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.