Writing in The New York Times, Washington Examiner editor Helen Andrews wants to know why the next Phyllis Schlafly hasn’t yet shown her pleasant face. To be honest, I’ve been hoping for a while that the next Phyllis Schlafly would be Helen Andrews. Lacking that comfort, let’s just try out a few answers to Andrews’ worries, subtitled, “The American family needs defending and right now men are leading the charge.”
The iconic Schlafly in the 1980s led a grassroots movement that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have erased sex distinctions from all laws nationwide and enshrined the right to abortion in the U.S. Consitution, among other detrimental consequences. There are many reasons no one woman is replicating her success amid today’s wars against feminism.
First, a potential Schlafly successor must raise her own family and be highly skilled in hobbies that are not exclusively domestic. This doesn’t describe a lot of people. Second, there are many socially conservative women arguing against modern feminism’s program of economic, political, and social extortion.
Third, some traditionalists take a unified view of female vocation in which women traditionally stay out of the public eye. Fourth, the social cost of public presence is too high. Finally, even institutions that are conservative on paper function under feminist rules and therefore don’t lend their support causes like Schlafly’s.
1. Conservative Women Have Kids and Want to Raise Them
Schlafly had an astounding amount of energy and talent for her work, and demonstrated that a whole lot of women agreed with her outlook. Their ideological heirs are still out there doing the actual work of being wives and mothers, which most of history has considered a full-time position. Women in this camp are likely to have more kids than average. These women are also more likely to be the go-to caregivers for sick or elderly members of their extended families. This keeps them extremely busy doing needed and time-consuming work.
Also, even trad wives have hobbies. Most happily retrograde women are running school fundraisers, Little Free Libraries, Sunday schools, local elections, and other increasingly underserved social services. When Schlafly’s six kids were in bed, she happened to enjoy advocating for heterodox cultural and political ideas at the national level. She was also extremely good at it. She was, as Andrews acknowledges, a bit of an outlier.
This does not indicate that trad wives are the disinterested airheads that feminists say they are. In fact, the non-wealthy are no longer free to choose female stay-at-homeism without a great deal of thought. The feminist deck is stacked against single-income households, both socially and financially.
Andrews says, “Just as the housewives of Stop E.R.A. would never have made an impact if Schlafly hadn’t organized them, today’s political conversation tends to overlook those women who would prefer to raise their children in one-breadwinner families like the ones they grew up in.” A plurality of Schlafly fans may only agree with that sentence post-comma.
They are making a wager. Some who might have a bit of Schlafly in them are betting that they will serve society better if their energy is not divided between home and not-home, even recreationally. Time will truly tell.
2. Many Right Women Fill Schlafly’s Shoes Together
The throne of Schlafly has no shortage of possible successors. Schlafly is the one who had it all. She had a lot of kids, raised them herself, and confounded her enemies by squelching a major feminist agenda item (the Equal Rights Amendment) while her fan base cheered in gratitude. She won at life.
Although she was an outlier, this is a big country. So, for example, here’s a significant body of substantive work from one conservative woman who is actually raising her own five kids. If you would like more examples, find an Eagle Forum member, an evangelical homeschooler, or a Catholic school mom of six, and ask her who her favorite blogger, podcaster, or Instagrammarian is.
Any one of the people suggested in response to this question is already doing the legwork to be the next Phyllis Schlafly. It sounds like what we really need is a reality show to choose and anoint her.
3. Men Can Fight for Family Too
Andrews mentions some thinkers who have drawn attention to the family-punishing economy feminism has wrought (the Niskanen Center’s Samuel Hammond, National Review’s Patrick T. Brown, and Tucker Carlson). But she dismisses them as Schlafly successors due to them being men: “That’s a difficulty, because there are some arguments that it’s easier for a woman to make. Phyllis Schlafly, who died in 2016, herself said, ‘I always did feel that the leaders of the effort to beat E.R.A. had to be women.’ The optics have only become more important in an age of identity politics.”
But if, in the age of identity politics, the loyal opposition’s modus operandi becomes finding representatives of each identity group to argue against the agenda leftists have declared for that identity, haven’t the terrorists won?
Furthermore, a subset of social conservatives are uncertain about the wisdom of a “traditional” woman being very publicly active. It seems dissonant to itemize the historical feminist cause on feminist terms. Feminist terms are bad, of course: most of the material ease and freedoms women have gained in the last 100 years are due not to bloomers and the depreciation of the franchise, but advances in technology and medicine (made by — oh, never mind).
But the public bloodlust for caricature on this point, even among many conservatives, makes for a low-return investment. If you’re a conservative woman who didn’t get excited about Sarah Palin, you can either keep your head down or have it bitten off—not always by a feminist, either.
Are there arguments that are easier for women to make? I think so. Women are the natural experts on a number of questions crucial to the public good and welfare. But social conservatives don’t agree on the circumstances under which those arguments are best made.
4. The Risk to Their Families Is Too High
It has gotten harder to separate one’s private and public lives. Publicly arguing for traditional female roles opens up a woman to extremely personal ridicule and criticism, and makes public figures of her husband and children. Fuse that with the active social media presence that is pretty much required of major public figures. Now our anti-feminist friend is living in constant fear that one of the people she cares about will end up getting hurt by her anti-feminism hobby.
Sadly, the Schlafly family has not been immune to this. Dig it up from this filthy old internet yourself if it means that much to you. Then ask if the anti-feminist cause needs an in-house Stultifier In Chief as long as the Anne-Marie Slaughters of the world continue having occasional fits of honesty and Camille Paglia’s brain keeps squirming like a toad.
5. They Get No Love From Conservatism, Inc.
This is only half an argument because Schlafly didn’t get any help from the right-aisle establishment, either. Her grassroots approach grew out of the fact that big business doesn’t see housewives as good for anything outside of leggings sales.
All contemporary institutions function on statist and feminist models. This means, as Andrews notes, policy proposals tend to be of the “write families a check too” variety, rather than “quit writing checks to people who make antisocial choices.”
Additionally, ask a housewife how easy it is to make some pocket change in a way that doesn’t involve hitting up her friends to buy rubbish they don’t want. This is stupid: housewives make excellent part-time remote contractors who don’t draw benefits. But departures from the eight-hour (plus) onsite workday are apparently too hard for most employers to figure out.
Even overtly conservative institutions are owned by the businesses who bankroll them, and every business wants to pay as little for labor as possible. It’s easy to read and link to “The Two-Income Trap,” and other fully articulated right ideas—do, by all means. But conservatives have yet to cooperatively put their money where their endorsements are regarding families’ best interests.
Try Helping Women the Non-Feminist Way
Andrews is on to several of these things. As I’ve indicated, her essay includes her hunches about Schlafly being plain extraordinary, the particularly vicious reprisals to which anti-feminist women are subject, and the fact that nobody gives two rank diapers about housewives who are housewives rather than just playing them on the internet.
I’d take another Phyllis Schlafly if she came along. But as a housewife, I totally understand why she may not want to. We’ll have to keep taking whatever scraps of advocacy we can get in the world feminists have won for the sisterhood.
Also as a housewife, that’s enough boohooing and we aren’t ending our nice article this way. I think it’s best when feminists make my points for me, so here’s Rachel Cusk from “Aftermath,” her divorce memoir: “Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude.”
If you’re a socially conservative woman with fire in your belly about the wreck feminists have made of your world, help. Help the people you love, help your neighbors (the real ones, not imaginary ones), help your church, help your community, help the room you’re in right now. Feminists seriously hate it when ladies do things for free, just to be nice.
Helping is outside the human economy as we have it now, but it is intrinsic to a humane economy. And you don’t have to be anything like the next Phyllis Schlafly to do it.