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Phyllis Schlafly Was a Feminist. Really.

The Careerist

September 8, 2016


I don't like to speak ill of the newly departed, but I was never a fan of Phyllis Schlafly, who died on September 5. She was simply poisonous to the cause of gender equality.

Besides spearheading the killing of the Equal Rights Amendment, she turned feminism on its head in countless ways.

Actually, let's count some of the ways. Here's Schlafly in her own words over the years:

-  "Non-criminal sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases."

-  "ERA means abortion funding, means homosexual privileges."

-  "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape."

-  "[Feminists] are in a fight with human nature."

-  "Feminism has changed the way women think, and it has changed the way men think but the trouble is, it hasn't changed the attitudes of babies at all."

-  "Some of the women say they don't want to take care of their own babies. I don't know why a man would marry a woman like that."

When I had my first feminist awakening in Houston in the 1970s, Schlafly symbolized everything I despised about Texas femininity: The sweet-looking Southern belle type who aggressively asserted traditional roles. As I remember it, none of the girls at my school wanted the ERA—assuming they knew what it was.

But you know what? Some of those Texas debutantes ended up going to law school. Not all of them ended up simply getting their MRS and calling it a day.

Which brings me back to Schlafly and her brand of feminism.

She was a feminist in that she did what she wanted, though she always talked a good game about being a wife and mother (she had six kids, all breast fed) first and foremost. Even before there was a women's movement, she was advising Barry Goldwater on his presidential bid, writing books and giving speeches. Years later, she announced to her family that she was going to law school. (Her husband objected; she withdrew, but then he relented.)

For someone who mobilized housewives and politicians to wage a hugely successful war against the ERA, Schlafly always played coy about her ambitions. "Politics was my hobby," she told NPR in 2011, discounting the idea that she was ever career-minded. "And I really spent 25 years as a full-time homemaker before I did any particular traveling around." Of course, that wasn't exactly true. She told New York Times in 2006: "I was never gone overnight. I'd drive out to give a speech, and sometimes I'd bring a nursing baby with me." 

But for all her talk about the glories of traditional womanhood, Schlafly didn't seem to raise her two daughters with less ambition than her four sons. One daughter (Liza) is a lawyer and another (Anne ) owns a cooking school and catering business.  Her sons are lawyers (John and Andrew), a mathematician and conservative activist (Roger), and surgeon (Bruce).

Arguably, Schlafly really did do it all—and had it all: Husband, kids, career and power. So why not own up to it?

Well, because paying lip service to traditional gender roles (Schlafly told NPR that "the only person's permission I had to get was my husband's") and downplaying ambition make it all go down so much easier. That way no one is threatened.

It's similar to what Sarah Palin (another self-proclaimed housewife) does with her hunk of a husband, Todd: Making him feel like the king of the jungle though she's the one who's bringing home the big slabs of bacon. (Hasting College of Law professor Joan Williams once said to me about Palin: "She stands for the reassuring message that women can attain equality and nothing has to change for men, and that the workplace can stay the same.") Arguably, Palin is an acolyte of Schlafly's.

Schlafly was manipulative, subversive and hypocritical. And it worked like a charm.

At the end of the day, she was a feminist. Just not my kind of a feminist.

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You hit the nail on the head.

Great piece. I had the same thoughts when I read the NYT obituary.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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