During my very brief stint just out of high school as an evangelical Christian, I tried with the committed desperation of the newly converted to coax my parents to church so they too could receive the Good News Of Jesus Christ. My father was immovable. My mother, who for years had attended seven a.m. Mass six days a week, was unconvinced but finally agreed to come to a Sunday evening service. By some twist of fate the minister chose that night to deliver a violently anti-Catholic screed, warning us all with crystalline clarity that “the Papists” were not Christian and would earn themselves nothing but a seat at the right hand of Satan. Halfway through my mother got up and walked out, never to return.
When I suggested to the pastor that such inflammatory rhetoric was perhaps not conducive to bringing in converts, he blithely informed me that he didn’t care. “I am the shepherd of my flock,” he said, “and I am sworn to protect my sheep from the fires of hell. Catholics can come to live with Truth or suffer eternal damnation in their Lie, and I will not have my people tempted by their mendacity.” The conversation did not improve from there, and soon after I was well on my way out of any church whatsoever. (Fun fact: he was later relieved of his position for sexual misconduct, and his wife subsequently left him. Assault: it’s not just for priests.)
Anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly died of cancer recently, and in some social media and news circles her death was greeted with the kind of vicious delight typically saved for the likes of Benito Mussolini or Nicolae Ceausescu. In an obituary that fluttered through my Facebook feed like a churlish, demented butterfly, the Concourse declared, “what matters most, when contemplating her finally-keeled-over corpse and how many people listened to her while she was alive, is just what a rotten piece of shit she was.”
Her eminence as an impeder of civil rights and scientific progress is beyond dispute. A staunch opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, of Roe v. Wade, of LGBT rights, her Eagle Forum was the progenitor of a host of organizations that have been the bane of gay marriage advocates, of professionals studying evolution, climate change and stem cells, of women fighting for control of their bodies and their economic well-being ever since. It’s difficult if not impossible for a political animal of my species to admire a woman who was happy to say things like:
Non-criminal sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases.
Nobody’s stopping [gays] from shacking up. The problem is that they are trying to make us respect them, and that’s an interference with what we believe.
Sex education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions.
I’m not here to defend or eulogize her. But I will say this: When I was a teenager, it was Phyllis Schlafly who turned me on to feminism. The women and girls I personally knew who were devotees of Friedan, of Steinem, of Abzug, all had one thing in common: a slow-burning, sneering contempt for “housewives.” It was incomprehensible to them that, given a choice, a woman would choose to remain in the thrall of a domineering and faithless man who would cast them aside when a prettier or better-moneyed option presented itself. I didn’t have the easiest relationship with my father but he was loyal to a fault, and if he was free with his temper (as was my mother) he was also free with his money and his time. And while the feminist icons themselves may not have been that rigid on the subject, those local women and girls were the exposure I had.
Like the Baptist preacher, they seemed to have no patience for potential converts who were twisted a few degrees off message. And even though I already suspected then that I would have no desire for children, and wasn’t even sure I would ever want to marry, out of a kind of respect for the life my parents lived I turned my back on the movement.
Then Schlafly appeared on my radar. And in her worldview there was no room for the likes of me – a girl with university and career ambitions who knew with a deep-rooted certainty that her life would not be enriched by subordinating her intellect and will to a man’s (my parents’ insistence that if I found an intelligent enough man it wouldn’t feel like a burden was a non-starter). But there was somehow, magically, room for the likes of her: degrees in political science, government and law, congressional campaigner, author, speaker. Perhaps once her cause of women staying home was achieved she intended to retire behind her lace curtains, but my finely honed adolescent skepticism doubted it. Through the lenses of Schlafly’s blatant hypocrisy I looked at feminism with fresh eyes and became passionate about the cause.
The drive to embrace an ideology can be a powerful thing. But sometimes the need to reject one is just as powerful. That was the role Phyllis Schlafly filled for me, and I’m not sure how I would have turned out without her.
I suppose I think it’s also worth remembering that she said things that some people wanted to hear. That some people still want to hear. What struck me recently rereading her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was how much she fed on fear: of daughters being drafted into the military as well as sons, of women being thrown on their own resources with no skills and no spousal support when their usefulness to their husbands ended. She may even have felt that fear herself. Certainly fear still lurks beneath our current civil rights struggles as well – fear of the unknown, the other, fear that the privileges we enjoy may be diluted into irrelevance or entirely taken away.
And that too reminds me of the minister whose faith in his congregation and his God was so fragile that it couldn’t withstand exposure to a Pope and saints. So rather than rejoice in the death of a 92-year-old woman who left behind six children, sixteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren, some of whom presumably loved her and will be sorry that she’s gone, I’ll use this time for more sober reflection on why the message of tolerance still isn’t getting through to some people who might be receptive of it, and what those of us who believe in it can do to proselytize better.