Phyllis Schlafly: Groundbreaker for Women's Rights?
For today’s young feminists, the name Phyllis Schlafly may be totally unfamiliar; if anything, it triggers a distant memory of a footnote in an AP US History textbook. Those activists who lived and fought during the Second Wave are, however, all too familiar with the uber-conservative activist.
Ever since the 1940s, Schlafly has preached that women should be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. She has said things like “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape,” and has called Roe v. Wade “the worst decision in the history of the US Supreme Court.” She recently endorsed the candidacy of Todd Akin, of “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” infamy. In the 1970s, when states were voting on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Schlafly waged the STOP ERA campaign. Although she believes womankind as a whole should be homemakers, she apparently doesn’t apply this rule to herself, considering she traveled around the country as part of STOP ERA. Her efforts, and those of other opponents of women’s rights, were (unfortunately) successful; the ERA, which would ensure that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” was only ratified by 35 out of 38 states necessary. (Although the ERA was not passed in the 20th century, feminists have continued their efforts to secure its ratification.)
Given the above description, I think it’s impossible to call Schlafly a groundbreaker for women’s rights. For some reason, makers.com seems to disagree.
According to its website, makers.com is a “dynamic digital platform…showcasing hundreds of compelling stories from women of today and tomorrow.” There is also an affiliated documentary titled MAKERS: Women Who Make America that “will tell the story of the women’s movement through the firsthand accounts of the leaders, opponents, and trailblazers who created a new America in the last half-century.” One part of the website showcases “Groundbreakers,” whom the website defines as “firsts in their fields, visionary role models or frontline activists who sparked, and some who opposed, change for women.” To the amazement of feminists, Phyllis Schlafly is included as a Groundbreaker along with real groundbreakers like Gloria Steinem and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
My mentor, National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Sonia Pressman Fuentes was extremely disturbed by this gross misrepresentation. She asked Betsy West and Dyllan McGee, the producers of makers.com and the filmmakers of the forthcoming documentary based on it, to remove Schlafly from the website and film. They refused, although they did twice change the definition of Groundbreakers until they settled on the one quoted above. Although the newest definition of a Groundbreaker includes those who opposed women’s rights, it still makes no sense. “Since when are those who oppose progress considered groundbreakers?” Ms. Fuentes asks.
Additionally, although makers.com claims to include women alive today who were instrumental in changing women’s status during the last 50 years, the website and documentary do not include a single one of the nine living NOW cofounders. “This is unconscionable,” Ms. Fuentes said. When Ms. Fuentes complained about Schlafly’s inclusion and the noticeable dearth of NOW members, Betsy West offered several times to interview her in a clear effort to buy her off. Ms. Fuentes declined to be interviewed until Schlafly is removed from the makers.com website and film, or at the very least moved from the status of Groundbreaker to something more accurate, like “Opposition.”
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To urge PBS and AOL (makers.com’s sponsors) to remove Schlafly from makers.com or, at least, remove her from the designation of Groundbreaker, Ms. Fuentes and I put a petition the web. We’ve gotten a lot of support in a short amount of time, and that means so much to both of us. Understanding the history of women’s rights is essential to ending gender inequality. Unless we ensure herstory is preserved correctly in websites and documentaries like makers.com, how can we expect to learn from the past and improve the future?