Phyllis Schlafly, 1924-2016

News reports are coming in that Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime conservative anti-feminist who helped defeat the ERA and propel the Republican Party to power, has died.

Despite the tremendous damage she did to women, and progressive causes more generally, I had a great deal of respect for Schlafly, not least because she was a woman who managed to navigate—and amass—power in a man’s world, all the while denying that that was what women wanted at all.

That denial, coupled with the rampant sexism of her world, cost her dearly. It was none other than Catharine MacKinnon, her most formidable antagonist, who caught the full measure of Schlafly’s greatness, and tragedy, in two 1982 debates with Schlafly over the ERA:

Mrs. Schlafly tells us that being a woman has not gotten in her way. That she knows what she is saying because it happened to her. She could be one of the exceptional 7.8 percent, although who’s to know? I do submit to you, though, that any man who had a law degree and had done graduate work in political science; had given testimony on a wide range of important subjects for decades; had done effective and brilliant political, policy, and organizational work within the party; had published widely, including nine books; was instrumental in stopping a major social initiative to amend the Constitution just short of victory dead in its tracks, and had a beautiful, accomplished family—any man like that would have a place in the current administration. Having raised six children, a qualification not many men can boast of (and if so probably with less good reason) did not make the difference. I would accept correction if I am wrong, and she may yet be appointed. She was widely reported to have wanted such a post, but I don’t believe everything I read, especially about women. She certainly deserved a place in the Defense Department. Phyllis Schlafly is a qualified woman.

I charge that the Reagan Administration has discriminated against Phyllis Schlafly on the basis of her sex.

It was a devastating rebuttal to Schlafly’s position, yet it captured, with uncharacteristic tenderness and solicitude, a poignant truth about Schlafly: she was extraordinarily talented yet denied the full measure of her greatness by the forces she most faithfully served.

I said this about Schlafly in The Reactionary Mind:

Even without directly engaging the progressive argument, conservatives may absorb, by some elusive osmosis, the deeper categories and idioms of the left, even when those idioms run directly counter to their official stance. After years of opposing the women’s movement, for example, Phyllis Schlafly seemed genuinely incapable of conjuring the prefeminist view of women as deferential wives and mothers. Instead, she celebrated the activist “power of the positive woman.” And then, as if borrowing a page from The Feminine Mystique, she railed against the meaninglessness and lack of fulfillment among American women; only she blamed these ills on feminism rather than on sexism.

When she spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she didn’t claim that it introduced a radical new language of rights. Her argument was the opposite. The ERA, she told the Washington Star, “is a takeaway of women’s rights.” It will “take away the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home.” Schlafly was obviously using the language of rights in a way that was opposed to the aims of the feminist movement; she was using rights talk to put women back into the home, to keep them as wives and mothers. But that is the point: conservatism adapts and adopts, often unconsciously, the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy.

Antifeminism was a latecomer to the conservative cause. Through the early 1970s, advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) could still count Richard Nixon, George Wallace, and Strom Thurmond as supporters; even Phyllis Schlafly described the ERA as something “between innocuous and mildly helpful.” But once feminism entered “the sensitive and intensely personal arena of relations between the sexes,” writes historian Margaret Spruill, the abstract phrases of legal equality took on a more intimate and concrete meaning. The ERA provoked a counterrevolution, led by Schlafly and other women, that was as grassroots and nearly as diverse as the movement it opposed. So successful was this counterrevolution—not just at derailing the ERA, but at propelling the Republican Party to power—that it seemed to prove the feminist point. If women could be that effective as political agents, why shouldn’t they be in Congress or the White House?

Schlafly grasped the irony. She understood that the women’s movement had tapped into and unleashed a desire for power and autonomy among women that couldn’t simply be quelled. If women were to be sent back to the exile of their homes, they would have to view their retreat not as a defeat, but as one more victory in the long battle for women’s freedom and power. As we saw in chapter 1, she described herself as a defender, not an opponent, of women’s rights. The ERA was “a takeaway of women’s rights,” she insisted, the “right of the wife to be supported and to have her minor children supported” by her husband. By focusing her argument on “the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home,” Schlafly reinforced the notion that women were wives and mothers first; their only need was for the protection provided by their husbands. At the same time, she described that relationship in the liberal language of entitlement rights. “The wife has the right to support” from her spouse, she claimed, treating the woman as a feminist claimant and her husband as the welfare state.

When my book came out, I was interviewed by S.E. Cupp, the conservative journalist, on C-SPAN. In the middle of our interview, I had a Marshall Mcluhan moment, as Cupp read out some of these passages, and then told me she had emailed them to Schlafly the night before. Schlafly’s response? She said I was full of crap.




  1. Bill Michtom September 5, 2016 at 11:34 pm | #

    She was a hateful person who did vast damage to women. Clarence Thomas could have used her as a model for all his ugliness.

    She was the right-to-work campaign against women.

  2. Dean C. Rowan September 6, 2016 at 12:08 am | #

    The first time I recognized Schlafly as being anything other than a loon was when in the late ’80s I read that first chapter in Feminism Unmodified. To my lights, MacKinnon is not uncharacteristically tender or solicitous. Those dispositions are among the palette with which she routinely works. Granted, she can also exhibit unmovable resistance against an opponent. But she isn’t the bully that the popular caricature depicts.

    I listened to the portion of the Cupp interview including Schlafly’s reaction to your remarks. She didn’t say you were full of crap. She largely agreed with you, but she called you out for the suggestion that only liberals value rights, which is a plausible (if partial) reading of the remarks quoted here. Not knowing the evolution of her thoughts about the ERA, I’m puzzled how she can begin believing it was “innocuous and mildly helpful” (which may be about as much as we can realistically expect from any law intended to grant new rights) and yet end up claiming it would have been “a takeaway of women’s rights.” The two positions are incompatible. I’m left to judge that she was a more successful politician than MacKinnon, but also that MacKinnon is the superior political and legal thinker.

  3. Hangaku Gozen September 6, 2016 at 12:22 am | #

    I normally agree with you on the things you write about, but here I will disagree. Phyllis Schlafly was an awful person. I speak as one who, in her undergraduate years, went around Northern California stumping for the Equal Right Amendment. I cried when it failed to make its deadline in 1979. (I was just 21 and I cried very easily back then. At 60 now, not so much.) To me Schlafly represented how the right wing could crush a relatively modest idea by using a woman to oppose equal rights for women. Hearing about her demise, I said, “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”

  4. Roqeuntin September 6, 2016 at 12:27 am | #

    I’ll just level with you, I’m too young to know of Phyllis Schlafly through anything except videos Right Wing Watch would post of her saying wacky things. I’d like to work up some sympathy, but I can’t.

  5. Dean C. Rowan September 6, 2016 at 1:01 am | #

    I really think Corey means “respect” in a sense other than “a feeling of deep admiration.” I think he means he finds Schlafly worthy of consideration, just as MacKinnon did. She wasn’t merely a loon or an evil batshit Right Winger, although she might have been that, too. She represented the cognitive dissonance of the reactionary mind, to coin a phrase, by on the one hand demonstrating a capacity to think and act politically toward successful achievement of her goals while, on the other hand, dispensing an ideology that devalued her demonstrated capacity. The exercise doesn’t call for sympathy, but perhaps empathy and a resistance to taking sides, if only long enough to observe what was remarkable about her trajectory. We wouldn’t be discussing this if Phyllis Schlafly had been Philip Schlafly.

    • Hangaku Gozen September 6, 2016 at 1:07 am | #

      She wasn’t merely a loon or an evil batshit Right Winger, although she might have been that, too.

      Not “might.” Per the evidence she left online and on old fashioned paper, she was. Asking a woman from that ERA (sorry bad pun) to have any empathy for Schlafly is too much.

    • Chip Berlet September 6, 2016 at 8:55 am | #

      I, too, respected her as an adversary. So I agree with Corey Robin’s recognition of her intellect and skill as an organizer. That’s not the same as admiring her work–it is a recognition of her abilities.

      • b. September 6, 2016 at 3:34 pm | #

        There once was an election dust-up in Germany around the observation that efficiency, punctuality, attention to detail etc. are “secondary virtues”. Thus I am exhausting my Godwin allowance for this month.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant September 6, 2016 at 10:24 am | #

      “We wouldn’t be discussing this if Phyllis Schlafly had been Philip Schlafly.”

      Or maybe we WOULD be as the Reagan Administration might well have at least interviewed a Mr. Schlafly who had Ms. Schlafly’s resume for some kind of Cabinet post.

  6. mark September 6, 2016 at 10:27 am | #

    It’s a long way from this, ‘Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain’ Hardcover – 4 Oct 2007 by Julia Bush, see LRB review ‘Less than Perfectly Submissive’ by
    Susan Pedersen.

  7. Harald Korneliussen September 6, 2016 at 12:22 pm | #

    I got this from the transcript of the C-SPAN interview you linked to (cleaned up a bit):

    > I talked to Phyllis yesterday, and I asked what she thought of this, and here’s what she said. “Does he think that liberals are the only ones permitted to talk about rights? Conservatives have rights too and want to defend them. The ERA has absolutely no benefit to women. I testify inside 41 state legislative hearings, and the ERAs were never able to show a single benefit that women would get. Further, two important rights that ERA would take away from women, making the draft sex neutral – my daughters thought that was the nuttiest thing they’d ever heard of, give ERA to women then they have to sign up for the draft like their brothers? You have to be kidding. Two, the laws of all 50 states said that the husband has the financial obligation to support their wife and children.”

    I wouldn’t characterize that as saying you were “full of shit”, nor do I find her position to be especially hard to understand or self-contradicting. I disagree with it, sure, and I think it was extremely selfish of her. But it’s plain enough, and can be summed up as “I’ve got mine”.

    Schafly would rather have laws granting explicit privileges to women (and the option of having such laws), than another tool to fight discrimination against women. She didn’t felt she needed it, and why would she? She had the power she wanted. Would she have had more power in a more gender-egalitarian world? A place in the Reagan administration, maybe, as you say? Quite possibly. But she didn’t think risking a more gender-egalitarian world was worth it. As she saw it, she had something to lose – a certain form of social privilege. A privilege you might think worthless and empty and incomprehensible, but she obviously didn’t. And nothing to win that she cared for as much.

    Lots and lots women made the same choice as Schafly. (I recently learned about the “compensatory feminist” movement in Latin America, which apparently stood for much of the same.) They still do. Do you know how far left you have to go in Norway and Sweden to find politically active women who support equality in the draft? Depressingly far.

    It’s too easy – and in itself contemptuous of women – to say they were simply dumb and ill-informed and didn’t know their own good. They just had a different view of the relationship between the sexes, and they (selfishly) preferred inequality because they considered it beneficial – if not to all women, at least to themselves.

  8. Chai T. Ch'uan September 7, 2016 at 1:12 am | #

    I’m of an age that when I recall Phyllis Schlafly I remember her most for her stunning argument against allowing women in combat: because we would then have no way to stop them from insisting that they be allowed to play in the NFL too. Where would the slippery slope lead to, for gosh sakes — fantasy football?!
    Growing up with three sisters, it was clear to me at a young age that Schlafly felt it a fair trade to preserve her idea of the “special rights of women” by sacrificing millions of other young girls’ dreams about their own.

  9. E.A. Blair September 7, 2016 at 9:13 am | #

    To paraphrase Bette Davis, “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good . . . Phyllis Schlafly is dead. Good.

    We need a volunteer to attend her funeral and stick a pin in her to make sure. That’s the only reason I would go to my sister’s funeral (whenever that is).

  10. amp September 7, 2016 at 2:06 pm | #

    I recently saw the great Louis Malle movie Lucien Lacombe after many years and what struck me was the sheer contingency of entering into what Marshall Petain called “the way of collaboration” (collaboration was a fairly neutral term at the time) for so many:

    Hitchens and dozens of his fellow “ex-IS graduates” who started singing praises of “the Market” and Air Power probably fell prey to a similar admixture of opportunism, venality, contrarianism, and vindictiveness:

    We’ll never know what “vicious mole of nature” caused the likes of Schlafly and the legion of closeted gay politicians, clergymen, etc. to act as great upholders of Family Values, Law & Order, etc (e.g. ) . We’ll probably see many more of these types (e.g. the Conservative Indian origin ex-governor of Louisiana, uber-militarist female politicos, Jamaicans and Haitians who came from the lighter skinned “Comprador Bourgeoisie” elites like the one described by George Carlin below who have have no compunction meting out ultra-violence on darker skinned, lower-class folks etc.) going forward in the melting pot where appearances count for progressively less and everything from race to gender becomes more “peformative” than a biological factoid:

  11. Dean C. Rowan September 9, 2016 at 12:05 pm | #

    The entire text of Andrea Dworkin’s Right Wing Women is online and free. It includes a handful of references to Schlafly. One, appearing on pp.29-31 of the book, includes a footnote recounting the debates with MacKinnon, about which Schlafly commented, “She did have a good point about the Reagan administration, but it is the Reagan administration’s loss that they didn’t ask me to [drowned out by audience applause] but it isn’t my loss.”

    There are also some choice jabs by Dworkin.

  12. glinka21 September 17, 2016 at 12:49 am | #

    I can’t speak to her personality. But her actions were detrimental to a lot of women, and by inference, to a lot of men; since the damaging distortions to women work as well on the opposite sex. No one gains by discrimination, except a very few who have all the wealth and power, and recognize the value of fomenting hatred among their enemies.

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