Phyllis Schlafly’s Tragic Failure

Her failure reveals more about America than her shortcomings

Feminism is among modernity’s most successful social movements. Feminists pretend to promote choice, but feminist laws and culture really cultivate a particular kind of womanly character, one economically and emotionally independent of men, family, tradition, and marriage. Feminism’s successes pose an acute challenge. Can feminism, which points women away from the family, and a family-centered society coexist?  

Conservatives and Christians have been dealing with this challenge for generations, with only limited and short-lived successes. As feminism determines society’s understanding of an honorable woman, opponents of feminism become by definition anti-woman. Prudence seems to demand accommodation to powerful, widely-held social opinions, but accommodation brings social decay. Resistance, on the other hand, means political oblivion. 

One method of accommodation is the “who stole feminism” gambit, to borrow the title from a 1995 book by Christiana Hoff Sommers. “Who Stole Feminism” critics oppose the latest, apparently extreme feminist or gender reform in the name of a supposedly true, more moderate, more pro-family feminist path that once existed or could. 

In the beginning, they say, feminists embraced salutary goals like increased female opportunity that would not compromise family life or the sexual dance. Later, however, “radical feminists” warred against men or undermined family life or promoted abortion or transgenderism. Such critics of feminism often disagree about what the good feminism represented, why and when things went sideways, and how to bring back the better brand. But they never disclaim the mantle of feminism: Early feminism, real feminism good; later feminism not good. 

Another option is opposition, where the risk is political oblivion. The most successful and famous anti-feminist of the past sixty years is Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly, who died in 2016, is justly considered the most successful organizer in the modern conservative movement. Her successful opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s and 1980s also made her, in the words of her daughter-in-law and co-author, Suzanne Venker, “the premier anti-feminist of the twentieth century.” 

Schlafly rejects the “Who Stole Feminism” gambit. When asked later in life whether feminism made any positive contributions to American life, Schlafly only saw debits: “No. I think it’s made women unhappy and it’s made them believe that we live in a discriminatory and unjust society, and that they should look to government to solve their problems.” To read Schlafly’s works (as I have the past year) is to hear nary a nice word about feminism (though a fairer disputer thinks Schlafly is a feminist herself). 

The woman was a force of nature, such that her legacy guides, inspires, and intimidates opponents of feminism today. Giants walked on the earth then! Helen Andrews took to the New York Times to explain why the next Phyllis Schlafly has not yet arisen. Rebekah Curtis has given “5 Reasons there is no Phyllis Schlafly 2.0” today. 

Schlafly was beautiful, brilliant, unconventional, hated by her enemies. She may be better than most anyone today. Still, for all her greatness, Schlafly was fighting a rear-guard action that ultimately failed as it took too much for granted to work in her own time (and in ours). Hers was the work of the positive world when women were generally more conservative than men. She lived long enough to recognize that her own project had failed.

Schlafly launched her campaign against the ERA with a 1972 essay, “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” Women’s liberation, she wrote, represented a “total assault on the role of the American woman as wife and mother, and on the family as a basic unit of society.” 

Yet “equal rights” already had a basis in American law and culture as Schlafly rose to oppose it. Schlafly accepted earlier feminist reforms and then gave them a most conservative spin. The suffragettes, she concluded, were “family-oriented women who had no desire to eradicate the female nature.” The Equal Pay Act of 1963 accomplished “equal pay for equal work,” which, she said, no one opposes. (Advocates of the family wage do oppose it.) She favored including sex as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though she thought that sex is not the same as race, that the law should allow for reasonable distinctions between the sexes, and that the civil rights framework was destroying male-only spaces. 

The ERA’s more radical emphasis on equal rights, she worried, would destroy sex-role realism, the key to healthy family life. Modest seeming reforms like the ERA would never satisfy radical feminists like Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Simone de Beauvoir, who thought marriage was akin to slavery; housework was degrading drudgery beneath a woman’s dignity; and motherhood was a burdensome waste of time and talent. Such radical diagnoses revealed modest, conventional feminist reform as part of a long-term radical project to destroy sex roles, to stigmatize female modesty and motherhood, and to bring about the economically and emotionally independent woman. 

For Schlafly, socially-approved, legally-reinforced, broadly proscriptive sex roles pointed men and women toward somewhat different life paths. Women would prioritize homemaking while men provided. Adjustments for part-time work and other goals could be made. Both could, of course, do other things, but for most people in most times, family life informed through sex roles is crucial to happiness in a life well lived and to a well-functioning society. 

Schlafly worried that the ERA would sweep away laws granting women rights and privileges of being homemakers. Women would lose “the right NOT to take a job.” Making women subject to the military draft—what Schlafly identified as the most important issue in defeating the ERA—denigrated femininity and upset the expectation that males should protect and provide. The military training women might receive in their twenties discouraged women from bearing children in their most fertile years. 

More reforms would follow. Subsidizing single-parenthood compromised marriage—and encouraged governments to replace fathers with social services, so Schlafly opposed aspects of the modern welfare state. At-will, no-fault divorce unsettled marital relations and emancipated women to punish their husbands (at times with bogus accusations), so Schlafly opposed unlimited divorce. She opposed efforts to make national day care available, because she wanted instead to make it more likely for women to prioritize taking care of children at home rather than working. Same-sex marriage and unisex bathrooms —she saw them coming and worried they would undermine the social norm of men and women occupying somewhat separate spheres.

Against these aspirations, Schlafly defended fraternities and sororities; single-sex universities and single-sex K-12 schools; rigorous physical job requirements for policing; and the legal power of the husband to determine a family’s domicile as well as his legal obligation to provide for his wife and family. She thought married male policemen should be exempt from having female partners, if they chose, so that partners would not get too close and strain marriages. Wives should proudly take their husbands’ last names, against feminist criticisms that it meant losing one’s independent identity and dignity. Joint filing for tax returns reinforced the idea of marital community. 

Schlafly never called having a baby “a burden,” as feminists and sexual liberationists did. Social expectations must be grounded on the different sexual interests and possibilities in men and women. Sex differences pointed to sex roles, by and large. On one hand, situating sex within marital relationships and practicing modesty before marriage serves the female interest. Women also have what men want, both with respect to sex and in connecting them to community, so getting men to submit to women’s long-term reproductive horizons is within their reach. Social support for saying “no” to premarital relations is crucial, but it works best if people expect women to become mothers. On the other hand, men can go for sex without responsibility but often turn out worse when they do. Getting men to submit to the long-term sexual horizons of women socializes men. Marriage serves women’s interests, while centering men on commitment and leadership. Sex liberation compromised sex roles.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Schlafly could think a moral majority’s way of life was normative. Indeed, in her volume Feminist Fantasies, a collection of writings from the 1980s and 1990s, Schlafly repeatedly imagines that America was then living in a “post-feminist world,” where a moral majority resisted the siren song of feminist ambition. Intellectuals were recanting. Hollywood was pushing its agenda, but women were still having babies and marrying at high rates.  Many Americans valued marriage based on sex roles, even if elites had officially turned against them. Most Americans disliked feminists. 

Lincoln was killed at his moment of great triumph; had he lived to oversee Reconstruction, his legacy may have been tainted. Schlafly ultimately lived to see her victory over the ERA unwound (in a manner of speaking) and the malignant ideology she fought for most of her adult life emerge triumphant. 

By 2014, Schlafly saw feminism as “the most significant social movement of our time.” Significant and successful. Most Americans, she confessed, lived according to feminism’s dictates. As a result, as Schlafly writes in The Flipside of Feminism, “American women . . . are encouraged to focus solely on their identities and careers.” Even Schlafly’s signature win over the ERA was, eventually, she realized, eroded as America adopted a de facto ERA through Supreme Court cases and new laws. 

Public support for sex-role realism is now on life support. According to a Pew poll from January 2023, nearly 90 percent of parents say it is important for their children to be financially independent or have enjoyable jobs, while around one in five think getting married and having children are important. The children agree, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll. Only 30 percent of Americans in 2022 think having children is important, down from 60 percent twenty-five years ago. Women’s libbers won; Schlafly lost.

At the end of her career, she was quoting dissident blogs like Heartiste. She white-knighted for men. She jaw-boned women to honor institutions close to their nature. The dominant culture isolated her and rejected her.  Just before her death, the victor over the ERA advocated for something akin to a homemaker’s “Benedict Option” where women get “validation” from outside America’s mainstream. 

In the mainstream, mothers are forgotten or held in contempt or reduced to a sexless “parent,” while girlbosses are glorified. Few would encourage young women to marry or have children, while many would point them away from motherhood. In local communities, mothers could find circles for support and husbands for companionship and honor. In churches, they can keep the folkways of tradition alive, even as they are adapted to our time. Thinking through this recommendation is imperative today—and every church and close-knit community must think through what it would mean to honor motherhood in these times.

Conservatives pine for a Schlafly tamer than the one who existed. Her career stood for honoring motherhood, not “care” or “service” or even “life.” Her tragic failure reveals more about America than her shortcomings and it suggests that a revived family culture must go further back in order to go forward.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.

2 thoughts on “Phyllis Schlafly’s Tragic Failure

  1. I take exception to saying it was a “tragic failure.” I am encouraged by the young women leaving the workplace to become homemakers and homeschoolers. Phyllis was a pioneer in these movements, a positive role model for women and her story isn’t over yet as she still influences others eventhough she is no longer with us.

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