On a personal level, I don’t care about Phyllis Schlafly. At all. I don’t think her legacy amounts to much of anything and I’m sick of seeing all the op-eds acting like it does. I met Schlafly once when she came to testify for the Presidential Commission for which I was working. Even at the age of 22, I took her measure and found it wanting. All she was then and all she turned out to be was a woman who wanted power however she could get it and didn’t care who got hurt in the process.
Once Schlafly determined that she couldn’t get respect and legitimacy through education, knowledge and accomplishments (you know, the way men get it), she allied herself with men in the one way they were willing to accept her: as an anti-feminist crusader. In the late1970s and early 1980s, the Feminist Menace was soaring. This meant it was ripe for a backlash (there’s a cycle to these things). Conservative men desperately needed a gender decoy, a woman who could lead the charge against feminism. Women might be suspicious of a male-led movement but if a woman was the leader? That could work, especially if said leader was articulate and organized and demonstrated her conservative bona fides through a husband and six children.
Thus, Schafly went from a wannabe foreign policy wonk to conservative women’s leader. It had to gall her that, while men fervently supported the work she did against feminism, they consistently denied her any real power. She lost two bids for Congress. Despite receiving recommendations from some powerhouse donors, the Reagan administration refused to even consider her for one of the several positions she sought within it. The only thing of substance she actually got to do was rabble rouse. That must’ve hurt.
I’m sure you’re wondering why, if I don’t care about Schlafly, I have devoted an entire column to her. Good question. The answer is that while I don’t care about her on a personal level, I do care on a professional one because she is an interesting study in the psychological impact of oppression. She tried to find a way around being oppressed but only wound up reinforcing it for others. There was only temporary gain for herself.
People often confuse oppression (being treated unjustly) as something that people are aware is occurring. If my boot is on your neck pinning you to the floor, how could you not realize it? But if you’re constantly told that the boot isn’t bad, that the floor is where you belong, that this is the natural state of things, that I have the God-given right to keep you there, and every time you get up, someone forces you to get back down, then lying on the floor under a boot becomes your normal. You might even become convinced that not only do you choose to be on the floor but others belong there with you. And that is where Phyllis Schlafly comes in.
She tried to get up off the floor. She got a master’s and a law degree, wrote books and ran for Congress. But none of that got her where she wanted to be. Instead of playing with the big boys, Schafly recognized that the only thing she could do was embrace their philosophy of female subservience. So, she fulfilled the only role they wanted her to play and, in so doing, aligned herself with the oppressor. Then she took the frustration and suppressed anger often felt by the oppressed and redirected it laterally (other white women of privilege) and downward (people of color, the poor, immigrants, workers, the LGBT community). And there she stayed until she faded into irrelevance. At the end, even her daughter and other leaders of the group she founded ignored her leadership.
Did Schafly believe everything that she preached? Did she – a lawyer, author, and tireless activist, a woman with boundless ambition – truly think that women should just stay home, obey their husbands and raise children? I imagine she did…eventually. Once she chose her path of anti-feminism, of going against everything that she tried to do initially, she had to put her heart and soul into her new role. Once Schafly was allowed to raise herself onto her knees by selling out her fellow floor dwellers, she had to believe in order to live with herself.
And that is her true legacy. It isn’t one of determined leadership, principled ideals and endless energy. No, Schlafly’s story is instead a cautionary tale of a woman blessed by many wonderful qualities but who, when thwarted by sexist oppression, made the wrong choice. Instead of joining her sisters in the fight to secure fair treatment for everyone, she chose the gilded path of least resistance and damaged a lot of people along the way. Thus, the legacy of Phyllis Schlafly isn’t one of success and joy but of failure and tragedy. How I wish for all of us that it was not so.