If the only thing you knew about Phyllis Schlafly was the rough outlines of her résumé, you might think her a pioneering feminist icon. An attorney and two-time candidate for Congress, Schlafly earned an advanced degree from Radcliffe, Harvard’s sister school during its days as an all-male institution. Just one year after Betty Friedan warned of “The Problem That Has No Name,” which locks women into subservient marriages devoid of the intellectual stimulation of a professional career, Schlafly penned her first runaway bestseller. Schlafly would go on to become one of the most important and influential policy advocates in the United States. This, while marrying a wealthy lawyer and raising six children.
Phyllis Schlafly had it all.
Indeed, much of Schlafly’s life resembles that of another famous advocate — Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Like Schlafly, Ginsburg is a highly educated woman who rose to the top of her profession at a time when women faced considerable patriarchal pressure to remain at home. Like Schlafly, Ginsburg also married a wealthy lawyer and formed a partnership that lasted until his death. And, like Schalfly, Ginsburg spent the lion’s share of her career on the battlements in the war to define what role women would play in a modern America.
But there was also one important difference between the two women. Despite her glittering degrees, her busy career, and her dogged work to become not just one of the most important women, but one of the most important Americans in a fight to shape the country’s trajectory, Phyllis Schlafly was a general in the army fighting to preserve The Problem That Has No Name. Schlafly raced to the top of a staircase built by women like Justice Ginsburg, then promptly spent the rest of her career trying to tear that staircase down.
If the cult of the Notorious R.B.G. is right that Justice Ginsburg is a kind of Superman, than Schlafly was Bizarro Ginsburg. Possessed with many of the same abilities, Schlafly was both Ginsburg’s rival and her mirror-image. A woman, set apart from mere mortals, who became one of America’s most high-profile advocates for the opposite of feminism.
The genius of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was her understanding that sex-stereotyping is the enemy of equality, even when those stereotypes ostensibly benefit women. One of Ginsburg’s first major legal victories was a tax case brought on behalf of a single man who was a caregiver for his ailing mother. Her favorite client is Stephen Wiesenfeld, a stay-at-home father wrongly denied widowers benefits he would have received if he were a wife that lost her husband. Even before she became a judge, Justice Ginsburg was the most important feminist lawyer in American history, and she paved the road to equality by tearing down the edifices of mandatory gender roles.
Schlafly, meanwhile, spent the bulk of her career seeking to shore up those edifices. Famous for her successful effort to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which provided that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” Schlafly’s case against the ERA was the mirror opposite of Ginsburg’s case for legal equality. The ERA, Schlafly warned, would strip away the good parts of sexism.
As Schlafly herself recounted, she campaigned against the ERA by claiming it would “take away legal rights that women possessed.” In an world free of sex discrimination, Schlafly warned, women would lose their “traditional exemption from military conscription and also from military combat duty.” The ERA would “would make unconstitutional the laws, which then existed in every state, that impose on a husband the obligation to support his wife.” The ERA “would mean the end of single-sex colleges.” It “would force the sex integration of fraternities, sororities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, YWCA, Boys State and Girls State conducted by the American Legion.” It would even endanger “mother-daughter and father-son school events.”
A few of these warnings were plausible. Most were ridiculous. But they were all part of a vision entirely at odds with Ginsburg’s plan for a nation where gender roles are always chosen and never assigned. And, at least in the short term, Schlafly’s vision seemed to win. Though a solid majority of states approved the ERA, it never received the supermajority necessary to write a new amendment into the Constitution.
Justice Ginsburg looked one of the bastions of outdated gender roles straight in the eyes. And then she kicked it in the balls.
Yet, while Bizarro Ginsburg may have won this one very high profile battle, she lost a much greater war. While Schlafly organized conservative state lawmakers against the ERA, Ginsburg quietly filed briefs in the Supreme Court, pointing out that the Constitution’s existing guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” is more than capacious enough to encompass women’s equality.
Had the ERA been ratified, laws that engage in gender discrimination would have been subject to strict scrutiny, the most difficult test a law can face when confronted with a constitutional challenge. Ginsburg never quite achieved this goal, but she came pretty darn close. As Justice Ginsburg herself wrote in United States v. Virginia, “a party seeking to uphold government action based on sex must establish an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification’ for the classification.” Very few laws that engage in sex discrimination will clear this very high bar.
And Virginia was not just any sex discrimination case, it was a challenge to the hypermasculine Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to admit women. Justice Ginsburg looked one of the bastions of outdated gender roles straight in the eyes. And then she kicked it in the balls.
In the Superman comics, Bizarro is sometimes a villain, sometimes a bumbler, and sometimes an anti-hero. He often causes the Man of Steel great annoyance, and Bizarro can leave a trail of destruction in his wake. But, with rare exception, Superman wins in the end.
As it is in the comics, so it is in real life. Phyllis Schlafly was a thorn in the side of feminism. But her lasting impact is likely to be minimal.