“The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.”
The above quote is from a recent column by Phyllis Schlafly, arguably the nation’s, if not the world’s, most famous hater of the feminist movement. I had not seen mention of her in the media for some time, but this column reminded me of her long career and lasting impact. It also caused me to reflect on the larger problem that U.S. conservatism has had in finding credible spokeswomen.
I confess to some grudging admiration for Schlafly given that, at nearly ninety, she is still active politically. But that is the only thing about her I can admire. Ever since the 1970s, Schlafly has devoted her considerable energies to vilifying the women’s movement and those who identify with it. Here are some of her positions on various items of the feminist policy agenda:
On marital rape: “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.”
On sexual harassment: “Non-criminal sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases.”
On domestic violence: “When marriages are broken by false allegations of domestic violence, U.S. taxpayers fork up an estimated $20 billion a year to support the resulting single-parent, welfare-dependent families.”
To be sure, Schlafly is hardly unique as an opponent of feminist policy initiatives. What is particularly off-putting, however, in both her writing and her personal appearances, is the vitriol with which she attacks her enemies. Schlafly, with her frequent cattiness, may be the original “mean girl.” When I saw her address a conservative student organization at UC-Berkeley a few years ago, she took pains to tell the audience that after feminists pressured the airlines to modify appearance guidelines for female flight attendants, “they all looked fat.” As a press account of her speech two years ago to an all-male group at the Citadel, a military college, reported, “She told the all-male group that ‘feminist is a bad word and everything they stand for is bad.’”
“Find out if your girlfriend is a feminist before you get too far into it,” she said. “Some of them are pretty. They don’t all look like Bella Abzug.” At the same event, she informed the crowd that “Feminists are having a hard time being elected because they essentially are unlikable.”
Though Schlafly’s influence has peaked, as has, apparently, her political savvy—how many contemporary Citadel cadets know who the late Bella Abzug was?—she did at one time wield significant political power. Her most successful political venture was the Stop the Equal Rights Amendment campaign, which she led throughout the 1970s, when the measure was close to ratification by the requisite number of states. In the early ’70s she also established the Eagle Forum, a national “pro-family” organization with numerous state chapters. In addition to the issues mentioned above, the organization has over the years taken strong stands against abortion, gay rights (despite Schlafly having a gay son), and attempts to establish gender equality in public schools.
As her statement calling for a widening gender gap in wages suggests, however, not only has Schlafly’s moment as a credible leader passed, but she and other younger conservative women leaders—trapped as they are in the Republican Party’s free-market ideology—are simply unable to address the economic realities facing women today. When Schlafly emerged as a political activist in the 1970s, many American families could still function on one man’s salary. Furthermore, a key message of the emergent women’s movement at the time—which urged women to pursue careers—was met defensively by those who were “just housewives,” to use a phrase of that period. So Schlafly’s messages, which glorify women who stay home, raise children, and support their husbands’ endeavors, resonated deeply with many.
But, to put it mildly, the world of 2014 is very different, in both economic and cultural terms, from that of the 1970s. The stagnation in American workers’ wages means that most families need two paychecks where one would once have sufficed. And, of course, there has been a continual rise in single-parent households, the vast majority of which are headed by women. Compared to the 1970s, there now exist many more households led by same-sex couples, many of which are composed of two women—not to mention single women, without children, who can also hardly be expected to endorse the idea of a widening gap between male and female pay.
The most visible women in the contemporary Republican Party are as helpless as Schlafly in acknowledging these realities. Both Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest ranking Republican woman in the House, and “rising star” Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee have opposed raises in the minimum wage—though, much to observers’ amusement, the latter inadvertently made the case for a raise, failing to realize that her teenage years’ wage of $2.15 an hour, which she idealized in a speech opposing such a measure, would be worth somewhere between $12.72 and $14.18 in today’s dollars.
In the lived reality of American women, reproductive issues and economic ones are deeply entwined. Women need access to reproductive services, among other reasons, to be able to participate in the paid labor force. And women, like their male counterparts, need jobs that pay a living wage. Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative spokeswomen who have followed her are woefully out of touch on both counts. Let’s hope that those who disagree with them show up for the midterm elections, as they did in 2012.
Carole Joffe is a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, and her most recent book is Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients and the Rest of Us.