I’ve been thinking about women this week. Specifically, powerful women. How do women get power? What do they do with it? Does power corrupt? In particular, and apropos to nothing, of course, I’ve been thinking about women who become powerful then don’t support the rights of women.
It’s a strange phenomenon where women climb the ranks of a man’s world and instead of trying to make the stage a little friendlier for women, they re-affirm all those things that make the world hostile to women. People have varying theories for this – internalized misogyny, or a desire for individualized, unique power, but it’s a phenomenon we see in the corporate world, the world, of entertainment, the legal world, and the political world. And as long as women are going to throw other women under the bus progress is going to be slow. I’m going to call this the Schlafly Phenomenon. That’s not a real thing, you can’t look it up. It’s just what I’m dubbing it here and now. But it’s what we’re going to talk about today. It’s a phenomenon I’ve named after the life and career of activist Phyllis Schlafly, who is kind of the go-to example of women who work against women. So I want to talk about her a bit today and why she was (and is) so powerful and popular.
Phyllis Schlafly was born Phyllis Stewart in August of 1924. She grew up in what you would call a middle-class, Roman Catholic family in St. Louis. After her father lost his job during the Great Depression her mom supported her family with a variety of jobs. So Schlafly grew up in a house where women were important. She was the valedictorian of her high school class and got a scholarship to Maryville College of the Sacred Heart, but only attended there for a year. She didn’t find the curriculum rigorous enough, so she transferred to Washington University where she paid for her education by working 48 hours at a munitions factory. Basically, she fired machine guns to see if they worked. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1944 and a year later had a Master’s degree from Radcliffe College (which is now part of Harvard) in government. She then went to work at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in D.C., and then returned to St. Louis to work as a research librarian. In 1949 she married John Schlafly, a wealthy lawyer, and they settled in Alton, Illinois. The two had six children. She mounted a campaign for the US House of Representatives on a virulently anti-communist platform in 1952 and surprisingly won the Republican primary but lost to the Democratic incumbent. She fashioned herself as a good housewife in politics, which would shape her political future in the decades to come.
After serving as the head of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women from 1960–64, Schlafly rose to national prominence with her book A Choice Not an Echo (1964), which charged that Eastern elites within the Republican Party had systematically repressed grassroots conservatives at presidential nominating conventions. The book sold more than three million copies and was credited with helping propel Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, to the 1964 Republican nomination; he ultimately lost in a landslide to incumbent Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson.
In a 1972 she announced her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment which passed Congress that year. Believing that women enjoyed unique privileges that the amendment would abolish she then established the lobbying organization Stop ERA, with chapters across the country. Schlafly’s well-organized campaign became a cause célèbre, and when the ERA eventually failed to be ratified by the requisite majority of states, she was widely credited with having helped to bring about its collapse.
Many saw her ability to mobilize the grassroots, every day American as her greatest contribution to American politics. In many ways Schlafly and her ilk provided the foot soldiers for what would become the Reagan Revolution
Schlafly began her career in politics concerned with communism and foreign policy. That was her chief concern in her early writings. She was always more concerned about the communists and support for our nuclear arsenal than she was about social issues in the beginning. But a friend asked her to speak on the ERA in 1971 and things began to change.
First, we have to think about how Schlafly had always presented herself to the public. She has always played the role of the good housewife. Second wave feminism argued that the personal WAS political. The feminists had paved the way for a person’s personal life to be a political statement. This is important to understand about Schlafly because she had been presenting herself as a housewife in an arena that didn’t take housewives seriously – she had wanted to make a difference in foreign policy and be an anti-communist crusader, but that is not the appropriate place for a housewife by 1960s standards. She had tried to present herself as a model of virtue and decorum by being a good housewife, but homemakers were not qualified to be in that arena. Schlafly wanted political power but her persona was not right for the arena.
But if the political issues were SOCIAL issues then everything changed. On issues of abortion, women’s rights, equal pay, divorce law, school bussing, her role as a housewife basically positioned her as an expert. She was just as equipped to discuss these issues as any women’s libber because as a housewife she was equally effected, and as feminists had made abundantly clear, the personal was political. And these issues were personal for her.
So she could position herself as a political leader on women’s issues in a feminist world thanks to feminism even though she stood against everything feminism was fighting for. Schlafly could use the groundswell of feminism to fight against women’s rights. So Schlafly began to speak out against the Equal Rights Amendment and galvanize conservative women, creating a whole movement of women who stood in opposition to women’s liberation and aimed to defend traditional family values and roles. It was the epitome of the personal as political, because these women were making their values and their ideas about family traditions and roles political tools for the growing conservative movement.
Republicans, in turn, saw this opportunity and quickly snapped up “traditional family values” as one of its rallying cries. The GOP organized itself not just against communism, but against progressive social values, bringing a wide variety of populists, religious conservatives, and hawks under the same umbrella.
When Schlafly argued against the Equal Rights Amendment she did so as if she were on the side of women. First, Schlafly argued the existing legislation against discrimination made the ERA unnecessary. Second, she argued that the ERA was an attack on States’ Rights (which is a classic argument against any kind of civil rights progress). Then, she engaged in some nasty ad hominem attacks by pointing out that the ERA was supported by lesbians, left-wing radicals, and people who tended to use bad language. But her biggest argument was that the ERA would eradicate the “special protections” that were afforded to women and that the amendment was dangerous to American women in general. She presented herself as the pro-woman voice against a movement that was determined to do irreparable damage to women in the USA.
The ERA died because it lacked a sufficient number of state ratifications but was reintroduced in Congress in 1983. Schlafly once again crusaded tireless against its passage. She argued that wives had long had a great variety of extensive rights in America based on their marital status, as a result of our public policy that respects “the family as the basic unity of society, and as a statutory and common-law balance to the biological fact that only women have babies.” She meant things like the wife’s right of financial support in an ongoing marriage (because the assumption is that the wife provides no financial support and manages the household and the children), “the rights of separate maintenance and payment of attorney’s fees during divorce litigation, the right to alimony after divorce, the right to a presumption of custody of her children, rights against her husband’s alienation of his property during his life or by will, and a variety of special benefits accorded to widows.” She referred to this as “benign discrimination” and said it was wholly in harmony with the Equal Protection Clause. These were pro-women policies.
States that had their own versions of the ERA, she argued, were seeing the painful effects of equality. Women were losing the protections they had because they were women. She warned that soon men would not have a duty to support their wives in the way they traditionally had. She pointed to places like Pennsylvania where, because of the State ERA, wives had lost their common law and statutory right to have their necessaries paid for by their husbands.
Schlafly was concerned for the status of women. But she did not want to see the prospects of women improve. Schlafly’s chief concern was maintaining the status quo for women. The women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a movement to change women’s position in the social and political arena’s in the United States of America. Schlafly argued she was pro-woman because she was protecting women’s position in society. She argued that the status quo was beneficial for women, not oppressive. Her position was the being dependent on and submissive to men actually protected women. So her arguments against women’s’ progress were painted as the pro-women’s position. This spoke to a specific swath of women voters who believed in traditional gender roles and “family values.” It spoke even more loudly to men who did not wish to see the changes that the women’s movement promised. Painting the “traditional women’s role” as the pro-woman position gave a lot of men great reasons to see themselves as pro-women voters and candidates.
Schlafly also extolled the evils of the ERA in schools. She warned of state laws that required that girls must be permitted to compete with boys in sports and noted that in Pennsylvania this had been extended to football and wrestling. This inevitably would mean that boys would be allowed to play on girls’ teams. A federal ERA, she opined, would eliminate sex differences in sports completely because of Title IX. It would also, she claimed, make single-sex schools illegal.
Schlafly’s arguments were based on a very myopic understanding of equality. Title IX guarantees that you won’t be excluded from participation in a school program because of your sex. It does not guarantee everyone can be a part of ALL programs. The way this works in athletic programs is that there must be equitable opportunity for boys and girls. A school can’t have 9 boys’ sports teams and no girls sport teams. There must be equitable opportunity – and equal number of programs for boys and girls.
In SOME places girls have made their way onto football teams. There is even an odd story of a girl on a boys’ wrestling team here and there. But this is not the law. This is a spotlight sports story.
Religious schools have also managed to stay segregated by sex, though the research behind such practices are undecided at best.
Schlafly continually portrayed herself as a protector of the home in order to be able to make her arguments that she was protecting women. She painted herself as an ideal woman so she could speak for women. But her policies did not advance women, they kept them oppressed.
This is what I mean by the Schlafly phenomenon. There are women who will advance philosophies and policies that are specifically harmful to women in order to become powerful women. They can paint themselves as “defending the family” and therefore being a pro-woman candidate, when really, they are just using the political framework of second-wave feminism to make their anti-woman agenda seem pro-family. By politicizing the personal, by using themselves as the picture of womanhood, they can advance this anti-woman agenda
Schlafly was not the first to use her womanhood to advance and anti-woman agenda, and she most-certainly was not the last. Sarah Palin followed closely in Schlafly’s footsteps, proudly describing herself as a “Mama grizzly” or describing her life as a “hockey mom” in order to appeal to conservative women and men who valued traditional gender roles but who wanted to support a powerful woman.
Palin rejected any kind of established, normative campaign strategy and situated herself as a “maverick” – an unpredictable, ferocious mama bear. Her campaign persona was built around the trope of the protective mother who thought with her gut, not her head. It was bad for women in every way. But Palin was able to portray herself as the strong, independent woman to those who don’t necessarily like strong independent women. She was able to be a traditional woman – emotional, irrational, a protective mother, while still being an elected political figure. Her entire political career was a Schlafly phenomenon. She used policies and tropes that keep women oppressed to advance her career, thereby leaving women in general behind.
Which brings us to the present day – and Amy Coney Barrett.
Now, first, let me say a few things up-front. I think the third wave has done a lot to help us understand what it means to be a woman and a feminist, and I think choice, agency, and identity are a big part of that.
The second wave was a pretty unified movement. It was legal, political, and had relatively cohesive goals, as far as movements go. So it’s weird that it wasn’t that successful. But the result of that is that it had a kind of myopic view of what it meant to be a feminist and a woman. The terms were pretty limited.
The third wave is a bit more focused on the self. What do I want to be? Who do I choose to be? What are the different parts of my identity?
The second wave fought so that women could join the work force. The third wave says if I want to go and get my B.S., Master’s, and my PhD and then be the most well-educated stay-at-home mom in town that’s nobody’s damned business but my own. Because what matters is that I have the agency and the opportunity to choose my own destiny.
So can a woman be a stay-at-home mom and be a feminist? Absolutely.
Here’s a trickier question: can a woman be pro-life and be a feminist? That’s a tough one. A lot of women out there really do want what’s best for women, but believe life begins at conception. Abortion is one of the most fraught topics there is because it’s NOT just about the fetus.
I think it’s certainly possible to say that you are a feminist and that you believe life begins at conception and that every life is sacred. But you get onto much tricker ground when you say I am a feminist and I think I should be able to tell other women what to do in terms of their reproductive choices. For many feminists that’s it, that’s the shibboleth – you cannot be a feminist if you do not believe in abortion rights. But for other women it is a more complicated issue.
But what is not debatable is that reproductive health is a feminist issue. Outside of abortion, issues like access to health care, birth control, and pre-natal care are at the heart of the feminist movement. Expand that a bit and you have things like childcare and family leave. These issues do not exist in a vacuum. If you support women there are only certain positions you can take on these issues. It’s just a matter of degree.
So what about Barrett?
The political story is playing out very differently on the opposing sides of the aisle. Republicans want us to know about a devoted mother who is balancing a tough career with seven children, two of whom are adopted from Haiti, and one of whom has Downs Syndrome. They are painting a picture for us of her as an ideal woman. Barrett is pro-family because she has one. The narrative is focused on her motherhood and her ability to care WHILE she works. This is a clear attempt to appeal to voters who want to support women’s traditional roles without supporting women. They DO note that she is an originalist in the vein of Scalia, which appeals to conservatives, but originalism as a means of interpreting the constitution is generally hostile to women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized communities so here again we have an appeal to the status quo without openly advocating for oppression.
The Democrats are focusing on her positions on policy and even her questionable religious associations. Will she be inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade? What will she do about health care and the ACA? Can we trust somebody to make decisions who is part of a group that requires her to be submissive to another in all things?
That last one is really tricky because in the U.S. we absolutely do not have religious tests (supposedly) for public office. Your religion should never bar you from being a public servant. But if the tenets of your religion make you unfit for the office or the position what are people supposed to do? How are they supposed to handle that? Barrett may be put in the uncomfortable position of defending herself on those grounds if the Dems get particularly aggressive. Which seems unlikely, because they’re Dems, but anything is possible in the current political landscape.
Barrett’s positions are, by many measures, antithetical to the progress of women. She seems ready to deny health care and birth control, let alone abortion, to women across the board, and subscribes to a textual interpretation theory that is hostile to anyone who is not a white, property-owning man. But she is a woman who has been successful in a man’s world, and therefore some will look to her a picture of women’s empowerment.
But as Schlafly has shown us, an empowered woman does not necessarily empower women. And the GOP is already building a narrative like Schlafly’s and Palin’s that would use Barrett’s womanhood as a premise for an anti-woman career.
I don’t know Barrett. I was not familiar with her history before she became a new sensation in the last few weeks. But I know the history of women heroes in the conservative movement. I know how womanhood has been used against women. And I see the signs here. And that, my friends, makes me nervous.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.
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