De-conflating Feminism: Thoughts on the passing of Phyllis Schlafly

One of my favourite things in the world is hearing feminists claim not to be feminists. It means they don’t understand what feminism is — what it is supposed to be — nor do they realise their contribution to the climb.

My dad, a longtime conservative, thinks feminism is unnecessary and, at least occasionally, detrimental to society. He recently sent me an article on Phyllis Schlafly. After the antifeminist conservative activist died at the age of 92, her niece penned an apologist piece, referring to Schlafly as 'my misunderstood aunt'. Her profile of Schlafly's history — as a champion of housewives (who was not, herself, a housewife) and as someone who worked hard against the radical victims-narrative feminism of the 1970s and 1980s — resonated with my dad.

He texted me:

"I like this interpretation of Phyllis Schlafly's view [on feminism]. I'm sure it's not yours, but I'd say it's close to the way I see it."

My historical awareness of Schlafly’s existence is somewhat limited, arguably because I am a lifelong feminist, and the writers and thinkers to whom I gravitate probably rued the day this intelligent, educated, opinionated, articulate woman was born on the far right end of the spectrum. That said, I, like Schlafly's niece, know and respect the fact that there is another side to every story. It's not always popular; it's not always convincing; sometimes it's downright fringe. But it's there. Denying the other side doesn't make it go away. Hearing the other side out can only help you grow.

I actually credit my dad a lot with teaching me to think that way.

So, I read the piece he sent with interest. What I came away with is this probably unoriginal thought: Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist.

She said she wasn't. She railed against feminists for convincing women they were victims. She validated the lives of women who worked harder than anyone without ever leaving their homes, raising their children and caring for their husbands, being end-of-life caregivers to their own parents, helping their communities in the capacity of volunteers. She rejected the premise that American women were oppressed. And so, her niece writes, Schlafly couldn't have been a feminist.

Here's the thing: Feminism is a breathing, sweating, urgent organism. It constantly evolves. And it evolves better when people like Phyllis Schlafly apply their innovative, opposition-oriented minds to improving the definition.

When, instead, people like her reject the word feminist because they don’t like the people who are currently taking up the largest corner of the tent, they merely ensure that necessary progress is slower. It’s a shame.

I get where Schlafly was coming from. I can see why strong, successful, conservative women identify with her ideas. But, as is the case with people like Gloria Steinem on the other end of the spectrum, what Schlafly offered the world was incomplete.

Feminism means a belief that all human beings are equally valuable, regardless of gender. And everything hinges on that dependent clause. The word we want to be able to use instead is humanism. But we can’t. Because the evidence of female subjugation the world over is so stark.

So, I'm a feminist and a humanist. I’ll reach for either label or both depending on the issue I’m facing. I want those labels to be as finely tuned, as considered, as evolved, as possible.

The fact is that I have more opportunities today because my mom's generation of women stood up to sexist barriers in education and the workplace, in the family and in the law, so that I could grow up without worrying about those things. My mom was there, getting paid too little and being worked too hard and being judged for leaving her kids in the care of others, while it was never an option for her to be able to stay. She too is a pretty hard core Republican, who has long rejected calling herself a feminist.

Labels, like symbols, are too often conflated with the ideas behind them.

An American flag is just a flag. An angry football player can choose not to salute it, or a demonstrator can set it aflame, or white-gloved hands can drape it over a soldier's casket… it’s still just a flag. The idea in your own mind about that flag is safe regardless.

The same goes for the term feminism. Gloria Steinem, who I respect deeply, can tell me that I must vote for Hillary Clinton because I am a woman and this is a feminist prerogative. And I can consider that idea and disregard it. The feminism I have grown to understand and embrace says that every woman’s mind, political viewpoint, and vote is sacrosanct. Our goal is to do what we can to create the absolute meritocracy we claim to want. A society that defines success based on the individual's strengths and potential. A society that encourages health and passion and cooperation over judgement and division. A vote is a vote. A candidate is a candidate. Trump isn’t the wrong choice because he’s a man; Clinton isn’t the right choice because she’s a woman.

Feminists will always disagree over the definition of feminism, and that’s a good thing. I’m still hoping to convince my parents to take on the label of feminist for themselves. My daughter is every bit as valuable as her male cousins. Her potential should be boundless. If a provable gender bias exists in our society that restricts her access to whatever her goal for a successful life might include — fighter pilot, librarian, journalist, code monkey, supermodel, politician, garbage collector, entomologist, housewife, photographer, accountant, or flight attendant — I will stand against that restriction and work to remove it. And I believe her grandparents would, too. That’s feminism.

We’re somewhere between the third and fourth wave of the movement right now, and that doesn’t even count the brave souls in past centuries who believed women should be treated equally. Without a movement to tell them whether they were subscribing to the right label. My earnest hope is that, by the time the fifth wave hits, the imbroglio surrounding the word itself will have died down enough for people to see the blank, foundational truth of the belief behind it. Phyllis Schlafly may have wanted to tear down the movement, sincerely motivated to be an advocate for women in her own way. But she simply contributed to the conversation.

In saying, "I'm no feminist!", she made people take a closer look. How could it be that a person who wanted to raise the image of women and empower them to make their own life choices was not a feminist? A gut check to the movement. A review of the philosophy. And we all came through it.

Today, many feminists — myself included — acknowledge the hypocrisy of trying to force women out of their homes and into the workplace out of a misplaced sense of duty to the appearance of equality. Akin to forcing observant Muslim women to remove their burkinis on the beaches of France, this move ignores an important truth: equality means agency. If women have the choice to work or the choice to stay home, either choice is valid and should be respected. We've come a long way, thanks in part to Phyllis Schlafly. The feminist.

And my dad can tell me feminists damage society, and he can rail against the National Organisation for Women. But he's still the guy who told much-younger me she could be anything she wanted to be, regardless of gender. He taught me that I am as valuable as anyone else. He's a feminist, too.

The word is just a word.

It’s not worth fighting about, but it is worth considering, discussing, and improving as time goes by. Set it afire or drape it over Emmeline Pankhurst’s coffin… the idea behind the word is safe in my mind and ready to continue to grow.