October 18, 2016

phyllis-schlafly-stop-era“I’d like to burn you at the stake,” pioneering feminist Betty Friedan famously spat at conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly during a 1973 debate about the Equal Rights Amendment. Her loathing reflected the recognition of a formidable opponent. Though our largely liberal profession took several decades to recognize Schlafly’s power in shaping political culture, the flurry of insightful reflections from historians in the wake of her recent death affirms Schlafly’s rightful place in the historical record even as her anti-feminist and anti-gay politics position her on what many agree is the wrong side of history.

A hallmark of Schlafly’s public persona was portraying the world as a series of stark opposites. Her feminist straw woman was joyless man-hater; in 1977, she contrasted a conservative, “positive woman” with the “miserable” who embraced the new feminist honorific “Ms.”[1] But if we treat Schlafly exclusively as the conservative complement to this caricature, we miss important dimensions of her function in the history of feminism as more than a reactionary foil. An illuminating way to read Schlafly as a more complex figure is to look beyond her rich public life to explore how she perceived motherhood not just as a political symbol but also as a personal practice.

I’m not the first historian to suggest that Schlafly demands a nuanced approach.[2] For one, the feminism Schlafly railed against ironically enabled her political career. Moreover, that illustrious career was constrained by the same misogyny that thwarted women of all political affiliations, as her unsuccessful attempts in the 1950s to break into the old-boys’ foreign policy network proved. For Schlafly’s homages to homemaking (and her frequent infuriating introductory anecdote that she had asked permission of her husband to speak publicly), she rivaled Friedan in her efforts to mobilize a generation of female political neophytes. She sent detailed handwritten notes to housewives, precisely instructing how to organize around “women’s issues” such as education, abortion, and “the homosexual agenda,” which made “family values” a central plank of contemporary conservatism and launched her into public life. Like her early-twentieth-century progressive foremothers, Schlafly used a form of “maternalism” to access the political arena, though in order to promote rather than challenge traditional gender roles even as her very participation embodied such a challenge.

Indeed, Schlafly’s perspectives on the practices of motherhood intensify that complexity, suggesting that her worldview and those of the feminists she so abhorred for “attempting to restructure and repeal human nature,” could be intertwined rather than diametrically opposed. Schlafly successfully promoted an essentialist “moral motherhood” besieged everywhere from classrooms to courtrooms to boardrooms to bathrooms, inspiring groups such as “Mothers Organized for Moral Stability” and “Mothers for a Moral America.” For Schlafly, this sanctification of motherhood was not mere symbolism, but was reflected in her own home. Rejecting dominant expertise for instinct, for example, she breastfed exclusively:

Well, I’m a great believer that babies should be nursed by their mother. I nursed all my children for at least six months after they were born… The people who think they’re smart go through certain fads. I think they were just coming through a fad that a baby was supposed to be put on a very rigid schedule of feeding, and you weren’t supposed to interfere … I believe that a little baby should be taken care of and fed as often as he wants to be fed. [3]

This attention to pure food persisted beyond babyhood, as Schlafly used breakfast as a lesson in history and politics:

They all grew up on a bowl of hot cooked Roman Meal with wheat germ and real cream on it; I told them that was what the Roman Army marched on to conquer the world and that is breakfast, and there’s no variation. It’s Roman Meal with wheat germ and real cream—hot, cooked that morning.

She drove miles to farms to purchase unpasteurized milk, “fertile eggs,” and “little jars of salmon straight from Alaska, that weren’t gooped up with any kind of preservatives, from people who caught their own salmon… Yeah, I was into health food before it was cool.”[4]

Health food, especially as part of “natural” mothering, became cool due in part to the labors of cultural feminists. Arguing that birth and child rearing were not the burden Friedan disparaged but uniquely female blessings, these activists could sound a bit like Schlafly. In countless New Age publications about parenting, health, and spirituality, these feminists challenged a male-dominated, technocratic approach to mothering. Rejecting heavily sedated labor, baby formula, and the processed food widely celebrated as evidence of American technological supremacy, cultural feminists expended their energy asserting “natural” female authority over motherhood in addition to protesting more public political fights for equality.

These diverse facets of feminist activism could be at odds. While workplace equality was widely considered a foundation of women’s liberation, La Leche League, founded in 1956 to help women “mother through breastfeeding,” insisted on the inseparability of mother and infant. Refusing to accredit leaders who scheduled any separation from their child, they effectively excluded women who worked outside the home. (These tensions manifested again around the issue of abortion rights, on which after much controversy, LLL resisted taking an official position).[5] Tellingly, LLL’s in-house history is titled The Revolutionaries Wore Pearls, invoking an aesthetic less hippie than housewife.

So why don’t we know more about these surprising, intersecting essentialist assumptions about women and motherhood? For two different cultural tendencies, I surmise. Notably, while Schlafly helped politicize issues such as sex education, much conservative outrage stemmed from any public conversation about these private questions. Only in the mid-seventies did this silence around intimate matters begin to break, vividly symbolized by conservatives like Tim and Beverly LaHaye publishing their (still) best-selling Christian sex manual, The Act of Marriage: The Beauty of Sexual Love. Sources revealing conservative women’s perspectives on the private aspects of motherhood are thus sparse. The commitments of cultural feminists to natural motherhood stemmed from an almost opposite sensibility. Embodied by the historic woman-centered sex education text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971), the idea was that feminist liberation began with knowing, celebrating, and speaking without shame about one’s body. Yet because feminist activism and scholarship has been so deeply defined by liberating women from essentialist ideas about the body—that we are “made for motherhood” chief among them—this strand of the women’s movement has received less attention, though that is changing.[6]

These links are more than semantic, and borne out by considering Schlafly’s later years in addition to the height of her STOP ERA activism that commands most attention. In a 2011 oral history, Schlafly seemed aware of these unlikely ideological affinities, and ever the skilled politician, dodged her interviewer’s attempts to get her to acknowledge them. Did her decision to breastfeed result from having read popular pediatrician Dr. Spock, who reassured mothers “you know more than you think you do” and advocated various New Left causes along with nursing? “I don’t know what he was saying because I never read it,” she returned. Was her predilection for natural foods influenced by the growing environmentalist critique of industrial production? “It wasn’t that I was against anything; it’s that I was for healthy food.”[7]

In 2013, Schlafly found herself in the unlikely position of advocating alongside former NOW president Karen DeCrow, whom she had bitterly debated over fifty times when they stood on opposite sides of the ERA debate four decades earlier. By 2013, albeit for disparate ideological reasons, they joined forces to promote Leading Women for Shared Parenting, Schlafly defending men’s right to be involved fathers and DeCrow challenging the idea that mothers are inherently more fit parents than fathers. This curious historical development merits our attention. Feminism and conservatism are arguably the most important social movements of our time, and Schlafly’s passing is an occasion to better understand them as persistently interwoven rather than in polar opposition.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of History at The New School and the author Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015). She is a host of the history podcast Past Present and her writing has appeared in scholarly journals and popular venues such as The New York Times, Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education. She tweets @nataliapetrzela and her site is www.nataliapetrzela.com


[1] Phyllis Schlafly, Power of the Positive Woman. Arlington House: New York, 1977.

[2] Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism. Princeton University Press, 2008; Catherine Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right. University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

[3] Oral History with Phyllis Schlafly. Interviewer Mark DePue, Director of Oral History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Interview location: Eagle Forum office in Clayton, Missouri, Jan 5, 2011.

[4] Schlafly oral history, 60-61.

[5] Julie DeJager Ward, La Leche League: At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion. University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

[6] Notable exceptions include Jessica Martucci, Back to the Breast: Natural Motherhood and Breastfeeding in America. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2015; Jennifer Nelson, More than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement. New York University Press: New York, 2015; Jennifer Seltz and Flannery Burke, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman: Feminism, Environmentalism, and Childbirth in the 1970s,” Journal of Women’s History, 2016 (forthcoming).

[7] Schlafly oral history, 58-60.