A woman's place is in the home section

The New York Times gets cozy with Phyllis Schlafly.

Published March 30, 2006 6:18PM (EST)

The New York Times Home & Garden section today offers an astonishingly credulous little profile of antifeminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, in which Schlafly sort of comes off like everybody's eccentric grandmother. We hear about her happy family ("I've never told my children what to do"), her work shooting machine guns during World War II, her multiple graduate degrees and the home where she lived with her husband (huge, limestone) and the brick colonial she bought after he died. Intermittently we get some Schlafly bons mots like "feminism has changed the way women think, and it has changed the way men think, but the trouble is, it hasn't changed the attitudes of babies at all." (Babies' political agenda and attitudes on gender being so well documented and all.)

You could argue that there's no need for a piece like this to critique its subject, that the profile's author makes her point just by summarizing Schlafly's views: "In recent weeks she has used it [her newsletter] to rail against foreign-language ballots, Title IX, the president's attempt to transfer management of ports to an Arab concern, the 'nosy' inquiries of the Census Bureau and a call by members of the National Organization for Women for the resignation of Coach Joe Paterno of Penn State after he expressed sympathy for a football player accused of sexual harassment. 'Just a few feminists with a fax machine will smear anyone in their war against football,' she wrote in January." The reader learns that Schafly tends toward paranoid xenophobia and is loony enough to think there might be a war on football without the author's writing an unkind word. And anyway, it's an "At Home With ..." piece -- no need to tackle the unwieldy issue of feminism, right?

But the thing is, the piece does tackle feminism. It's titled "A Feminine Mystique All Her Own," for the sweet Lord's sake, and gives Schlafly the rather passive-aggressive last word on her long-standing disagreements with "Feminine Mystique" author Betty Friedan: "I debated Friedan several times. She was always very ugly to deal with and debate, and made it clear that she hated me. I rejected all press calls to comment on her death; I'm not inclined to say critical things when somebody dies. Of course, I reject all her ideology, most of it based on the absurd notion that the home is a comfortable concentration camp and that the suburban housewife is oppressed by her husband and by society." (Well, at least she stuck to her noble resolution not to criticize Friedan after she died.)

The article is accompanied by two photos, one of Schlafly's floral couch-and-armchair set, and the other showing her standing in her hallway with a warm smile on her face. The second photo's caption establishes Schlafly as a role model for future generations: "At 81, Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative pundit, still writes her syndicated column and speaks at colleges. Many women born since the feminist revolution are fascinated by her views on work and family." Admittedly, I'm just one woman born since the feminist revolution, but to me the most fascinating thing about Schlafly is that she was a trailblazer for antifeminist crusaders who make prosperous careers out of saying women belong in the home.

Here's what the Times and Schlafly have to say about that apparent contradiction: "That Mrs. Schlafly has so passionately endorsed domestic life as the greatest achievement to which a woman might aspire while aspiring to so much more herself has, of course, infuriated her feminist adversaries for decades." (Feminist adversaries, dun-dun-DUUNNN! I'm going to get me a superhero outfit.) "'In the scale of liberal sins, hypocrisy is the greatest, and they have always considered me a hypocrite,' Mrs. Schlafly said. She has never told women, she said, that they shouldn't or couldn't work. 'I simply didn't believe we needed a constitutional amendment to protect women's rights,'" she said. Yeah! You can work if you want to, provided getting paid less than a man for doing the same job doesn't bug you. Go for it! But Schlafly wants it noted that her activism isn't work; it's "a hobby."

The Times reminds us that "Schlafly's efforts to defeat the amendment succeeded once and for all in 1982, when it fell 3 states short of the 38 needed for ratification. She held a burial party at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington." Going on 25 years later, I'm sad to read those words -- just as I'm sad that the Times passed up the opportunity for a more substantive critique of Schlafly's place in history.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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