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Phyllis Schlafly: back on the attack

Op-Ed

With her niece, the 86-year-old culture warrior Phyllis Schlafly has published a strident new book with familiar, and unsupported, broadsides leveled against feminists.

March 31, 2011|Meghan Daum

This may come as a surprise, but Phyllis Schlafly, legendary conservative and leader (that is, victor) in the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, is alive and well and still publishing books. At 86, she just collaborated with her 43-year-old niece Suzanne Venker on "The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know — and Men Can't Say."

If you've heard about this book, it might be because you read an interview with the authors on the Huffington Post with the headline "Feminists Love Divorce!" It included such assertions (from Schlafly) as "none of the feminists' goals, including the Equal Rights Amendment, offered women a single benefit they didn't have before, zip" and (from Venker) "feminism also taught women that men are idiots."

Those of us old enough to remember Schlafly may recall that of her many exasperating qualities, the one that most consistently drove people crazy was her insistence that if she didn't need the ERA to help her raise six children while maintaining a career — hers involved being a writer, editor, lecturer and running for office as well as going to law school — why should anyone else?

Even Venker can't keep up with that. She's a Gen-X conservative who planned from the time she was in college to have kids and stay home with them (to much derision, she claims). Since having two children, she's never used daycare or employed a nanny, which is part of the reason, she says, she's written only two books in 12 years. I recently called Venker at her home in St. Louis because I had some questions, not least among them: How did Schlafly manage to raise all those kids and pursue such a prominent career? Granted, at 25 Schlafly married an older, well-established lawyer, and granted, she herself didn't go to law school until she was in her 50s, but did she have help? If so, she never seemed to mention it.

Venker seemed to almost despair at the question: "I'm in a pickle because I haven't been asked this directly before," she said. "I'm going to say this the best way I can. She had domestic help.... She wouldn't have called them nannies, but she had people in her home. That's what she chose. Did she mention that fact enough to get her point across to young people about how she managed to do it? No, she did not."

I'll make a confession. I liked Venker a lot. Sure, when I called her out on hyperbole like "Feminists love divorce," she said it was the Huffington Post's line and not in the book (it's actually at the top of Page 157), and sure, she seemed to blame some of the "stridency" (her word) in her book on her aunt's writing style ("I think it's safe to say that Phyllis is more linear in her thinking and does not explain things well," she wrote later in an email), but I still found her intelligent, warm and funny. Despite our differences, she seemed like someone I could imagine being friends with.

But in hearing her talk about stridency I recalled a time I used the word "strident" in a column about Hillary Clinton and received angry mail from feminists telling me I was being sexist because the word was used almost exclusively as a pejorative toward liberal women.

This was news to me, since "strident" seems to pretty much describe the tone of most public discourse these days. And that's why what's ultimately most troubling about "The Flipside of Feminism" is how utterly predictable — which is to say predictably strident — it is. As in so many partisan tracts — and the left is just as guilty as the right — the complexities of human nature are discarded in favor of monolithic assumptions. Nowhere in the book, at least in my estimation, do they lay out evidence to support their case that there's a man-hating, bra-burning, abortion-loving, child-resenting subtext to mainstream American life. There may well be a few extremists out there somewhere calling for a militant, women-only utopia, but why should this be the definition of "feminist" when it's already the definition of "silly"?

Meanwhile, when I asked Venker if she had any friends who identified as feminists, she let out a resounding "No! Do you?" Maybe that's part of the problem. Or maybe she just doesn't recognize us when she sees us.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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