Phyllis Schlafly was a conservative lightning rod for feminist critics. She said society didn't discriminate against women
Tim Stanley: She believed natural equality of genders was a myth, gave conservative women alternative to feminism
Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley, a conservative, is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The death of anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly on Monday brought commiserations from the GOP ticket. Donald Trump tweeted that she was “truly great.” Mike Pence called her “the First Lady of the Conservative Movement.” Pence wasn’t exaggerating.
Throughout the 1970s, liberals and others castigated Schlafly as an outrageous contradiction in terms: a woman campaigning for the right to be told what to do by men. Schlafly used to love opening speeches by thanking her husband for letting her be there. Betty Friedan, the eminent feminist, called her an “Aunt Tom.” But for thousands of conservative women, she defined what it meant to be a nonfeminist female in politics. For them, she was a liberator.
Schlafly enjoyed public prominence before she targeted feminism. A political science major, she ran for Congress (unsuccessfully) in 1952, and again in 1970, and became an outspoken anti-communist. In 1964, her booklet “A Choice Not an Echo” introduced Barry Goldwater to millions of readers.
But it was Congress’ passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972 that alerted her to, as she saw it, an attempt to redefine gender relations through law. The ability of her Stop ERA campaign to eventually halt state-by-state ratification indicated the public broadly agreed with her.
Was she an Aunt Tom, in the sense of selling out women’s interests in deference to the patriarchy? She would have obviously said no. Schlafly argued that almost no laws existed at a state level that discriminated against women in the ’70s, but that society recognized through culture and regulation many privileges that benefited her sex. Among them: the right to alimony or exemption from combat.
In Schlafly’s view, absolute equality in nature was a myth and expecting men and women to live equally would, in fact, lead to the abuse of women. The strong would manipulate the weak. She also perceived a desire by feminists to actively promote abortion and easy divorce. The steep rise in abortions, as well as births outside marriage, that was getting underway in the ’70s validated some of her analysis.
Of course victories in women’s rights since the 1970s would seem to confirm President Obama’s view that the arc of history bends toward liberalism – but sometimes that narrative is surprisingly illiberal and intolerant of dissent. It can exclude the voices of conservatives who happen to be female, black or gay. Schlafly’s own son came out in the 1990s and stood by his mother’s work.
Feminism did a bad thing in the ’70s. It contributed, often consciously, toward the idea that the only legitimate voice in women’s politics was a liberal one and that all else was irrelevant or malignly intended. This risked convincing conservative women that politics was not for them, encouraging them – ironically – to stay at home.
Schlafly helped break that glass ceiling. By showing you could be an activist plus a wife, plus a mother, plus a conservative Christian, she inspired huge numbers of the women I’ve met in Republican politics. She was the Sarah Palin of her era.
Palin was nowhere near as intellectual, and had far less of an impact, but one unabashed good that came from her 2008 candidacy was that it tore up the rules for who could and could not run for the presidency. A hockey mom could do it, too. Schlafly and Palin paved the way for Carly Fiorina in 2016. And, someday, Fiorina will pave the way for a Republican nominee.
Unless one final Schlafly paradox gets in the way. Before she died, the First Lady of the Conservative Movement endorsed Trump. That makes sense: Schlafly was a paleoconservative who was worried about immigration. But Trump has turned out to be the most unchivalrous candidate in living memory, the very antithesis of Schlafly’s ideal Christian standard. Has he put off other women from Republican politics? I certainly hope not.