From left: Kellyanne Conway, Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter. All images Gage Skidmore

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Photo by From left: Kellyanne Conway, Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter. All images Gage Skidmore

What Hath Phyllis Schlafly Wrought?


The late female misogynist, who called for the death of the ERA, spawned a new generation of toxic women who rail against the very thing that gave them a podium: feminism.



The call for sources seemed benign enough: I submitted a request for experts on gender, politics, and psychology to weigh in on the late Phyllis Schlafly, that Equal Rights Amendment–quashing gadfly and anti-feminist activist (who could also have moonlighted as a Dolores Umbridge cosplayer). In my pitch, I said that I wanted to examine why women like Schlafly and her spiritual kinswomen, Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Conway (Donald Trump’s campaign manager, who claims that rape only exists because women lack men’s physical strength), held such a tight, smothering grip on the cultural consciousness; and how it is that they have maintained such vigorous support among their followers, even though they are, in essence, exactly what they too often doth protest: hard-charging, career-having, very proud and public women. I’d expected to hear from academics and a representative or two from women’s rights organizations who would talk about Schlafly and her ilk as once-prominent forces now relegated to the bitter fringe of the Men’s Rights subreddit and the Donald Trump campaign. What I didn’t anticipate was the wrath my request dredged up among a particular group of women, especially from one whose email address was attached to a PR firm:

“Phyllis Schlafly’s organization was called Concerned WOMEN for America. Explain how that works against women’s rights! As for Ann Coulter … anti-woman, she is NOT. I can’t wait to see the credible examples in your story that illustrate how she is against women’s rights; there won’t be any, because you don’t have them.”

Google, and Ann Coulter herself, can do that for me: Here’s Ann claiming that women should lose the right to vote; that women can’t actually be raped unless they’ve been “hit on the head with a brick”; that women really don’t need equal pay because, “I’ll take 69 cents on the dollar … just to never have to pay for dinner. That seems like a fair deal to me.” Facts can be painful, pesky things.

Another respondent, who uses a personal email address linked to her design business, wrote: “Just because one does not see praising abortionists for murdering over one half-million little women a year as a wonderful thing, it does not mean one is not concerned about women’s health issues … Perhaps ‘feminists’ should lean more to the Right and … less on the right to kill babies and to live openly [sic] non traditional lives.” (And this, dear reader, is the only printable section). The bitter fringe, it seems, remains as front-and-center as it did in the days when Schlafly and her army of well-coiffed, well-prepared housewives took down the ERA.

Reading these responses, or surfing the “women against feminism” memes, I feel the morbid intrigue of driving by a car wreck in which you know nobody survived. Who are these women, these foot-soldiers on the wrong side of the war on women—which Schlafly actually called “a war on men …  [feminists] are very open about it … always saying they want to abolish the patriarchy”? Farrah Parker, former executive director for the Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women, explains the appeal of Schlafly’s rhetoric, and its continuation through stand-bearers like Conway, Coulter, and Planned Parenthood abolitionist Laura Ingraham: “When you integrate voices like Schlafly and Coulter into national discussions, then those who have traditionally held power can validate their exclusionary actions by saying ‘See, even a woman agrees.’” These are the Conservative Cool Girls: They look like the kind of woman a red-blooded, red-necked, all-American man dreams of, as they tell him that everything he’s suspected is true—he’s losing his country and his place in the world, and it’s all the fault of those uppity women: the new boss who thinks her master’s degree means more than his years of on-the-job experience; the single woman who bought the biggest house on the block; that ball-buster who wants to be the president and his ungrateful daughter who actually plans to vote for her.

Figures like Coulter and Conway couch their disdain for women-kind as a conspiratorial, “just the facts”–style truth-telling; take the brash, one-word urgency in Coulter’s book titles (e.g., Demonic: How the Liberal Is Endangering America), or how, in a recent tweet about the FBI probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails, Conway exhorted her over 69,000 followers to “Look at this through a nonpolitical-I-care-about-my-country lens, folks. Simply astonishing.” (I guess Conway missed the part where the FBI declined to prosecute Clinton. What’s also simply astonishing: Conway’s boss’s failure to turn over his tax returns).

Even the website for Schlafly’s organization, Eagle Forum, is as aggressively clunky as anything one’s retired parent might cobble together in the basement, and the headlines are stark in their fearfulness for the safety and sanctity of America, particularly American girlhood: In articles like “Congress Is Close to Drafting Our Daughters!” Schlafly argues that, “Congress has no more important responsibility than to prevent the compulsory assignment of women to military combat … Military combat units draw their strength from ‘unit cohesion,’ not diversity.”

This mentality might reflect a phenomenon referred to as “identifying with the oppressor,” a kind of socio-political Stockholm syndrome. Look at Schlafly, who passed the Illinois bar and twice ran for U.S. Congress, advocating so thoroughly against the same slow progress that allowed her the education and platform she enjoyed for decades. Or Ann Coulter, who, as an attorney and best-selling author, won’t exactly have to worry about washing dishes if her date can’t cover the check at Chez Pierre. Or Conway, who is embodying Marlon Brando’s famous axiom about acting—“lying for a living”—on major news channels every night. These women are like the alt-right wizards of Oz, presenting fairylands of classic Americana—a white-bread yellow-brick road where the good witch is a stay-at-home mom who derives all of her satisfaction from loving her children and pleasing her man, and the wicked witch wants abortion on demand and universal health care—while they benefit from the liberties wrought by the blood and bile of the feminists they so despise. Though Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire couldn’t have dreamt up Coulter, or her (lack of) soul-sister Sarah Palin, when he wrote his famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he nonetheless described their ethos to a T: “Because of the example set by the oppressor, who is the possessor of power and wealth, the oppressed individual … tends to aspire to become more like the oppressor himself … an oppressed person who is promoted to any position of authority often tends to be actually more oppressive than the original taskmaster himself.”

The Conservative Cool Girl offers other women a world in which the rapist is not that apple-cheeked boy on the swim team; he is a dark-skinned Other sneaking over the border, waiting in that alleyway with a brick in his hand. The terrorist is not the man who firebombs a women’s health clinic or releases a woman’s address online; he’s the man in the ISIS video who is coming to claim you and your daughters as his bride-slaves. And having reproductive choice isn’t about autonomy; it’s about letting a man get away with having his way with you. The Cool Girl is not like those other girls, the ones who get raped behind Dumpsters or beaten by their husbands, who live paycheck to paycheck or travel over state lines to get abortions; those girls got what they deserved for being too drunk or too mouthy, those girls should get a better job and learn to keep their legs closed. And maybe this is why the fans of the Conservative Cool Girls write to me with such venom, because their heroines offer them a vision of womanhood that is somehow above and beyond the real grit and pain of being female in our country: If you’re smart and wholesome enough, you will never be vulnerable or preyed-upon.

 

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