I suppose this is an obituary of sorts.
I didn’t like Phyllis Schlafly, and I had damn good reasons. She was an extremely outspoken opponent of the feminist movement who utilized her position as a constitutional lawyer to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. She was incredibly skilled at pinpointing the blind spots of the feminist movement and manipulating forgotten women into believing that feminism didn’t care about their issues.
Phyllis Schlafly was wrong about so much, but I must begrudgingly admit that, on this front, she was (somewhat) correct. Feminism has been deeply flawed and extremely problematic throughout the years. So much of the early feminist movement was spearheaded by upper class, white, educated women who were fighting to overcome the roadblocks they faced. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We may now joke about going to college to get our “MRS.” but for quite some time this was viewed as the goal of a college education. It was a ridiculously bullshit notion that completely undermined women’s intellectual goals and autonomy. Much of the modern feminist movement was born out of the desire of these women to become something more than a housewife. Their work has done so much good for women – from access to birth control to passing Roe v. Wade to the continuing fight for equal pay for equal work. But there were a whole lot more women facing issues that were not deemed important – women who already were housewives, for example.
Phyllis Schlafly positioned herself as a champion for the suffering housewives while actively working to defeat programs that would help them. She was a real life super villain, both in her behavior and styling. So much of what has been written following her death has focused on how much she did to hurt the feminist movement – and lord knows, she did quite a bit. But I’d prefer to focus on how she, unbeknownst to her, boosted the movement and provided us with some fantastic motivation to keep fighting. If only for the fact that it would really, really irk her to know what she really did.
By co-opting the women forgotten by the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1970s, Phyllis Schlafly accidentally pointed out that, yes, feminism is flawed. This realization has been pivotal in forming the ideals of the more recent third wave of feminism. Rather than allow our imperfection to crush us, modern feminists have adopted a more intersectional approach – one that acknowledges that our favored causes probably aren’t representational, and that we can always strive to do better.
There are so many women who are hesitant to identify as a feminist because of the negative associations with the word. We’re ugly. We’re man haters. We’re all in some sort of lesbian agricultural cult. I get it. Being vocal about these issues opens you up to criticism and, at times, extremely violent harassment. Social justice is dirty, often times thankless work and I don’t really blame anyone for aligning with somebody who claims to protect those who are suffering. But just because someone wants to divide us doesn’t mean we have to succumb.
In Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay states:
Feminism’s failings do not mean we should eschew feminism entirely. People do terrible things all the time, but we don’t regularly disown our humanity. We disavow the terrible things. We should disavow the failures of feminism without disavowing its many successes and how far we have come.
We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.
Phyllis Sclafly and her ilk have tried desperately to fracture us – to step into the spaces we forgot and force us farther apart. But, despite her efforts, feminism thrives. In a sense, she was Loki, giving feminists a reason to come together to form a supergroup of third-wave Avengers to defeat her. Women continue to support and fight for each other – even when that means proud anti-feminists like Schlafly get to benefit from our hard work.
I will say this only once, but I am grateful for Phyllis Schlafly. I am grateful for a woman who inadvertantly pointed out our failings and motivated us to do better. I am grateful that her continued war against feminism gave activists a clear motivation to keep on fighting. I’m grateful that, whether or not she liked it, her ability to be a driven professional is a direct result of feminism. I’m happy that I can laugh about that.
I’m grateful for the vocal anti-feminists who continue to motivate activists to evolve and expand their goals. Those people, those supervillains, like Phyllis Schlafly, who keep us from becoming complacent.
Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.