The Paradox of Phyllis Schlafly

9 Sep 2016


Phyllis Schlafly, a towering figure of the US conservative movement passed away on Monday, aged 92.


Possibly the last significant conservative anti-feminist campaigner, Mrs Schlafly is credited with helping to pave the way for Ronald Reagan and a new brand of conservatism to take power. Likewise, the impact of anti-feminism on the national scene can be attributed to her ability, drive and conviction.


Schlafly enjoyed a long political career. Shortly after graduating from Radcliffe College (Harvard’s sister school for women) in 1945 with a master’s in political science, she went on to become a Republican Party activist, frequently campaigning against Communism in the 1950s.


She ran for Congress three times, but lost to the incumbents, and published her most famous book, A Choice not an Echo, attacking the elite of the party who ignored grass-roots conservatism. Even in her 90s she remained involved in politics, attending every Republican convention since 1952.


Mrs Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump at a rally in March, contending “We’ve been following the losers for so long – now we’ve got a guy who’s going to lead us to victory”. With the news of her death, Trump described her as “a patriot, a champion for women”. Conversely, most conservative women’s organisations have remained silent or critical of Trump’s campaign.


Schlafly led the battle against the rise of feminism in the 1960s. She once described feminists as a ‘bunch of bitter women seeking a constitutional cure for their personal problems’, and argued that ‘virtuous women’ are not sexually assaulted, also preaching (in 2007) that marital rape does not exist, because “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex”.


The zenith of her political career came with her victory in blocking the Equal Rights Amendment, fearing it would lead to unisex bathrooms, women in combat, homosexual marriage, and unsafe working conditions for women. Seemingly, Schlafly believed gender equality was synonymous with the genders being identical, a fallacy still held by many anti-feminists today.


Rather than needing to fight for equality, she believed women did not need anymore rights than they were already afforded, since the role of wife and mother was what was truly liberating.


Schlafly was equally angered by the rise of the LGBT movement. Railing against the attempt to introduce AIDS education to public school curriculums in the 1980s, she equated it with “the teaching of safe sodomy”, concluding that sex education was the “principal cause of teenage pregnancy”.


She never shrank from battle, frequently taking on feminist icons such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, with Friedan debating Schlafly at Illnois State University in 1973, in which Friedan famously called her a traitor to her sex, a heretic whom she would like to burn at the stake.


Nevertheless, it was her message, rather than her character, that propelled her to the forefront of Republican politics.


Her message was problematic and paradoxical.


Schlafly tapped into the anxiety some felt in a time of unprecedented change, characterised by the rise of the civil rights movements, and for feminism, culminating in the momentous, but divisive Roe vs Wade Supreme Court case, which legalised abortion. The separate spheres of gender were merging, particularly with the public sphere no longer being exclusive to men.


The idealised 19th century sanctity of the individualist, nuclear family, and cult of domesticity, was increasingly being rejected.

Schlafly was angered by the cultural transformations in American society and insisted that the feminist movement was a‘fight with human nature’, as women naturally belonged in the private, domestic domain. Yet, she simultaneously served as an example of how women could help merge the separate spheres of gender.


By entering a political career, gaining a master’s degree, travelling the country giving speeches, working in journalism, and writing over twenty books, Schlafly undermined her pursuit to save the cult of domesticity and, rather ironically, helped smash the glass ceiling.


If anything Schlafly proved that a woman could be a wife and mother whilst also pursuing a public career.


Ultimately, she was swimming against the tide of history – a history which eventually surpassed her, as she witnessed the legalisation of gay marriage, abortion, the introduction of paid maternity and paternity leave, and the very real prospect of a woman becoming president for the first time in US history. Her prediction that the movement for gender equality was ‘doomed to fail’ was discredited within her own lifetime.


Progress is part of the ‘human nature’ that Schlafly so often spoke of.  Progress is not something found within the comfortable concentration camps and forced gender roles women have for so long been consigned to. With the death of Mrs Schlafly comes the expiration of her brand of conservative anti-feminism.


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