Before Schlafly discovered it, the ERA had steamrolled through Congress, and most Americans preferred to jump on the feminist bandwagon rather than ask questions. Schlafly defeated the ERA by pointing out that it had nothing to offer women. Feminists have never been able to disprove Schlafly’s main argument: the ERA would only revoke privileges women enjoyed, such as exemption from the military draft, while granting them no new rights. When feminists denigrated Schlafly for not having a law degree, she enrolled in law school—and graduated near the top of her class.
Part of the feminists’ resentment towards Schlafly might stem from the fact that she accomplished these things while raising six children. Throughout the sixties and seventies, many feminists pushed the idea that women needed to reject marriage and motherhood in order to become truly liberated—and are now writing depressing books about how unhappy they are. (See the book Motherhood Deferred by Anne Taylor Fleming.) Schlafly’s life story proves that committing to a husband and children doesn’t force a woman to give up her own identity.
I also suspect a second reason is behind the feminists’ vindictiveness: they can’t take credit for Schlafly’s successes. Although feminists claim that all women were helpless and oppressed before the second wave of their movement was born in the sixties, Schlafly had already earned a Harvard degree and built a career before they came along. Although feminists attribute all women’s achievements to their movement—and host self-congratulatory “Thank a Feminist” days on college campuses—Schlafly doesn’t need to thank them.
Since Washington University announced its plans to give her an honorary degree, a common argument against Schlafly is that she is a “hypocrite,” since she maintained a high-powered career while simultaneously encouraging women to be homemakers. This might be a halfway convincing argument if it were true. In her book The Power of the Positive Woman, she clearly states that a woman’s career should extend as far as her abilities can reach: “If her influence is limited to her immediate family, she knows that nothing is more important than building the family…If circumstance and talent extend the scope of her influence to her club or school or business or community or state or nation, the Positive Woman accepts the responsibility.”
Schlafly never said that all women should be housewives. She simply pointed out that feminists were trying to take that option away from women who wanted it, by making the homemaker role economically infeasible and socially disdained. They did so by trying to overturn laws granting economic protections for dependent wives and disparaging homemakers they were “human incubators” who were living in “a comfortable concentration camp” (as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan put it). Schlafly defended a woman’s choice to be a homemaker.
In fact, Schlafly’s attitude about the proper role of women was revealed when she ran for Congress in 1970. When her male opponent said she should be at home raising children instead of campaigning, Schlafly responded, “My opponent says a woman’s place is in the home. But my husband replies, a woman’s place is in the House—the U.S. House of Representatives.” Feminists immediately started passing off the comment as their own, creating the popular slogan “A woman’s place is in the House…and Senate.”
But don’t expect them to give Schlafly credit for it—or anything else she accomplished without the aid of their ideology.
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