obviously using the language of rights in a way that was opposed to the aims of the feminist movement; she was using rights talk to put women back into the home, to keep them as wives and mothers. But that is the point: conservatism adapts and adopts, often unconsciously, the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy. . . .

Antifeminism was a latecomer to the conservative cause. Through the early 1970s, advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment could still count Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Strom Thurmond as supporters; even Phyllis Schlafly described the ERA as something ‘between innocuous and mildly helpful.’ But once feminism entered ‘the sensitive and intensely personal arena of relations between the sexes,’ writes historian Marjorie Spruill, the abstract phrases of legal equality took on a more intimate and concrete meaning.

The ERA provoked a counterrevolution, led by Schlafly and other women, that was as grassroots and nearly as diverse as the movement it opposed. So successful was this counterrevolution — not just at derailing the ERA, but at propelling the Republican Party to power — that it seemed to prove the feminist point. If women could be that effective as political agents, why shouldn’t they be in Congress or the White House?

Schlafly grasped the irony. She understood that the women’s movement had tapped into and unleashed a desire for power and autonomy among women that couldn’t simply be quelled. If women were to be sent back to the exile of their homes, they would have to view their retreat not as a defeat, but as one more victory in the long battle for women’s freedom and power.

As we saw, she described herself as a defender, not an opponent, of women’s rights. The ERA was ‘a takeaway of women’s rights,’ she insisted, the ‘right of the wife to be supported and to have her minor children supported’ by her husband. By focusing her argument on ‘the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home,’ Schlafly reinforced the notion that women were wives and mothers first; their only need was for the protection provided by their husbands.

At the same time, she described that relationship in the liberal language of entitlement rights. ‘The wife has the right to support’ from her spouse, she claimed, treating the woman as a feminist claimant and her husband as the welfare state.”

When my book came out, I was interviewed by S. E. Cupp, the conservative journalist, on C-SPAN. In the middle of our interview, I had a Marshall McLuhan moment, as Cupp read out some of these passages, and then told me she had emailed them to Schlafly the night before. Schlafly’s response? She said I was full of crap.