[The American Conservative, April 21, 2003]
Feminist Fantasies, by Phyllis Schlafly, Spence Publishing, 262 pages
Not every fifty-something mother of six decides to go to law school; not every one who does graduates near the top of her class. Not every woman juggles these high-octane pursuits with a syndicated column and an uphill battle against the Equal Rights Amendment. But then again, not every woman is Phyllis Schlafly. You can hear three decades of bruised feminists breathing "Amen."
"Feminist Fantasies" collects essays produced by Schlafly over the last three decades in her untiring campaign to make people attend to simple logic. The main thing that comes across in these pieces is the clarity of her mind-a force against which most feminists are defenseless. The book is arranged in five sections, focusing on the feminist cause in general, then on it in relation to the media, public policy, the military, and motherhood. Within each section a score of essays is arranged in chronological order.
Take, for example, the earliest essay here, "What’s Wrong with Equal Rights for Women?," published in 1972. Right from the start, from her very title, we know we’re dealing with an author who sees no reason not to march up and yank the lion’s beard. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how unstoppable the ERA appeared at that time. It had passed the Senate and the House by landslide proportions; thirty states had ratified it and only eight more were needed. The notion of equal rights for women had laid hold of public consciousness with a quality of historic inevitability, as if we’d all been slumbering and just awakened to this broad, enlightening truth. It was unthinkable to question it.
In fact, Phyllis Schlafly got involved in the issue because a TV producer couldn’t find anybody to question it. Schlafly’s field was not women’s issues but foreign policy, in which she had already authored scholarly and best-selling books. A local TV station asked her to hold up the opposition side of a debate on the ERA, and Schlafly reluctantly agreed to read over the text of the Amendment. The next sound was the screech of metal as an "unstoppable" juggernaut ground to a halt. Over the next nine years only five more states passed the ERA, despite an unprecedented deadline extension; during that same period, five states actually *rescinded* their ratification. Once Schlafly walked on the scene victory was sure.
This earliest essay betrays the blunt forthrightness that consistently characterizes her work. Her opening lines are: "Of all the classes of people who have ever lived, the American woman is the most privileged. We have the most rights and rewards, and the fewest duties." Schlafly then explains that American women are fortunate because our culture values the family, and lays responsibilities on men so that women can safely bear and care for children. It’s "a fact of life-which no legislation or agitation can erase-that women have babies and men don’t."
She’s just six sentences into this essay, and already you can picture lightbulbs going on over the feathery hairstyles of 1972 readers. Hey, this isn’t what that lady was saying on Phil Donahue yesterday! But it makes sense!
Schlafly continues: "If you don’t like this fundamental difference, you will have to take up your complaint with God because he created us this way. The fact that women, not men, have babies is not the fault of selfish and domineering men, or the establishment, or any clique of conspirators who want to oppress women. It’s simply the way God made us."
That no-nonsense tone is emblematic of Schlafly’s style. (The reference to God, on the other hand, is an anomaly; she never required readers to share her religious beliefs in order to agree with her.) Such bluntness is an unusual style for leading a revolution. A cultural turn-around is usually marked by emotive rhetoric, sometimes even dazzling oratory. Such leaders are often charismatic figures who compel by sheer force of personality. Schlafly just takes you by the shoulders and says "Look here," and you discover that you’re nodding. She doesn’t accomplish this by asserting her own power or genius; in fact, hers may be the most refreshingly ego-free writing coming out of Washington. She never gives the impression of condescending to lesser minds. On the contrary, it is her assumption that others are just as bright as she is that causes her to be regularly frustrated with their inability to grasp the obvious.
This frustration is a sign of the element which is consistently missing in her work, though it could hardly be called a flaw in light of that work’s accomplishments. The missing note in Schlafly’s writing is empathy. She honestly doesn’t understand people whose minds are more squishy than her own. Over and over she wonders why men and women would make stupid decisions, and concludes that feminism has somehow infected and confused them.
She writes: "At the end of the movie [*Kramer v. Kramer*], Mr. Kramer was unhappy, Mrs. Kramer was unhappy, and the child was unhappiest of all because he was left with only one parent and he loved them both. The marriage was destroyed, and the only cause was the psychological problems caused by feminism."
Feminism did provoke psychological problems, breeding self-pity, suspicion, and resentment in many faltering marriages. But the reason people were, and are, susceptible to such sirens lies deeper than mere feminist propaganda. Humans are prone to self-indulgence (call it "sin") and easily confused and led astray (call it "the devil"), and feminism is just one more in the long, sad parade of intoxicants. The deeper question is why they crave such poisons.
Schlafly’s strong-minded clarity is immensely valuable, but what’s missing is the inside story-the understanding of others’ complexity and motivations. What’s missing is an understanding of how another person might disagree with you even though she can’t defeat your logic; how someone could have arrived at conclusion that might well be misguided and even harmful, and yet cling to it with all her heart. Schlafly isn’t swayed by fashion or a need for others to like her, and can only scrutinize the surface of weaker mortals. Well, that’s not what we need her for. If you want profound insight into human motivation, read Tolstoy.
On the other hand, don’t. In "Going Around with the Wrong Crowd," Schlafly examines how the characters in Paul Johnson’s "Intellectuals" treated the women in their lives. Badly, it turns out. No wonder liberal women complain about men, she concludes: liberal men stink. While figures like Sartre, Picasso, and others certainly demonstrate her point, it is heavy-handed to lump Tolstoy in as well, who was never unfaithful to his wife and tormented her more by his noisy attempts to maintain marital celibacy. Tolstoy was a complex but desperately honorable man, one driven by zeal that was frequently misguided yet unquestionably sincere. There is a reason Malcolm Muggeridge chose him as one of the seven men of great spiritual hunger examined in "A Third Testament." But all this is too much to fit the grid of Schlafly’s much simpler world. Her flat statement that Tolstoy "refused to admit that a woman could be a serious, adult, intelligent human being" is refuted by too many of his characters to name.
Instead, it’s crisp, incisive logic that we seek in Schlafly. Take her essay titled "Macho Victims," in which she wonders how Anita Hill could claim to be a victim of sexual harassment. "As an EEOC lawyer, Anita Hill knew exactly how to cope with sexual harassment, if she had ever suffered any from Clarence Thomas or anyone else." Lightbulbs are now popping over the moussed hairstyles of 1991 readers. Schlafly has a talent for making irrefutably obvious what was murky a moment before.
She goes on, "The very nature of being a lawyer is to thrive in a hostile environment. A lawyer complaining about this is like a doctor complaining about working in a bloody environment." (Schlafly, remember, is a lawyer herself.) Having made this point squarely and succinctly she goes to point two: Why do feminists think they can have it both ways? Are women such weenies that even an EEOC lawyer trembles in her Blahniks when a male gives her a saucy wink? Or are they super-macho "Thelma and Louise" types, who beat men up and sail over a cliff in a final dramatic gesture of independence? The essay concludes, "Death frees the macho-feminist buddies from having to suffer the fate of living in a male-dominated world."
Yes, that is literally the last sentence in the essay. Schlafly had two points to make, that feminist whiners act like victims, and yet want us to believe they’re tougher than guys, and when she gets to the end of the second thought she doesn’t even give us a summary paragraph. Many of her essays conclude in just this way-they don’t end, they just stop. Schlafly is not one to keep tidying up the pansies around an essay. But, again, that’s not what we need her for. If you’re looking for a pow ending, read "Gone With the Wind."
In fact, do. Schlafly hails it as "A Non-Feminist Novel," because "Feminist ideology teaches that women were helpless and oppressed prior to the women’s lib movement of the 1970’s. They can’t accept the role model of a woman who faces life’s challenges without government help."
Now, does that strike you as a strange reading of "Gone With the Wind?" Is your primary association with Scarlett O’Hara, "the woman who never accepted government help"? Schlafly says that "Communist regimes have banned GWTW" because it celebrates the individual, rather than the state. She hails "spunky Scarlett" as a non-feminist because she exemplifies the kind of story we love to hear, "about heroism in the face of great odds, about strong-willed people who survive when their world is blown away with the wind, about people’s determination to rise again from the ruins."
Here again, Schlafly has missed the inside story. Scarlett is a relentlessly selfish woman who doesn’t hesitate to use or abandon those who love her, even her own children, if they stand in the way of her greed and ambition. If a man behaved like Scarlett does, we’d call him a snake. It was Mitchell’s g enius to craft Scarlett in such a way that we nevertheless care about her and even root for her, while flinching at her thoughtless cruelty. Because we’re allowed inside her head we identify with her, we want her to survive, and we hope that her heart will be softened in time. Scarlett is an expert portrait of vibrant, appealing selfishness, and therein lies her lasting fascination. She’s not just a tract against communism. But getting inside another person’s head is not one of Schlafly’s talents. This is no loss. She already has more talents than one person could be expected to bear.
All that Schlafly admires in Scarlett we can admire in her. American women owe Schlafly a great debt for her own strong will and determination. Without her we would now be dealing with the clumsy aftermath of the ERA, and all the myriad problems that, without Schlafly’s help, we would not have foreseen. She’s an unusual woman, with a strong, clear mind that few, male or female, can equal. May God send us dozens more.
Here’s one of my occasional notes for budding writers on this list. I actually enjoyed writing this review more than I expected to, and I’m pleased with the result. In general, I don’t enjoy book reviewing, but I accept that it’s one of those things you gotta do. Book reviewing is the writer’s equivalent of it being your night to do the dishes. It’s not glamorous; the piece won’t be splashed on the cover, but set somewhere in a string of other reviews at the back. People often don’t even notice the reviewer’s name. Reviewing isn’t as free and fun as creating a piece from scratch.It doesn’t pay particularly well. And on top of all that, you have to actually read the book. Not that you don’t want to read the book, but this falls into the category of "unpaid overtime." If I know that a typical opinion piece would take me 3-4 hours to write, I have to anticipate a book review will require an additional several days of page-turning—taking time away from other assignments, but not bringing any other remuneration. It takes just 2 hours to watch a movie, but a book is much more demanding.
Having said that, book reviewing is an important regular undertaking. It keeps you aware of what other writers in your neighborhood are doing (usually editors are astute at matching reviewers with books) and forces you to take the time to listen to them. It is good discipline just to study another contemporary’s work and to understand how they are approaching a task you both share. If a book is a "letter to the public", a review gives you a chance to write your own letter in response, boosting the parts you like and critiquing the parts you don’t. It’s never going to be glamorous or cost-effective, but book reviewing is an inevitable regular part of the writer’s job.