Phyllis Schlafly Is Dead, Her Legacy Remains Alive And Hell

Phyllis Schlafly died yesterday. Many of the obituary headlines referred to her as the ‘first lady of the conservative movement.’ These headlines were ironically, or perhaps perfectly, totally sexist in themselves, since she and not her husband sowed the seeds of the hate cult the Republican Party depends on to elect many of its candidates to office.

It was Mrs. Schlafly, as I have long called her, who worked with Paul Weyrich and others to develop the divisive strategy of preying on “moral issues” — abortion, and antipathy toward women and LGBTQ people, among other things — to secure a permanent religious right voting bloc for conservative candidates who would vote against corporate regulation and racial equality.  If you wanted to get your Jerry Falwell on, Mrs. Schlafly was your gal.

She is credited with killing the Equal Rights Amendment, a wildly popular measure to this day. Most people think women have constitutional equality and want women to have constitutional equality. Phyllis Schlafly killed that, in what amounts to one of the most dismal failures of the second wave women’s movement. She did this by organizing, and speaking, but also by enlisting the worst allies.

The auto insurance industry wanted to keep charging women more, because among other things, discrimination is a driver of the rich staying rich. She fomented unreasonable panic about the military and invented the hapless, sweet woman who would be attacked by the predator in the bathroom because of your equality law. Phyllis Schlafly invented gardens and cauldrons of evil that continue to toxify the environment in which we live — against women, and now transgender people, and probably at least one if not several of your neighbors.

She was an early supporter of Donald Trump this election cycle, at a time when many cultural conservatives couldn’t get behind the lying philanderer (Note: They seem to have no problem when it’s far-right Christians who go hiking away from their marriages on the Appalachian trail with their mistresses). It made a great deal of sense, as he was, in some ways, following the footsteps she laid.

Phyllis Schlafly knew instinctively that lying, that saying hateful, outrageous things not backed by data, was not the losing proposition self-smug, reasoned liberals make it out to be. She knew that attention is part of power. She bred people like Ann Coulter, and yes, Donald Trump.

Why am I writing this? On the occasion of her death, I began to receive a number of text messages, probably because I debated her when I was 24. Here is the story I posted to Facebook last night:

Phyllis Schlafly died today.

I debated her in 2004 at a Federalist Society event on feminist jurisprudence at the University of St. Thomas Law School. I had just left my first husband and was kind of a mess, at that time in my life.

And yet I studied for weeks amid the boxes and chaos of a temporary apartment. I bought her books and scribbled in the margins. I put on my only suit. I wore heels. I called her Mrs. Schlafly the whole time.

I stunned that lady speechless. (I agreed with her that Social Security discriminates against stay-at-home mothers and called on her to work together to fix it.)

After the debate was over, she turned to me and hissed. “I have debated hundreds of your NOW ladies over the years, and nobody has responded to me that way.” Her bouffant was so full of Aquanet that it did not move.

“Well, Mrs. Schlafly,” I said in an equally low voice. “I’m just one member of a young feminist task force and one of thousands of young women in this country who are not going to stop fighting until women are equal and it’s done.” She looked at me and turned her head back to the front.

We exchanged no more words.

I guess I have a little more to say. When I was preparing to debate her, one of my strategies was to paint her as a walking anachronism. I may have called her that, even. I was barely 24 and she was in her 80s, so it wasn’t hard.

It pains me to see so many people going the cheap, quick, and easy route in dismissing her death. Hateful quotes of hers are spotlighted, and we all reassure ourselves that outright sexism is in the past and bigoted leaders are gone. They couldn’t possibly win in the future. That is not true. In a practical, political sense, Phyllis Schlafly is as alive today as she was yesterday, and she will continue to live on.

People who hold the same contemptuous views about their fellow human beings that Phyllis Schlafly did hold the majority power in Congress.

Racist gerrymandering gave us the Republican supermajorities in the states who put guns on college campuses and probes up vaginas, and give private companies the power to literally poison the public water that runs through faucets in communities of color, but/and it was the voter outreach strategy that depends on decades of Mrs. Schlafly’s work that also helped to propel them there.

The Republican nominee for president is the most outright bigot you could put on the stage, and it’s the primary reason why he won the primary base of that party.

So to smirk to ourselves that Phyllis Schlafly is gone, when the enduring and hateful power that she built is not, is to embrace a lefty ignorance that will only lose us more elections.

Fundamentally, Phyllis Schlafly understood that to win, you need the votes. The game is about numbers. The game is not about being right. The game is about saying the things that will support the organizing that gives you the numbers you need.

Now, I am not advocating that progressives abdicate the moral high ground. Lying is not right. In fact it is despicable. Preying on the worst in people is not right. There is a way to love one another, to use facts, and to win. I believe this with all of my heart, or I wouldn’t be typing this in my free time when I have a kid and no time for hobbies. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that we need to do the work and get the votes to win.

It was pretty amazing that Phyllis Schlafly was willing to do the work and get the votes to win by crossing one of the most unthinkable barriers for women — by being willing to be disliked. I think modern feminists could learn a lot from that, actually. Whether heel or sneaker, power comes from putting your foot down, too — not just from making other people, including your political allies, smile.

The other thing we need to remember is that Phyllis Schlafly was the poster child for STOP ERA because she was a woman. We will never stop having conservative women lead the organizing charge for the reactionary movement. It is not an error — it is the strategy. Women are more effective at enforcing regressive social norms than men are, particularly now that Republican men are a bit sensitive about all the ‘war on women’ stuff they’ve earned nine times over.

We need to accept that women are spokespeople and strategists of the conservative movement. We need to accept that women do misogyny, and they do it very well. I predict the phenomenon of bigoted conservative women (mostly white women) will increase, not decrease, as the years go by. Phyllis Schlafly laid the framework. Now more conservative women are going to get it.

Finally, I am really over the second-wave women’s movement congratulating itself for being right. You probably were right with regards to Phyllis Schlafly’s unique blend of hatred and doe-eyed strategic idiocy, and you certainly were with regards to the Equal Rights Amendment, and it didn’t matter. She beat you because she out-organized you. The way to win for the future is not to dig into the trenches Betty Friedan built that didn’t work the first time.

Passion won’t solve this. ‘Awareness’ won’t solve this. Unhelpful pleas for doing right for ‘all women’ certainly won’t solve it. Conflating the Democratic Party’s electoral needs with the women’s movement won’t solve it, either.

Accept and spotlight the diversity of women’s experiences in all of their messiness. Do it because it’s beautiful, but also do it to get the goddamn leadership and votes to put an Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution.

Phyllis Schlafly

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Women In Combat – Now, Keep Pushing for ERA

If they’re willing to put their lives on the line, then we’re willing to say they deserve a chance. Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary, on ordering that the ban on women in combat be lifted.

After a period of transition, women will be as eligible to serve as men in military positions, including combat. Assignments will be made on the basis of skill, not the contents of one’s underpants. This is a seismic shift that is much bigger than the military.

In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order for the integration of men of color into the military. In 2011, President Obama certified a congressional bill repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which barred out non-heterosexuals from serving in the military. In both cases, more shifts followed in the broader culture.

So that moment is here for women. Will we take it?

With the removal of the ban on women in combat, one of the primary objections used to halt ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment has been — poof — erased. This is a strategic time to renew and redouble efforts to put these beautiful words into the Constitution:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

For those not familiar with the ERA, there are two primary ways to get it inserted into the Constitution. First, Congress can reintroduce the Equal Rights Amendment, as is done every year with the help of champions like Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who joins other allies on Capitol Hill in being consistently awesome on this issue. After Congress adopts it, two-thirds of the states would need to ratify the ERA.

Another way to equality for women in the Constitution would be to have three additional states ratify the Equal Rights Amendment that was ratified by 35 states in the ’70s. Under this strategy, you typically see folks pouring the most energy into the following three unratified states: Florida, Illinois and Virginia. While Congress imposed a 1982 deadline for ratification of this version of the ERA, many constitutional scholars believe that this deadline would not be found valid in the courts — particularly because the Madison Amendment to the Constitution was introduced in 1789 and adopted in 1992.

Both strategies present an opportunity to finally secure a constitutional guarantee against sex discrimination (ironically, the vast majority of people in this country believes such a thing already exists). Under both strategies, state legislatures will be required to act. While support from the president and others would be nice, symbolically important to be sure, know that majority votes within state legislatures is where the decision-making power rests.

So what can we do? Well, I’d argue that women’s rights activists should take a page out of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, playbook. There were mainstream non-profit organizations that made arguments on Capitol Hill, and hosted lobby days, and sent action alerts, and no doubt, those actions helped. But I would also argue that the success of that repeal also had everything to do with activists who did not wait for permission from mainstream organizations, who were willing to take more radical actions, including non-violent civil disobedience as individuals and leveraging smaller, feistier grassroots groups with less investment in Washington culture. While the strategies are not the same, and it’s probably not practical to expect groups like these to work together for a variety of reasons, they are complimentary efforts building toward a common goal on the activist side. What we need now in the push for constitutional equality are more voices, not fewer.

Pressuring decision makers is great, but we should also think bigger. We should not just demand that decision makers do something, we need to be the decision makers ourselves.

Run for office. If you want to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, truly, I believe, the best thing you could do is to re-orient your thinking right now to say to yourself and others: “I’m thinking about running for my state legislature.” (This is a great strategy no matter where you live.) We need more women in public office for so many reasons.

For too long the Equal Rights Amendment has been represented as a time way back when, when some really terrific activists almost got us there. History is important. It’s important to teach and important to know. But even more important than the history is the doing, the now, the activists who are on fire (many of whom are part of the history, actually). When we sit around a fire, we look at the flames and not the logs. What we need now in the push for constitutional equality is more urgency, less history. Delightfully, Secretary Panetta has given us a boost we can choose to take now.

This post is dedicated to one of my favorite activists on fire, Zoe Nicholson, who fasted for 37 days in the Illinois statehouse demanding ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 — and continues, to this day, to focus relentlessly on what we and you can do now.