One of the more entertaining evenings during my time in college was when Phyllis Schlafly came to town.
After delivering the anti-feminist stump speech she has honed for the past four decades—“Feminism is incompatible with happiness” was a particularly memorable turn of phrase—the conservative icon of the 1970s gender wars subjected herself to a Q&A session with an audience that was, shall we say, less than sympathetic toward her traditional views about the role of women in American life.
In an illuminating exchange, a young woman expressed an interest in starting a family and having a full-time career simultaneously, to which Schlafly, looking slightly taken aback, responded, “I’m not trying to stop you!”
Schlafly, now 88, is a rare dissenting voice in an extensive and thoroughly engaging documentary called Makers: Women Who Make America, which premiered on PBS last week and is currently viewable on the network’s website.
The project, which neatly coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, charts the last half-century of the women’s rights movement in the United States, told largely by the women who led it.
By design, Makers is not especially critical of the material it so entertainingly presents, treating the greatest hits in the struggle for gender equality more or less as the whole country now views Selma and Montgomery vis-à-vis the fight for racial equality, with reverence and deference.
Yet the presence in the film of people like Schlafly is paramount, because it underlines a fundamental irony and paradox at the core of the whole story of feminism—a point that must be included to make the narrative complete and that Makers, to its credit, does indeed address in its final act.
The contention of the anti-feminist forces, both now and when they successfully squelched the so-called “Equal Rights Amendment” in the late 1970s, is that the women’s movement is bad for women. That it turns women into victims rather than heroines, thereby only perpetuating the stereotype that the world’s female half is weaker-willed and thinner-skinned than its male counterparts—a proposition that, to be sure, Schlafly and company’s efforts thoroughly rebuke.
Never mind what men think. In today’s America, there are scores of women who adamantly refuse to self-identify as feminists. They view the word itself as antiquated and counterproductive—a relic of a generation to which they no longer (or never did) relate.
They do not wish to be viewed or judged on the basis of their gender any more than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wished his children to be judged on the basis of their skin color.
The paradox, then, is that one of the great achievements of feminists’ push for women’s empowerment is to have empowered women to reject feminism.
I am put in mind of a useful anecdote by Andrew Sullivan from the early days of the gay marriage fight. Chided by a fellow homo who professed abject uninterest in ever getting married—in his view, the institution was strictly for straight people—Sullivan replied that gay people “can’t reject marriage […] we are beneath even the choice.”
“The goal of the [gay rights] movement,” Sullivan elucidated on another occasion, “is not to allow everyone the freedom to be gay so much as it is to allow everyone the freedom to be themselves.”
That is the bottom line of feminism in the context of today’s society: The most difficult work has been done, and the results are so overwhelmingly positive that women today have the luxury not to feel obligated to keep the fight going. Or even to agree on what the objectives of the fight now are.
New York Times columnist Gail Collins very amusingly recalled in 2009 that when she observed that Sarah Palin counted as “an heir to the women’s movement” as much as anyone else, Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem groaned, “If that’s true, I’m shooting myself right now.”
Of Palin, Collins went on to say, “I think she’s a woman who, as far as I can tell, has never been constrained by her gender.” To the extent this is true, Steinem has no right to grumble, for she must surely realize that the fight for equality that she so bravely aided is meaningless unless it enables its descendants to chart their own course in whatever way they see fit, even if it means rejecting some of the values for which their forebears originally fought.
Is that not the purpose of empowerment in the first place?