On a damp spring evening in Washington, DC, a general in the Republican war on women was dispatched to deny its existence. “The real war on women,” Phyllis Schlafly told a gathering of the Young America’s Foundation at George Washington University, “is by the feminists who demean women who choose the career path of homemaker, and mislead young women into believing…that a job in the workforce will be more significant and rewarding than marriage and motherhood.”
With that, all of the young women in the front row marched up the center aisle and the out of the room, holding protest signs with slogans like, “Stop Sexism,” “Stop Bigotry,” “Stop Homophobia.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry you’re not going to stay around and let me convince you that you’re wrong,” Schlafly said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
A 40-Year War
For all of the shouting about a Republican war on women, you’d think it was a bright, new, shiny phenomenon. But Schlafly’s celebrity was born of her brutal and shameless tactics in that theater of war some 40 years ago, when she mobilized the fearful and bigoted against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment which, but for her efforts, would likely be the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Today, at 87, Schlafly is still on the warpath, gracing any podium that will have her with a font of barbed quips, bad facts and bitter resentment of women who seek to change a social order that she herself navigated in its most unyielding form, with the help of no one, as she sees it, thank you very much.
“Let me tell you, I worked my way through college and got my college degree at a great university, Washington University of St. Louis, in 1944 — no discrimination of any kind,” Schlafly said. “I then went to the Harvard Graduate School and competed with all of the guys — no discrimination whatsoever — got my Harvard degree in 1945. And my mother got her bachelor’s degree at a great co-ed university in 1920. So all those opportunities were out there before you all were born, and the feminists had absolutely nothing to do with it.”
In truth, Schlafly would have been barred from entry to Harvard’s undergraduate programs in 1945, as well as from its law school. And while she studied with the men (Harvard, under pressure from feminists, had just begun admitting women to some of its graduate programs), her degree was conferred not by Harvard, but by the women’s college with which it was affiliated, Radcliffe. Schlafly also failed to mention that at the time her mother earned her degree, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which — thanks to the efforts of first-wave feminists — granted women the right to vote, had not yet been ratified.
Origins of the War on Women
In 1980, the year in which Schlafly and her allies in the New Right took over the GOP, the Republican Party removed its last plank supporting the Equal Rights Amendment from its platform. It was an abrupt about-face for the Party of Lincoln, whose last First Lady, Betty Ford, was an unabashed supporter of the ERA, women’s rights and reproductive choice, and who appeared on the stage with Rosalyn Carter and Lady Bird Johnson at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston to join her name to a feminist agenda. Without mentioning Ford, Schlafly groused to her G.W. audience that one goal of the conference, “taxpayer-funded daycare for all children,” was designed by feminists to deprive women of the choice to raise their own children. Another goal, she complained, was the implementation of “the whole gay-rights agenda,” along with “government-funded abortions” and the ERA.
The Equal Rights Amendment had been passed by Congress in 1972, and would battle its way through through the ratification process over the course of the ensuing decade, with Schlafly leading opponents in state after state. The text of the amendment was simple: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” In the end, the amendment fell three states short of ratification, defeated in the legislatures of Southern states.
Schlafly’s tactics were modeled, according to Republican political consultant Tanya Melich, on the moral panic and fear-mongering claims that shaped Southern opposition to desegregation. Schlafly contended that the ERA would mandate “homosexual marriage” and same-sex bathrooms. Additionally, great umbrage was taken at the likely possibility that the amendment would send women into combat.
The Goldwater campaign laid the foundations for what would become known as the New Right, bringing together such figures as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, who would later join with Howard Phillips, the former Nixon administration bureaucrat, to draft the segregationist Rev. Jerry Falwell to lead the Moral Majority — a major force in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency. But in the intervening years between the Goldwater campaign and Reagan’s first run at the presidency in 1976, the men of the New Right paid Schlafly little mind, according to Melich, despite her galvanizing role in laying the path for Goldwater’s candidacy. It was Schlafly’s husband, Fred, who convinced her to take up the cause of battling the ERA, according to an interview he gaveChicago Tribune
reporter Dorothy Collins, which Melich published in her indispensable 1996 book, The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report From Behind the Lines
. “At first she did not see [the ERA] as a threat,” Fred Schlafly told Collins.
While Viguerie, Weyrich and Phillips are widely credited with creating the religious right as a political force, it was really Schlafly who got the ball rolling with the founding of her organization, Stop ERA, according to Melich. Beginning in 1972, Schlafly, a conservative Roman Catholic, “recruited fundamentalist and evangelical women, some of them John Birch Society members,” to take part in her anti-ERA organizing workshops. Writes Melich:
[I]t was Schlafly, with her authoritarian leadership and expert grassroots organizing, who made the Religious Right a political player…
It was Schlafly, first of the Goldwater and then the New Right team, who unearthed the political gold of misogyny. It was Schlafly who translated fear of women’s liberation into a political force in the Republican party and thereby extended the foundation of the Republican southern strategy. Now not only did the strategy flourish on the backlash of the civil rights movement, but it was broadened to include a backlash against the women’s movement, too.
As an example, Melich notes that it was not hard to convince Southern ministers whose segregationist “Christian” academies fell afoul of IRS tax-exemption law that, under the ERA, they would risk the ire of the tax man if they did not perform the gay marriages Schlafly claimed the ERA would sanction.
Schlafly’s fight against women’s rights didn’t end with the demise of the ERA. She remained an ardent foe of abortion, and in 1996, having won control of the Republican Party platform thanks to a deal made with the insurgent candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, whose campaign she co-chaired, she and right-wing allies fought off an attempt by presidential nominee Bob Dole to return more tolerant language on abortion to the party platform, which in 1992 was changed to a no-exceptions stance against all abortion. Schlafly threatened a floor fight if Dole so much as allowed an exception for victims of rape or incest, and the nominee relented
. And so the GOP abortion plank has remained ever since.
Of the Moment
Not one to rest on her laurels, Schlafly continues on the hustings, determined to remain relevant in the midst of the 2012 presidential campaign — “maybe the most important election year of our lifetime,” she said. So while a good chunk of her talk, titled “Defending Morality: With discussion points on feminism, traditional marriage, abortion,” was devoted to condemning and/or mischaracterizing the feminist eminences against whom she did battle during the ERA fight (she really can’t seem to say one true thing about Gloria Steinem, with whom I had the privilege of working at Ms. magazine), she didn’t hesitate to insert herself into the flame wars of the day. The recent media flap over comments made by CNN commentator Hilary Rosen about the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered her a natural jumping-off point.
Race and Sex: Full Circle
In 2008, the election of Barack Obama elicited a race-tinged backlash from from the right that was folded into the raging and often incoherent Tea Party movement — a movement that was founded to enlarge the circle of the right beyond its religious base — much as the founding of the religious right in the 1970s was a strategy to enlarge the influence the New Right beyond a tight circle of elites who found their power in secular institutions. Any Democratic president faces a Herculean task in marshaling the forces of a liberal coalition comprising a range of constituencies, not least among them, the women’s movement. That the president is African American offers Schlafly the opportunity to play her old hand, and she is not one to miss an opportunity for fear-mongering in the name of God and country.
“The feminists are very much in control of the Obama administration,” she said. As evidence, she pointed to the stimulus bill, whose funds, she claimed, went to mostly jobs occupied by women, the result of feminist protests over the likely gender distribution of job funding for projects deemed “shovel-ready.” (While she’s right that feminists, such as Linda Hirshman, did raise concerns about whether stimulus money for shovel-ready projects would keep women off the unemployment lines, the truth is that Congress has refused to fund the major infrastructure projects the administration had envisioned.)
Feminists, whom Schlafly described as “anti-man, anti-male, anti-masculine, anti-marriage, anti-motherhood and anti-morality,” sought to create dependency on government because it renders men irrelevant, she said. “The feminists believe that society’s expectation that women should look after their own children illustrates the oppression of women by the patriarchy,” she said, “and that’s why legislating taxpayer-funded daycare as an entitlement for all kids is a major and longtime feminist goal.”
“Equal Pay Is a Communist Idea”
Before she was an anti-feminist, Phyllis Schlafly was an anti-communist, a big purveyor of the red scare. So it should come as no surprise, one imagines, that she should find a way to wed the two, as she did in her critique of Obama’s signature on the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act, the better to feed the Tea Party trope of Obama as a Marxist.
“Equal pay is a communist idea,” Schlafly said. “We do not want equal pay.” She went on to explain that the law already mandates equal pay for equal work, and that if a woman finds that she is getting short-shrifted on account of her gender, she can take her complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and it will remedy the situation. Of course, for Lily Ledbetter, she found out about the years of paycheck discrimination she suffered too late to make a claim, and the act named after her was meant to remedy that.
“Fruit and Nuts”
Schlafly, who has a gay son, made her usual pitch against same-sex marriage, characterizing it as a force for societal instability. “In 31 states — every time it’s on the referendum, people stand up,” she said. “Even in California, the land of fruit and nuts, they voted for traditional marriage…To have marriage as the fundamental unit of our society is the best way to keep government out of our lives. You can solve your own problems, and deal with life the way it comes.”
A man in the audience who described himself as gay asked for her position on civil unions, as opposed to same-sex marriage. “Civil unions? Well, it’s not on my agenda to really fight about…” she replied. She castigated the administration for refusing to take up the cause of the Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court even as it set out to defend the healthcare law.
Although the word “transgender” never came up, Schlafly contended that what feminists were really seeking was “gender interchangeability,” and they were confusing “little kids” by making them think they could choose their gender. “The feminist teachers think that little boys are just unruly girls,” she said, “and this is why many schools are abolishing recess, or they’re even building new schools without playgrounds….To try to make boys act like girls is very harmful to the little boys.”
Enjoy Being a Girl
Summing up her talk, Schlafly urged the young women in her audience to accept their lot with gratitude. There were no glass ceilings, she said, no obstacles to their success and happiness, so long as they got married, had children and stayed home to take care of them.