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What feminists can learn from anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly

Explained by a Princeton historian.

Phyllis Schlafly testifying against the ERA, 1981.
Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty

Phyllis Schlafly, who died Monday at the age of 92, was revered by social conservatives and reviled by liberals. She was a staunch anti-feminist and believer in the “traditional family” who helped shape the culture wars about family, community, identity, and equality we’re still having today. And she’s more responsible than anyone for the fact that the Constitution doesn’t have an Equal Rights Amendment in it today.

After she died, she was, predictably, revered and reviled in most of the expected places. But historian Kevin M. Kruse, who’s written about Schlafly’s era of conservative politics, found a way to illustrate Schlafly’s impact on American history while condemning her work: calling attention to the lessons her career held for political activists of every ideology.

Progressives can sometimes comfort themselves (and conservatives torment themselves) with the belief that any setbacks (or victories) are temporary, and social progress (or decline) is inevitable. But even if “the arc of the universe really does bend toward justice” on a cosmic scale — and it might not — it certainly doesn’t mean that progressives will win every moral battle, or even that society will inevitably get more progressive from one generation to the next.

Phyllis Schlafly stepped in, after it looked like the arc of the universe had already bent, and showed that there is no such thing as an inevitable political victory. Who wins a battle depends on who shows up to fight.

The fact that Schlafly, by showing up — by pursuing a professional career in the public sphere — broke with the traditional gender roles she herself advocated for didn’t escape commentary when she died. But the point was that more women lived the traditional life she didn’t, because of her efforts to preserve it.

Her tactics — with the possible exception of the cookies (which might have been a little trickier to message if, say, the National Organization for Women had baked them) — weren’t specific to her conservative goals.

Any effective activist has learned that winning the fight isn’t just about dominating the airwaves or winning the debate. It’s about building coalition power. It’s about framing the debate advantageously. And it’s about relentless, individual lobbying at every level of government.

This is an especially important reminder for progressives in 2016. The major American political party that tends to be more susceptible to activist pressure from the left has a serious advantage in presidential politics. The major party less susceptible to that sort of pressure, meanwhile, has consolidated its dominance of state and local politics through most of the US.

That — and the fact that social media conversations happen on a national scale — makes it tempting to focus on fights and victories in the federal government. But sometimes it’s the state battles that actually affect more people. And as Schlafly showed, they can be won — even against long odds.

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