Friday, September 24, 2010

Donald Critchlow - Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade

So, ok, Critchlow is an historian, and this is a scholarly historical work - as such, it might not appeal to the casual reader interested in the grassroots conservative movement or Mrs. Schlafly. You have been given fair warning.

That being said, this was a surprisingly interesting book on a subject that I know not very much about. One of the things I found interesting was that I found myself becoming sympathetic towards Schlafly. As is often the case, Schlafly's story is quite complicated - a staunch conservative, she contended that a woman's place was both in the home AND in politics - that women were and should be the moral arbiters in the US political arena. For most of her career (which isn't necessarily over yet), Schlafly was an advocate of conservative positions within the Republican party, and a strong supporter of a dominant nuclear policy, but not really a public figure. Her stance against the ERA in the 1970s put her on a much bigger public stage, but that stance was entirely consistent with her position about the role of women in society. She (and many others, women and men) felt that the ERA undermined the unique position of women within American society as arbiters of morality, and stripped women of numerous social and legal protections, especially the protection against being placed in combat, and protections against being placed in dangerous industrial jobs. (This position, incidentally, was shared by a number of women within the labor union movement - although they wanted to see the sort of protections which covered women extended to their male counterparts, and Schlafly doesn't seem to have had an opinion on that issue one way or the other.) Schlafly's opposition to the ERA is clearly marked by her privileged position as a middle to upper-class white woman - she will never have to choose between taking a lower paying (but safer) job, or fighting for a higher paying (but less safe) one - but the supporters of ERA were often equally privileged, fighting against systems which keep women out of professional work rather than the system which protects them from dangerous industrial labor.

The biggest revelation for me was the idea that, if Schlafly had won her election as president of the National Federation of Republican Women, the US would be a much better place. After the 1968 election, where Schlafly campaigned for Barry Goldwater (who lost), she was effectively drummed out of the NFRW by moderate members in leadership. Those moderates made heavy handed use of non-democratic methods to get Schlafly out - but if they had not done so, Schlafly would have had both a bully pulpit AND a responsibility which would have kept her busy. Plus, any situation which results in increased democracy can't be all bad, so any situation which reduces democracy must be at least partially bad.