Phyllis Schlafly, anti-heroine of the recent television miniseries Mrs America, passed away in 2016 at the age of 92. (For facts about her life I rely on the New York Times’ obituary.) Her longevity is not to be wondered at.  She was a tough cookie who left a lasting mark on American culture and laws, nowhere more decisively than in her successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.

The ERA originated in the 1920s with socialist bluestockings who even opposed labour laws designed to protect women workers as an obstacle to female equality. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the resurgence of feminism, this effort to amend the US Constitution gained new oxygen, and in 1971 was passed by the US Congress. A minimum of 38 states had to ratify ERA for the amendment to take effect and, a year later, 28 states had given it the green light.

As the amendment hung in the balance, Phyllis Schlafly, who until then had been more interested in fighting communism, launched her STOP ERA campaign to mobilise conservative women, and by the end of the decade ERA was effectively dead.

Mrs. America portrays her as a benighted person who stood in the way of the progressive program favoring easy access to abortion, homosexual marriage, and the replacement of the term “sex” (which is binary and biological) with “gender” (which is a social construction and detachable from biological sex, thus, opening the door to transexualism). The series assumes that before Schlafly there was a social consensus about women’s equality. In fact, “equal rights” is a loaded term and most women – and men – had no idea of the far-reaching implications of a Constitutional amendment that could eradicate the words “man” and “woman” from the law. Phyllis Schlafly sought to wake them up.

‘Stop Taking Our Privileges’

Schlafly was a dynamic leader who aroused powerful feelings in both her followers and her opponents.  Although she was hostile to mainstream feminists (whom she referred to as “women’s libbers”) she might be described as a feminist herself, in that she sought to represent the perspective and interests of women who prioritised family and traditional morality. Given her large following, it is evident that enormous numbers of women felt she gave voice to them and their concerns about the role of women in society in a way no one else did.

She had outstanding academic credentials, graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in only three years, received a master’s degree from Radcliffe in only nine months and got a law degree from Washington University in 1978 at the age of 50.  Her energy was formidable.  She wrote or edited more than 20 books, published an influential monthly newsletter, appeared daily on nearly 50 radio stations and delivered regular commentaries on CBS television in the 1970s.  Her volunteer organization “STOP ERA” later became the Eagle Forum, which flourishes to this day, coordinating and supporting the work of various conservative pro-family groups.

The period during which she was active was one of social upheaval. The Civil Rights movement made lasting changes in race relations, while a new wave of feminists emerged, influenced by the civil rights movement. For this reason, American feminists have tended to think of women’s issues differently from feminists in other countries. Just as we, as a nation, aspired to treat black people no differently from white people simply on the basis of skin colour, so 1970s feminists argued that women should not be treated differently simply on the basis of their sex. 

It was this way of thinking that lay behind the ERA. European feminists, in contrast, tended to think of women as embedded in families and sought for ways to help them combine their roles in the family with their jobs. If this required some sort of preferential treatment for women, that was all right.

Phyllis Schlafly came down strongly on the side of those who opposed getting rid of differential treatment for women. The “STOP” on her campaign button stood for Stop Taking Our Privileges. Since she saw traditional marriage as a good institution which allowed women to find fulfilment and happiness, she was profoundly disturbed by all those forces of the sexual revolution that undermined it: sex outside marriage, promiscuity, easy divorce and abortion.  

A change of mind

My view of her has shifted radically over my life.  I remember having a strong reaction against her back in the 1960s and 1970s.  I remember, in particular her rather dippy song, “I enjoy being a girl”, and mildly tasteless jokes about pantyhose. Although I am a strongly feminine personality her pretty, girly sort of femininity repelled me.

Being in Madison Wisconsin at the time of the big DOW chemical riots, I was drifting into the sexual revolution, the anti-war movement and the politics of the early New Left. The Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society appealed to me strongly. (I was to learn later, that Tom Hayden, who drafted it, was strongly influenced by Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical Pacem in Terris.) Much of this blended well with Marx’s Economic and Political Manuscripts – early works of his in which he developed his theory of alienated labour. Had I known about Phyllis Schlafly highly hawkish politics I would certainly have rejected her with horror.

But many years later, as my husband and I were putting together a philosophical anthology on Sex and Gender issues in 2009, we included a significant chunk of her work (much to the horror of mainstream feminist referees). Having become pro-life and Catholic myself, this brought me closer to her position on many issues.

Revaluing the family

I had written a book on affirmative action in faculty appointments, and rejected the idea that a just society required proportional representation of women and minorities in positions of power. For, obviously, women who pursue such positions do not represent the values and interests of women who choose to center their lives around their marriage and family. Such women are not going to spend long hours away from home on the campaign trail. Schlafly had six children and a husband who was a well to do corporate lawyer who was happy to let her pursue her own interests.

My experience at Smith College (also the alma mater of Betty Friedan) had taught me to think that women’s careers were all-important, and those who “only married” were second class. Having come from an unhappy family, I was not in a hurry to marry and did so only after it was too late to have children. In retrospect, I think this was a bad thing; homemaking and child rearing can be fulfilling for most women, and careers are not all they are cracked up to be. As the distinguished bioethicist Dan Callahan (who has a large family) put it, “[M]y family has a longer shelf life than my books.”

Schlafly illustrated this point by saying that after many long years at a professional job, the system throws you a retirement party and maybe gives you a gold watch; but those who have invested their lives in their families have their grown children, whom they have raised to be good people and productive citizens, to give them a deep feeling of satisfaction. They may perhaps also care for their parents in their old age (I don’t remember her making this point, but it is true). Elite men, however, tend to accept what elite feminists say as “what women want”, ignoring the very different views of religious and working class women.

In sum, Schlafly was right that being treated in exactly the same way as men is not to the advantage of women.  In this, she surprisingly agreed with the blue-collar women’s labor unions, who opposed any legislation that would undermine the protective legislation they had worked hard to get passed. They favoured specific bills for specific ills (equal pay for equal work for example) rather than sweeping legislation like the ERA. 

Ultimately, Schlafly was a conservative populist, appealing to the masses over the heads of the elites. In this regard she was like Trump, and in fact she endorsed his presidential candidacy on the grounds that he had “the courage and energy” to do “what the grass-roots want him to do.” Although I remain horrified by her hawkishness (according to the New York Times, she regarded the atom bomb as the gift of a wise God), I have to say that her criticisms of elite feminists are, for the most part, right on.

There is evidence that the majority of women prefer to focus on their families, though not all of them can be as lucky as Phyllis Schlafly was, having a wealthy husband who encouraged her independent activities; for women who have to work for money outside the home, it is a struggle to find time to be the sort of mothers they want to be. Yet that remains something they hope to achieve, and feminists who denigrate marriage and family by contrast with high powered careers are unlikely to strike a sympathetic chord with today’s equivalent of Schlafly’s supporters.

A battle for the soul of feminism

At issue here is a battle for the soul of feminism. We have come to associate the term “feminist” with many of the issues that proponents of the ERA favoured – abortion on demand, same sex marriage, women in combat, preferential hiring of women in positions of power, and so on. Mrs America views Schlafly negatively for opposing such “progressive” causes. 

In the series she comes across as irritatingly smug, prissy and hard.  She did, of course, dress impeccably, have perfect posture, her hair dressed regularly, and carry herself with poise and confidence. She remaining calm even when Betty Friedan, in a public debate, lost her cool completely and called her a “witch” who should be “burned at the stake”.  Schlafly merely responded she was glad Friedan had said it so people could see how intolerant these liberals really were.

But what is “feminism” today? An old friend of mine, Juli Loesch, was a pro-life feminist active in Pax Christi. When some feminists called her a “self-appointed feminist”, she retorted, “Who the hell appointed them?” We could ask the same of the women who have demanded abortion as a “woman’s right”, and other policies that Schlafly feared would come in as a result of the ERA but have been put in place without it.

When women were denied the vote, and the double standard of sexual morality reigned uncontested, the need for feminist advocacy was clear. The suffragists wore white to signify purity – for men as well as for women. In part this was a call for men to be sexually faithful in marriage (prostitution was very widespread at that time), and in part it was the expression of a hope that if women had the vote this would enable them to bring the more “feminine voice” virtues into the public arena. 

Unfortunately, putting women into positions of power did not ultimately do much to change the aggressive, competitive and even ruthless institutions themselves; instead those women tended to become more like (and sometimes even worse than) the men, to get ahead.

When there is so much difference of outlook and interest among women, and so many debates about what is good for them, we may doubt that the word “feminist” designates anything useful. For some people it is a flag they have to wave. For others it has become toxic.

Celia Wolf-Devine is retired from her position teaching philosophy at Stonehill College. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA with her husband Phil Devine, who is also a retired philosophy professor....