The Legacy—or Lack Thereof—of Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly was arguably the nation's staunchest anti-feminist, but her diatribes against women in the workforce showed how far out of step she was with U.S. women's lives and needs.

Ever since the 1970s, Schlafly devoted her considerable energies to vilifying the women’s movement and those who identify with it. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The recent death of Phyllis Schlafly has brought forth expected responses: Conservatives have praised her, while progressives have decried her political positions and invariably pointed out the hypocrisy of someone who glorified housewives and stay-at-home mothers while leading a life—as the mother of six—that constantly took her on the road. All agree, however, that Schlafly was a major figure in U.S. politics. Schlafly’s most infamous achievement, of course, was the successful fight she led against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s.

But beyond the ERA, what else might be said of her legacy? In trying to understand this better, I went back to my battered copy of her 1977 book, Power of the Positive Woman, arguably one of her best-known works. The book is a diatribe against the feminism of the 1970s, harshly criticizing the feminist priorities of that era: equal pay, out-of-home child care, and, of course, abortion. And she spoke in vitriolic terms about her opponents. The feminists who were demanding equality were, according to Schlafly, bitter creatures doomed to lives of loneliness and unhappiness. By contrast, the Positive Woman, by accepting the innate differences between men and women, could achieve a deeply fulfilling life. One sentence, near the end of the book, particularly struck me: “It is the task of the Positive Woman to keep America good.”

Given Schlafly’s hatred of the feminism of her era, this sentence oddly enough reminded me of first-wave feminist ideology in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries: Once women gained suffrage, the movement’s main goal, feminists hoped the newly enfranchised would be able to engage in “social housekeeping.” In other words, women would be tasked with cleaning up the “dirty politics” put in place by men, and voting for policies that would improve the lot of those they saw as the most vulnerable: poor people, children, and  immigrants. As the great reformer Jane Addams said, “Politics is housekeeping on a grand scale.”

To put it mildly, there are vast differences between first-wave feminists’ vision of a good society and that of Schlafly. The latter is hardly remembered for her concern about the well-being of the poor, for example; as Power of the Positive Woman makes clear, she greatly opposed welfare and other forms of government provision. But first-wave feminists and Schlafly were alike in their acceptance of a fundamental difference between the genders—something that later feminists would come to deeply challenge.

It is precisely because Phyllis Schlafly was unable to make the transition to accepting a world of gender equality that her legacy—while hugely symbolic as the leading face of anti-feminism—is actually quite limited, beyond her ability to stop the ERA. Her inability to accept the contemporary economic and social reality, that the days of a husband in the paid labor force and a wife staying at home with children largely are over except for the wealthy, means that much of what she fought for has not, and will not, come to pass. Moreover, policies relating to domestic violence prevention, anti-sexual harassment initiatives, and marriage equality—all issues she opposed and often ridiculed—may be imperfectly realized, but they all have mainstream acceptance. (It is telling that we live now in a world in which Donald Trump, whom Schlafly fervently supported, apparently cannot openly condemn these issues as she once did.)

The feminist revolution of the 1970s, which Phyllis Schlafly devoted her life to opposing, may indeed be a stalled one, in Arlie Hochschild’s term, especially for poorer women. As I wrote in a 2014 piece for Rewire, however, it has not suffered the defeat Schlafly wished for. (The piece, reprinted below, has been lightly edited and updated since its original publication for clarity.)

“The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.”

The above quote is from a column by Phyllis Schlafly, arguably the nation’s, if not the world’s, most famous hater of the feminist movement. I had not seen mention of her in the media for some time, and that column caused me to reflect both on her long career and her relevance. It also sparked thoughts about the larger problem that U.S. conservatism has had in finding credible spokeswomen.

I confess to some grudging admiration for Schlafly, given that at age 92 she was still active politically—but that is the only thing about her I can admire. Ever since the 1970s, Schlafly devoted her considerable energies to vilifying the women’s movement and those who identify with it. Here are some of her positions on various items of the feminist policy agenda:

On marital rape:By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.”

On sexual harassment:Noncriminal sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases.”

On domestic violence: “When marriages are broken by false allegations of domestic violence, U.S. taxpayers fork up an estimated $20 billion a year to support the resulting single-parent, welfare-dependent families.”

To be sure, Schlafly was hardly unique as an opponent of feminist policy initiatives. What is particularly off-putting, however, in both her writing and her personal appearances, was the vitriol with which she attacked her enemies. Schlafly, with her frequent cattiness, may in fact have been the original “mean girl.” When I saw her address a conservative student organization at UC Berkeley a few years ago, she took pains to tell the audience that after feminists pressured the airlines to modify appearance guidelines for female flight attendants, “they all looked fat.” As a press account of her speech four years ago at The Citadel, a military college, reported, “She told the all-male group that ‘feminist’ is a bad word and everything they stand for is bad.”

“Find out if your girlfriend is a feminist before you get too far into it,” she said. “Some of them are pretty. They don’t all look like Bella Abzug.” At the same event, she said, “Feminists are having a hard time being elected because they essentially are unlikable.”

Though Schlafly’s influence peaked, as had, apparently, her political savvy—what portion of contemporary Citadel cadets know who the late Bella Abzug was?—at one time, she did wield significant political power. Her most successful political venture was the Stop the Equal Rights Amendment campaign, which she led throughout the 1970s, when the measure was close to ratification by the requisite number of states. She also in the early ’70s established the Eagle Forum, a national “pro-family” organization with numerous state chapters. In addition to the issues mentioned above, the organization has taken strong stands against abortion, gay rights (despite Schlafly’s having a gay son), and attempts at gender equality in public schools.

But, as her statement calling for a widening gender gap in wages suggests, not only had Schlafly’s moment passed as a credible leader—she and other younger conservative women leaders, trapped as they are by the Republican Party’s free-market ideology, simply have been unable to address the economic realities facing women today. When Schlafly emerged as a political activist in the ’70s, there still existed the possibility for many American families to function on one man’s salary. Furthermore, a key message of the emergent women’s movement of that period—which urged women to pursue careers—was met defensively by those who were “just housewives,” to use a phrase of that period. So Schlafly’s messages, which glorified women who stay home, raise children, and support their husbands’ endeavors, deeply resonated with many.

But, to put it mildly, today’s world is very different, in both economic terms and cultural ones, from that of the 1970s. The stagnation in wages for most American workers means that most families need two paychecks, where once one would have sufficed. And, of course, there has been a continual rise in single-parent households, the vast majority of which are headed by women. There now exist many more households, compared to the 1970s, of same-sex couples, many of which are composed of two women—not to mention single women, without children, who also could hardly be expected to endorse the idea of a widening gap between male and female pay.

But the most visible women in the contemporary Republican Party are as unwilling as Schlafly to acknowledge these realities. Both Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, and “rising star” Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee have opposed raises in the minimum wage—though, much to observers’ amusement, the latter inadvertently made the case for a raise, failing to realize that her teenage years’ wage of $2.15 an hour, which she idealized in a speech opposing such a measure, in today’s dollars would be worth somewhere between $12.72 and $14.18.

In the lived reality of American women, reproductive issues and economic ones are deeply entwined. Women need access to reproductive services, among other reasons, to be able to participate in the paid labor force. And women, like their male counterparts, need jobs that pay a living wage. Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative spokeswomen who have followed her are woefully out of touch on both counts.