I'm well aware of the admonition not to speak ill of the dead. As a rule, I observe it, whether or not the deceased was someone I admired or abhorred. I've lived through the deaths of enough family members and friends to know well that other people's feelings should be considered. Nevertheless, when it comes to individuals who chose the political limelight in ways that devastate the lives of others, I'm not going to be a hypocrite for the sake of those feelings.
In the case of Phyllis Schlafly, I'm simply going to say this: if you were a close friend or family member of hers, stop reading here. And, even having said that, I'm going to exercise a little restraint, if only to avoid turning her into a martyr.
Schlafly, who passed away this past week, could fairly be called the godmother of modern conservatism, going all the way back to 1964 when she published "A Choice, Not An Echo," supporting the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Her particular focus, however, was on the role of women in American life. And she made no bones about what she wanted American women to be: barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. Not surprisingly, most of the obituaries about Schlafly focused on her role in organizing the successful opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which she saw as a threat to the supposedly "traditional" and subordinate role of women to men in virtually every aspect of living.
It's precisely that opposition, however, that best illustrates what Schlafly essentially was: a bald-faced hypocrite whose life illustrates the ultimate futility of American conservatism's efforts, in William F. Buckley's words, to halt the progress of the human race against those who would tyrannize it from within.
Schlafly was anything but a stay-at-home mom. She was a writer, a candidate for office, a political activist, an attorney, and, ultimately, an anti-feminist lobbyist. She was, in effect, a liberated woman who used her wealthy husband's money to achieve her liberation, as noted by Gail Sheehy in a quote featured in the New York Times obituary found in the link above. As Sheehy put it, Schlafly's brand of liberation was "based on marrying a rich professional, climbing the pedestal to lady of leisure and pulling up the rope ladder behind her."
The campaign to thwart the ratification of the ERA was Schlafly's major attempt to pull up that ladder. She claimed at the time that the ERA was unnecessary, and that there were few if any laws directed against women's equality. At the same time, she invented a parade of "horribles" that would come to pass if the ERA was ratified: from "homosexual" marriage to same-sex bathrooms to women in combat to state-controlled child care.
But, if the ERA was unnecessary, why had women made so little progress toward equality, despite other efforts at legal reform to promote that end? Why were so many women who didn't have the option of being liberated by marrying into wealth still being held back in so many ways? Asking Schlafly those questions would have been a waste of time; she would not have provided honest answers to them. Her anti-ERA activism, like so much conservative activism, was based on one principle alone: the need for conservatives to feel special based upon the undeserved suffering of others. It makes a certain perverse sense: if you can't accomplish anything of value on your own, hold back those who can. It makes you feel better about yourself. It sure as hell doesn't make the vast majority of us feel better.
Schlafly's hypocrisy, moreover, wasn't limited to the issue of women's rights. Like most conservatives, she professed suspicion of any sort of "one-world" or global movement--provided, of course, that the movement in question was progressive in its leanings. But this did not stop her from doing her own, "one-world" organizing on behalf of conservative ideology. Here, once again, Schlafly is exposed as someone who believes that freedom and opportunity are the exclusive province of conservatives; liberals, on the other hand (paraphrasing George Orwell's "1984") only deserve to have a conservative boot on their faces--forever. To grant liberals the same degree of opportunity that conservatives claim for themselves is, in effect, to grant them "special rights."
Special rights. This is what conservatives like Schlafly used as their description of the goal of gay-rights activists: to live their lives openly, yet still be able to live and work where they choose and marry the partners of their choice, just like other Americans. These were, of course, rights formerly reserved to heterosexual Americans. And Schlafly was just fine with that, as she saw the LGBT community as hostile to conservatism; this despite the fact that many members of that community self-identified with many conservative positions. If the LGBT community is largely in the pocket of the Democratic Party today, it is in no small measure because right-wing activists like Schlafly effectively put them there, because the Democrats were and are committed to expanding opportunity and not restricting it.
And that is only one part of the ultimate futility of Schlafly's activism. All of the things listed above as part of her parade of "horribles" are now everyday part of American lives. That's because history has shown a rather nasty bias against people who try to hold back opportunity for others. And so, every time a conservative tries to stand athwart history and cry "Halt!", he or she will get nothing but the tire tracks of history across his or her body. History is all about opportunities for advancement, and people seizing and then making the most of them. One might just as easily believe in one's ability to change the course of the sun as to believe in one's ability to stop history.
Phyllis Schlafly, like so many of her ilk, never understood any of this. That, combined with her rank hypocrisy, is why her political career will ultimately be little more than a footnote in history. And the best way to minimize that footnote, to reduce it to its proper place of unimportance, would be to at last enshrine in our basic law the principle 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 to ensure that this guaranty covers the LGBT community as well.
Apart from all of that, Phyllis, well, rest in peace. In your case, it'll be a change of pace.