“Conservative Activist Phyllis Schlafly Dead At 92- one is not supposed to speak ill of the dead. So no comment then,” tweeted out former tennis star Martina Navratilova on Monday night. Even in death Phyllis Schlafly threatens and unnerves feminists. Such vicious tweets are a twisted tribute to her effectiveness as a foe of liberalism and speak to a political relevance that remained until the end of her life.
The liberal elite often joins Tom Brokaw in waxing nostalgic about the patriotism, virtues and dignity of the “greatest generation” but deplored them in Phyllis Schlafly, whose life testified to that generation’s values. An engine of activity into her nineties, Schlafly continued to work after even some of her Baby Boomer feminist critics had retired. The irony was lost on them that she embodied their slogans about “leaning forward” and “having it all” better than they did. She put family first and work later and enjoyed a life rich in both. Many of them put work first and delayed family and ended up with neither. Caricatured as an enemy of “choice,” she simply proposed rational ones, which took into account real differences between the sexes.
“I consider you a traitor to your sex,” Betty Friedan said to Schlafly in a debate, as many of the obituaries recall. “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” Amidst the ruins of modern feminism, many of its disillusioned acolytes would like to hurl a similar epithet at Friedan. The liberation that she promised them hasn’t come and created a new and deeper form of unhappiness. Schlafly had predicted this disillusion, saying that the feminism of Steinem and Friedan would create far more problems than it solved.
“A lot of people don’t understand what feminism is. They think it is about advance and success for women, but it’s not that at all,” she once said. “It is about power for the female left.” It is not concerned with the good of women, she said, but with pushing an ideology that amounts to a “fight with human nature” that falsely calls differences between men and women “just a social construct.”
As America reels in disorientation from the new world of transgender bathrooms, gay marriage, and women in combat, the wisdom of her lonely and successful struggle against the Equal Rights Amendment deserves newfound appreciation. She saw it all coming and delayed it for decades while many Republicans sat on their hands. In Republican politics, she threw out an anchor that stopped the drift of the party toward an embrace of abortion rights. The sturdiness of the party’s pro-life plank is due in no small part to her persistence. And long before the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump, she had put her finger on the problems of insecure borders, the loss of national sovereignty, and imperial courts.
She wrote countless columns and books on these subjects (I wrote one with her on Obama’s assault on religious freedom), many of which were dismissed as “alarmist” even as their warnings came true. In a rare perceptive comment from the mainstream media, the Atlantic Monthly traced her enduring relevance to a refusal to accept “progressive consensus” as a fact before which all must bow: “While some progressives may believe their worldview will inevitably dominate American politics, Schlafly’s achievements are a cautionary tale for the self-satisfied: Just when you might have thought you won the political battle, some nice lady from Illinois might set her social-security card on fire on national television, and the outcome might be anyone’s guess.”
Schlafly popularized the politics of common sense. The energy of the Trump campaign largely derives from that kind of populism disdained by elites. (Typical of Schlafly’s indefatigable career is that a book which she co-authored with Brett Decker and Ed Martin, The Conservative Case For Trump, appeared a day after her death.
In the media’s lengthy obituaries about her — the New York Times oddly said that she displayed a “moral ferocity reminiscent of the ax-wielding prohibitionist Carry Nation” — one can almost hear the liberals breathing a sigh of relief. They view her with an admixture of fear, admiration, and contempt. They assume the principles to which she drew attention are now passé in the “fundamentally transformed” America of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But as the failures of liberalism multiply, her legacy is more likely to grow. The truth never completely goes out of fashion, as she understood, and while the elite may discard it, the people inevitably turn back to it for warmth.