Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Ding Dong

I grew up in a culture in which we were taught never to speak ill of the dead.  It's tacky.  Mean. Nice people don't do it.

So when I saw this picture on Face Book of the Wicked Witch’s red shoes sticking out from under the house that fell on her, from The Wizard of Oz, I think I was supposed to cluck, “Well, no, it’s not right to laugh.”  Instead, my reaction was, “Damn!  Somebody shares my sense of humor to a T.”  Phyllis Schlafly 1924-2016.  The witch is dead.

I’m sure there was a part of this woman that her children could love.  She raised six of them, after all.  And had sixteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  I wouldn’t dance and sing about her death in the presence of these people.  There was a private person someone could call grandma.

But there was also a public figure who worked diligently to assure that women would continue to be legally defined as adjuncts to their fathers and husbands, a Catholic woman who followed her church’s patriarchal teaching to the letter.  This witch is now dead and will ride through history as a footnote, along with Jerry Falwell, in the American culture war over the rights of women and minorities.  And, by the way, when it came to family loyalty, it would seem to have been rather one-sided.  When her son came out as gay, her response to gay people remained unchanged.  “Nobody’s stopping them from shacking up,” she said.  “The problem is that they are trying to make us respect them, and that’s an interference with what we believe.”  Gee thanks, mom.

Schlafly’s most notable accomplishment was the founding of the Eagle Forum.  She organized it originally to stop the Equal Rights Amendment, but it then became an umbrella organization for other arch-conservative causes. Until Schlafly came along, the ERA was on its way to becoming ratified.  Thirty-five state legislatures had passed it by a vote of more than 90% - out of the thirty-eight necessary.  But congress was then bombarded by pie-baking church ladies, and the amendment died on June 30, 1982. 

Schlafly seemed to relish the role she played in keeping alive the Ozzie and Harriet image of a perfectly coiffed homemaker in pearls and heels welcoming hubby home from the office with a cocktail and his slippers.  Floor vacuumed, not a hair out of place.  She used to begin her speeches by thanking her husband for allowing her to go out and speak.  In this, she was not one for practicing what she preached.  Twice she ran for Congress, in 1952 and in 1970.  Lost both times.

She had a point when she argued that the ERA would actually take away some privileges granted to women on the basis of their sex.  The two biggies were alimony and freedom from the draft. Conservatives today insist that the number of rapes of female soldiers prove she had a point.  Ditto the number of children born out of wedlock.  But pull the camera back a bit.  Focus on the whole woods, and not just a couple individual trees.  Reminds me of the arguments that we can't eliminate the growth of poppies for heroin because farmers depend on it for a living.  Or shut down coal mining for the same reason.  Sometimes you have to change two or more things to get the desired result.  I'm always struck with the short-sightedness and lack of imagination in anti-birth control arguments. And limitations on divorce. And giving refuge to children fleeing war.

Phyllis Schlafly supporting Pat Buchanan for president
in 1996
My use of the witch metaphor is hardly original.  Betty Friedan once declared she’d like to burn Schlafly at the stake.    She also referred to her as “Aunt Tom.”  Political Scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in  The New Republic in 2005, “Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the 20th century.” But he also wrote that “every idea she ever had was scatterbrained, dangerous and hateful.”  No doubt he was referring to such comments as “sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women,” and “sex-education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions.”

Politically, you couldn’t get much further to the right.   She even hated Henry Kissinger for being too liberal.  The atom bomb, according to Schlafly, was “a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God.”  Sex education, she said, was “a principle cause of teenage pregnancy.” The Schlaflys were ardent anti-communists who supported Joe McCarthy and the Bricker Amendment in 1954, which would have prevented an American president from negotiating international treaties.

Particularly irksome to women (and men) in the fight for equal rights was the realization that Phyllis Schlafly had taken the quickest path to a life of leisure; she had married rich.  Gail Sheehy captured the “I’ve got mine” insensitivity of the privileged when she wrote, “Phyllis Schlafly’s formula for the better life, then, is based on marrying a rich professional, climbing the pedestal to lady of leisure and pulling up the rope ladder behind her.”

Each time we complain about some lousy idea, we are faced with the question of how far we want to go to shut people up.  I am for erring in the direction of free speech.  I think neo-nazis should be free to express anti-semitism, keeping in mind the rule that one cannot shout fire in a crowded theater.  I think people should be allowed to express the notion that the South fought for states’ rights and not to keep slavery intact, even though they are dead wrong.  It’s up to the rest of us to make sure facts get out there to contradict this kind of misinformation.  Trump and other dirty politicians can lie their heads off.  It’s up to the rest of us to call them out and vote accordingly. 

So I’m not for labelling Phyllis Schlafly’s hateful pronouncements hate speech.  Not something to be punished.  Just something to take note of as hateful.  I just want to be sure that when her ideas get a hearing others get to step up and reveal the pernicious effect of her work.  Because she fought AIDS education, people died.  Because countless numbers of women could not get access to birth control information, thousands of abortions took place that should not have been necessary, and women who might have gotten out from under bad marriages remained tied to abusive men.  All because the crusader, Phyllis Schlafly, was convinced she was doing God’s work.  Schlafly was a fountain of slander and misinformation.  Consider her claim that the real purpose behind the push for same-sex marriage was to eliminate the Christian religion.  

Just as most Muslims ignore what's actually in the Qur'an about slaying infidels and such, most Evangelicals, thank God, ignore what’s actually in the Bible. The naughty parts where Yahweh insists you should bash the brains out of the children of your enemies.  And where Jesus (in Luke 19, verse 27) says, "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me." And most Catholics ignore the retrograde teachings of the so-called Holy See. The world has moved on.  Hypocritical biblical/magisterium cherry-pickers like Pat Robertson and Ted Cruz and Phyllis Schlafly, who find their way into American politics, however, will, little doubt, be ever with us, insisting on the importance of maintaining the old ways.  Holdovers from a harsher age.  When white people spoke of the white man’s burden, when blacks went to lesser schools if they went to school at all, when women were paid only 77 cents for the same work men were paid a dollar for… OK, so that last one still holds…

In any case, Mrs. Schlafly has gone on to her reward.  She came.  She had her say.

And now she’s gone.

Ding Dong.

photo credit:

Witch is dead: Jennine Hill’s Face Book page

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