As far as careers go, a girl couldn’t wish for a better one than Phyllis Schlafly. Much sought-after public speaker; respected author, published many times over; powerful activist, who has changed the course of major legislation; a godmother, one could argue, to a huge movement of dedicated, vocal, professional women. Her career, which started in 1952 with a failed Congressional run, is still going strong and making headlines, most recently, with the publication of her book The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know — and Men Can’t Say.
Which only underlines the frequently pointed-out irony underlying the whole situation — the utter ridiculousness of the fact that Schlafly’s long, accomplished, influential career is based on arguing that successful, professional women like Phyllis Schlafly should not exist.
In the 1970s, Schlafly found a niche — a woman who would argue against women’s rights — and has worked it ever since. She campaigned (very successfully) against the Equal Rights Amendment. She spoke out against women in the workplace, against same-sex partnerships, against the recognition of marital rape as a crime. The title of her most recent book, just about sums it up; it is politically inconvenient, and often damaging, for men to argue against rights for women. Women must therefore be employed to fight these particular battles.
It’s tempting just to hurl invective at Schlafly, or to point out the many ways in which her life contradicts her work. In a recent interview, Schlafly’s co-author and niece admitted that, while Schlafly campaigned for “traditional” stay-at-home motherhood, she hired domestic help to care for her own children. She has campaigned tirelessly against same-sex marriage, although her own (very conservative) son is a gay man. How does one avoid capitalizing on that, really?
To do so, however, is a little cheap, and misses the point somewhat. It’s probably true that Schlafly believes everything she says, and views herself just as she says she does: A woman who must sacrifice her true calling, in order to campaign for the right (or duty) of other women to stay at home, living on their husbands’ paychecks, raising their children. One doubts that she would have spent her entire life fighting for these things if she didn’t believe them, or that she would be staging a comeback at the age of eighty-six if she weren’t devoted to her work. In her way, Phyllis Schlafly is as much of an idealist as any liberal do-gooder.
And God bless her for it. Because it hasn’t worked. Her ideas won’t succeed, because they simply aren’t practical: Being financially dependent on a partner restricts one’s ability to get out of an abusive relationship, it’s nearly impossible to provide for a family on a single income, and it becomes less likely every day that lesbians and bisexual women are going to attach themselves to a husband instead of going out to meet their wives. Her crusade, however deeply felt, is a flawed one, and she’ll lose it, simply because she hasn’t provided any workable alternative to women beyond “full legal and social rights.” (Not that there ARE a lot of more enticing options, mind you.) But the real irony is not the fact of Schlafly’s career, but the effects of it. By campaigning for women to leave the public sphere, Phyllis Schlafly has paved the way for a huge number of ambitious, professional, highly successful conservative women.
There are activists; the pro-life movement, in particular, is full of women like Lila Rose, whose hidden camera stings on Planned Parenthood have wreaked havoc on that fine organization, and Melissa Ohden, who has a thriving speaking career based on her biological mother’s abortion attempt, and who is in fact occasionally billed as an “aborted fetus” at her events. There are the commentators: Women like Ann Coulter, Christina Hoff Sommers and Michelle Malkin, who have taken Schlafly’s path of influence by rhetoric. But, most importantly, there are the politicians. Without Schlafly, Sarah Palin simply would not have happened. Nor would other ultra-conservative female politicians like Michelle Bachmann and Sharron Angle. The first female President may well come from the right wing. And she may well be Schlafly’s fault.
Schlafly advocated, openly and tirelessly, for women to restrict themselves entirely to private life. The only trouble was, she had to enter the public sphere in order to do so. Which, one could argue, was always her intention — she’s got a law degree, and has run for Congress herself. In 1952, sexism was perhaps too entrenched for her to win. But by 1972, when feminism was running strong, there was Schlafly, benefiting from it. And from the needs of the market, like any good career woman.
And Phyllis Schlafly was not the only woman to benefit. She substantially invented a very marketable, politically useful position. Conservatives value having women on their side. It appeals to the pure traditionalists, who are used to viewing women as a tender and civilizing force on men, best suited to speak on matters of family because men can’t be bothered with them. It also appeals to the more modern and image-conscious members of the movement, who are aware that being visibly represented as a block of white, upper-class maleness does little to refute the claims that they only care about white, upper-class men. Being a woman, in the conservative movement, is a marketable and valuable quality. Perhaps more so than it is on the left wing, where “women’s issues” continually take a back seat, and the special expedience of women has yet to be discovered.
Which appeals to young, ambitious women. So, those women hone their skills, climb the ladder, and enjoy successful careers. Schlafly hasn’t just failed to send women back to the kitchen; she’s actively motivated more women to join the workplace, and laid the groundwork for their success. Grizzly Moms, straight shooters, anti-choicers: they are all, ultimately, Schlafly’s daughters.
Schlafly maintains, to this day, that politics is her “hobby.” And “I would not want to be called a feminist,” she says. “The feminists don’t believe in success for women.”
But it’s evident that we do. These are the basic tenets of feminism: women want to do work that matters, to succeed at their work, and when they are allowed to enter the workforce and given a fair chance, women are capable of succeeding to the precise extent that their talents line up with their goals.
Of course, they have to be doing something that has value in the marketplace. Such as, for example, attacking the rights of women. That always sells.
Of course Schlafly’s back now: this is her moment, the moment when her legacy has finally become clear. Her initiative against women’s success has been massively counterproductive. All she has done is to defeat herself, on her own grounds. What Schlafly knows, but can’t say, is that her life’s work has been to prove feminism correct.