Activist Phyllis Schafly wearing a “Stop ERA” badge, demonstrating with other women against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, D.C.. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Was Phyllis Schlafly a Feminist?

Phyllis Schlafly was a conservative, a Catholic, and a Republican. She was a political commentator who weighed in on a vast array of social and political issues, but she is most notorious for the campaign she waged—successfully—against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States during the 1970s and early 1980s. Because the ERA was pitched as feminist law, campaigning against ERA was considered anti-feminist. Thus, the idea that Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist may initially seem bizarre, or just plainly false.

It hardly needs to be said that whether a particular woman counts as a feminist will depend on our definition of “feminist.” But that isn’t an attempt to secure an easy victory by giving a definition that will obviously include her. To give an example of the opposite strategy—giving a definition that will obviously exclude her—we might say that a feminist is anyone who declares herself a feminist. Schlafly certainly did not call herself a feminist. Indeed, she spent much of her time lambasting feminists (which, for her, meant both the liberal feminists of the National Organization for Women and the radical feminists, including the lesbian separatists, who particularly aggravated her).

But as I have discussed elsewhere, some of the most active feminists in the world don’t call themselves feminists anymore, using instead creative alternatives like “femalist” or “femelliste,” or more obvious substitutes like “women’s rights activist.” Merely refusing to call yourself a feminist doesn’t, by itself, make you not a feminist. So too for criticizing feminists.

Feminism has been marked by internal criticism since its inception. In her history of American radical feminism, Daring To Be Bad, Alice Echols writes of the criticism directed against “politicos” (feminist women who prioritize the left, and in particular anti-capitalism), and married women. More generally, radical feminists criticize liberal feminists, intersectional feminists criticize radical feminists, gender-critical feminists criticize intersectional feminists, and most recently (and of most relevance to Fairer Disputations) “sex-realist feminists” criticize gender-critical feminists—not to mention all of the others. Every type of feminist thinks the others are getting things wrong. Criticizing feminists is no barrier to being a feminist.

Defining “Feminism”

Let’s consider some plausible definitions of feminism not purpose-built to exclude Schlafly. (I’ll bracket the debate over whether men can be feminists or only allies and put all of the definitions in the terms “A feminist is a woman who…”, except where directly quoting).

  1. A feminist is a woman who works for women’s equality.
  2. A feminist is a woman who works for women’s self-determination.
  3. A feminist is a woman who works for women’s liberation.
  4. A feminist is a woman who works against male dominance.
  5. A feminist is “a person who believes in & stands up for the political, economic, and social equality of human beings.”
  6. A feminist is a woman who works in women’s interests, as she understands them.
  7. A feminist is a woman who works in women’s interests, as they really are.

The difference between the last two of these is in whether the woman is correct about what is in women’s interests. Suppose we can say definitively what is in women’s interests. Then (on the objective definition), if a woman works for that, she is a feminist, and if she doesn’t, she isn’t. The subjective definition is more generous, because it allows that she can be wrong. She might have a mistaken view of what is in women’s interests, but be acting in good faith, in women’s interests as she understands them. (Interestingly, I ran an informal poll between the objective and subjective definitions, and the subjective definition won with nearly two-thirds of the vote).

The fourth definition (“a feminist is a woman who works against male dominance”) is a response to a problem with the first (“a feminist is a woman who works for women’s equality”), the problem being that “women’s equality” can only mean women’s equality with men, which accepts men as the standard against which women’s progress should be measured. But as Germaine Greer is well-known for pointing out, we don’t necessarily want women to have everything that men have—more women dogfighters and mafia bosses, for example. Men have built the world, but that doesn’t mean that women should want the world that men have built. Gerda Lerner makes a similar point in The Creation of Patriarchy, when she uses the metaphor of a play and describes equality as aiming at getting good parts in a play that men have written and directed, built the stage of, and created the props for, rather than tearing the whole stage down. Catharine MacKinnon’s solution was to stop talking about difference and start talking about dominance.

I agree with Greer and Lerner, so I think we should throw the first definition out. I also think we should throw out the fifth, because it faces the same problem as the first and the additional problem of turning something for and about women into something for and about everyone. Everyone movements already have names, like “cosmopolitanism,” and “global justice”; they don’t need to appropriate ‘feminism’ too.

All the rest are promising. So let’s think a bit more about what Schlafly did and what she believed, and then loop back to whether she counts as a feminist on the remaining definitions (2, 3, 4, 6, & 7).

Schlafly’s Mission

The ERA stated 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,” and that “the Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

As Schlafly’s biographer Carol Felsenthal explains in The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, the second bit was just as much a focus of Schlafly’s campaigning as the first. She worried about powers that belonged rightfully to the states being transferred to the federal level, giving “enormous power to the federal courts… to decide such sensitive, emotional, and important issues” as whether “abortion or homosexual rights” were an issue of sex (in)equality and giving “Congress the power to legislate on all those areas of law that include traditional differences of treatment on account of sex: marriage, property laws, divorce and alimony, child custody, adoptions, abortion, homosexual laws, sex crimes, private and public schools, prison regulations, and insurance.”

Schlafly’s reasons for resisting the ERA should be eerily familiar to gender-critical and “sex-realist” feminists. Throughout the essays collected together in her 2003 book Feminist Fantasies, Schlafly emphasized the importance of sex differences and of laws and policies that respond to those differences. Americans, she argued, should not want federal law to be blind to, for example: physical differences between men and women (which justify the exemption of women from conscription and military combat duty); differences in economic dependency (which justify “traditional benefits in the law for wives, widows, and mothers” and “laws… that impose on a husband the obligation to support his wife”); differences between male and female educational achievement (which justify women’s “schools and colleges, and all the programs and athletics they conduct”); and differences in women’s and men’s lifespans and car accident rates (which justify differential insurance premiums).

Schlafly also decried things law and policy didn’t currently allow, but the ERA could introduce. State funding for abortion, for example, would arguably become a constitutional right (because denying funding for a specifically women’s health issue would be a form of sex discrimination). Similarly, differences in the treatment of gay men attracted to men from women attracted to men (and vice versa for lesbians), might mean that equal marriage for gay and lesbian people would become a constitutional right. What’s more, Schlafly wrote, the

ERA would mean the end of single-sex colleges and force the sex integration of fraternities, sororities, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, YMCA, YWCA, Boys State and Girls State conducted by the American Legion, not to mention mother-daughter and father-son school events.

These examples are all familiar because they’re the same types of things at issue between warring factions of feminists today. Legalizing “sex self-identification” or introducing the idea of “legal sex” or “social sex” as a replacement for biological sex would effectively blow up single-sex spaces by making them mixed-sex, single-“gender identity” spaces. But Schlafly was worrying about all spaces going fully unisex, rather than spaces remaining nominally single-sex but admitting small numbers of the opposite sex. If we can understand our own concerns in this matter, then we can certainly understand Schlafly’s.

“Sameness feminists”—those who think that men and women are fundamentally the same—are likely to feel these worries less than “difference feminists”—those who think that men and women are fundamentally different. The more that women and men are different, the more that women’s equality, self-determination, liberation, and interests should be understood as departing from the male standard. Sameness feminists might view the ERA as a fast track to the sex-equal future; equality with men might be back on the table as the standard for women. If men and women are fundamentally the same, then differences are explained by women’s being prevented from having what men have, and once women have that, the differences will disappear.

In Schlafly’s view, men and women were different, most notably in that “women, not men, have babies.” If Schlafly is a feminist, then she’s evidently a difference feminist, but that is no reason to conclude that she wasn’t a feminist, for there are and have been plenty of feminists who maintain that women and men are fundamentally different. (Perhaps there is an interesting question here about the attitude one takes to this difference: perhaps to be a feminist you have to think “different, but equally good,” or “different, but women are better.” In other words, it would be anti-feminist to think “different, and men are better,” which would then categorize some religious women as not feminists, or as anti-feminist.)

In Women’s Interest

Returning to our definitions, does Schlafly’s campaigning against the ERA exclude her from any of those still on the table?

Clearly she counts as “a woman who works in women’s interests, as she understands them.” She firmly believed that the ERA was against women’s interests, and she poured her energies into fighting against it. We can’t hope to settle the question of what is in women’s objective interests, at least not for a few hundred years until we’ve truly run the equality experiment (more on this point in my recent discussion with Louise Perry), so we should leave that definition aside.

That leaves definitions 2) through 4): a woman who works “for women’s self-determination,” “for women’s liberation,” or “against male dominance.” Schlafly was operating within democratic mechanisms and fighting to defend the woman who chose stay-at-home motherhood, a career she rightly perceived as being both challenged and threatened by the feminists at the time. She mobilized huge numbers of women to help her in this fight. This looks like a version of working for women’s self-determination. And Schlafly may reasonably have seen women as having more liberation in the status quo at the time than they would have under the ERA, given its blindness to differences she saw as important (especially if she was right about the military draft).

The definition it’s hardest to argue that Schlafly satisfies is 4), “a feminist is a woman who works against male dominance.” Schlafly was not naïve about it being a man’s world, but she put most of the social inequality between men and women down to women’s preferences and choices, rather than to formal obstacles to women’s advancement. In Feminist Fantasies, Schlafly declared “Of all the classes of people who ever lived, the American woman is the most privileged.” She gives three reasons in support of this claim. First, “We have the immense good fortune to live in a civilization that respects the family as the basic unit of society.” Second, “we are the beneficiaries of a tradition of special respect for women that dates from the Christian Age of Chivalry. The honour and respect paid to Mary, the Mother of Christ, resulted in all women, in effect, being put on a pedestal.” And third, “the American free enterprise system has produced remarkable inventors who have lifted the backbreaking “women’s work” from our shoulders.”

Schlafly thought women had special protections that it was not in their interests to give up: “Why should we lower ourselves to ‘equal rights’ when we already have the status of special privilege?” She saw those interests as being threatened by feminists, and by the Equal Rights Amendment so many feminists were pushing for. This way of viewing women is incompatible with believing in male dominance, so Schlafly cannot be a feminist on that definition.

Those who took it to be obvious that Phyllis Schlafly was not a feminist may be surprised by this conclusion. Out of seven plausible definitions of “feminist” narrowed down to five promising definitions, Schlafly counts as a feminist on four out of five.

In the end, the definition I am most inclined to endorse is 6), “a feminist is a woman who works in women’s interests, as she understands them.” This definition allows for pluralism: so long as a women is acting in good faith, working in women’s interests as she subjectively understands them, she counts as a feminist. That is true even if she turns out to have been wrong—even spectacularly wrong—about what those interests were. Thus, in my view, and as irritating as Schlafly herself would have found it, Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist.