Phyllis Schlafly, mother, attorney and longtime antifeminist, died recently. What Schlafly promoted was not novel or new. Men had been saying that men and women were not equal for years. However, anti-feminism, anti-women language had much more power coming from a woman who professed to be looking out for the good of all women and families. Schlafly’s words hurt women and set us back, right when it seemed the Equal Rights Amendment had the momentum to pass.
My first introduction to Schlafly was in the mid-1980s, when one of my older sisters' classmates put on a wig, a scarf around her neck and a homemade “STOP ERA” lapel button to portray Schlafly in a presentation for National History Day. My sister and her friends did a take on Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds” television program and imagined a conversation on women’s rights between Schlafly, Susan B. Anthony, Gloria Steinem and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I came away from that experience in awe of Gloria Steinem and with a negative impression of Phyllis Schlafly.
Over the next few years, Schlafly earned my scorn as she ranted about the evils of early education, equal pay and abortion. By the time I got to college in the early 1990s, I had chosen my path. I was Gloria Steinem and natural hair and Riot Grrrls. Third-wave feminism was here. I thought Schlafly and her meticulous grooming and old-fashioned ideas could not survive much longer.
Obviously, I could not have been more wrong. Schlafly’s brand of anti-feminism continued to be prevalent in politics over the years and still flourishes today, especially in Arkansas. It lives in the claims of state Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro), who opposes pre-K education because he believes children should be home with their families. We all know what he really means is those children should be home with their mothers.
Schlafly’s influence is in the anti-feminist claims U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton made while a student at Harvard that a woman’s greatest fear is being left by her husband. His votes against the Violence Against Women Act and his sponsoring of legislation designed to ban some birth control pills show he is still squarely in Schlafly’s corner. Sen. John Boozman is there, too. When he isn’t worried about naming post offices, he is voting against the Paycheck Fairness Act.
It flourishes in the words of the preacher at the small evangelical church in Northwest Arkansas I attended several years ago on Mother’s Day as a guest of a family member. During the sermon, the preacher chastised the women in the audience who worked outside the home while completely ignoring the economic reality that those second paychecks were probably necessary to keep the households afloat. I still regret not asking him after the sermon why he didn’t encourage the men to make more money so that their wives could stay home. I have not heard anything that egregious since, but I still hear many Arkansas preachers using the complementarian ideals Schlafly promoted to justify her view that women should take on lesser roles at work, home and church.
Schlafly’s influence also remains in the “do as I say, not as I do” mentality that seems to permeate our state government. Republicans who ran for office claiming we need smaller government turn a blind eye to Treasurer Dennis Milligan spending over $50,000 of taxpayer money on designer furniture and fancy desk sets. Republican state Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway cries for religious freedom while he attempts to place a statue of the Ten Commandments on the Capitol grounds. Numerous self-proclaimed pro-life, pro-family politicians vote to cut food assistance and limit unemployment benefits every chance they get.
Schlafly was the master of this hypocrisy. While arguing a woman’s place was in the home, she attended law school, ran for political office and traveled the country to promote her agenda.
After years of observing Schlafly and her attempts to prevent women from having the same choices and freedoms as men, I can only hope that I am correct this time in thnking that we are in the last gasps of this “War on Women” and that the death of its matriarch is more than symbolic.
Autumn Tolbert is a lawyer in private practice in Fayetteville.