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Phyllis Schlafly: Having accomplished nothing but an epic

In Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers produces this interesting bit of dialogue, on the topic of fighting in the rearguard, between Lord Peter Wimsey and the Warden of Sayers's fictional women's college. The setting is the late 1930s. Lord Peter speaks first.

"One may either hulloo on the inevitable, and be called a bloodthirsty progressive; or one may try to gain time and be called a bloodthirsty reactionary. But when blood is their argument, all argument is apt to be--merely bloody."

The Warden passed the adjective at its face value.

"I sometimes wonder whether we gain anything by gaining time."

"Well--if one leaves letters unanswered long enough, some of them answer themselves. Nobody can prevent the Fall of Troy, but a dull, careful person may manage to smuggle out the Lares and Penates--even at the risk of having the epithet pius tacked to his name."

"The Universities are always being urged to march in the van of progress."

"But epic actions are all fought by the rearguard--at Roncevaux and Thermopylae."

"Very well," said the Warden, laughing, "let us die in our tracks, having accomplished nothing but an epic."

Phyllis Schlafly fought not only the infamous Equal Rights Amendment but also all the things that she (rightly) saw would flow from it. In the slightly-longer run of history that we see now from the vantage point of 2016, America lost on point after point in that list. Homosexual rights, homosexual "marriage," women in combat, the repeal of distinctions between the sexes in law, the strikedown of even minimal restrictions on abortion (most recently with the strikedown of Texas's regulations on abortion clinics), and now even the transgender movement. Of all the things that Schlafly foresaw and held back, only the actual registration of women for the draft has not yet taken place, and it can be seen on the horizon, and not so dimly, either. All of these things have been brought upon us by a combination of the courts and of increasingly leftist federal and sometimes state legislatures. But mostly the courts. Not given the excuse of the Equal Rights Amendment, they have over time simply fashioned more and more bizarre interpretations of the 14th amendment. When the Constitution is a wax nose, anything can be done by our robed masters.

So Schlafly's glorious and astonishing defeat of the ERA (see Chapter 10 of George Gilder's Men and Marriage for the story) was, seen in the light of later history, a rearguard action.

But what was the effect of that rearguard action? It gained us decades in which many important things happened. For example, it was during those decades that conservative Christians built up both the private Christian school movement and the home schooling movement (no small thing) and gave both of these firm legal standing in all fifty states. It was during those decades that the pro-life movement grew and developed its careful, logical, natural-law arguments and (more practically) crisis pregnancy centers and sidewalk counseling all over the country. It was during those decades that countless boys and girls were taught by their parents and teachers (even in many public schools) that there are differences between boys and girls, between men and women, to the measureless enrichment of future generations. It was during those decades that the pro-marriage movement, enriched by the cooperation between Catholics and Protestants and the special gifts that each brought, rose up and taught truth ceaselessly, patiently, with the force of truth and reason.

We will never know how many souls were saved from the culture of debauchery and lust by those decades. We will never know how many lives of the unborn were saved by those decades. We will never know how many joyful, fruitful, godly marriages have come about through Schlafly's work. The weight of those lives and souls is very great.

Thus it was that she was able to die in her tracks, having accomplished nothing but an epic.

According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. (I Corinthians 3:10-14)

Requiescat in pace.

Comments (11)

Beautiful. Thank you.

Nobody but you could have written this.


Echoing Steve, this was a beautifully written piece. What I thought of when I read it, was that it was sort of a poetic and lyrical compliment to a piece that Jonah Goldberg wrote in honor of Shlafly:


This part in particular made me think of your post:

There’s often much to recommend slowing revolutionary change to the pace of incrementalism. Still, politically, this has always put traditional conservatives at a disadvantage, because it implies they don’t change the direction, just the speed. That is why the philosopher Friedrich Hayek rejected the conservative label, saying the “fate of conservatism [is] to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.”

There are two problems with this argument. First, conservatism’s critics are often guilty of “Parmenides’ Fallacy,” named after the ancient Greek philosopher. We judge conservatives by the results of choices made, not by choices thwarted. It’s easy to second-guess when someone decides to enter door No. 2 if we don’t like what lies beyond it. But that criticism has no bite unless we know what would have happened if he’d chosen door No. 1. If conservatism is futile, Schlafly should never have bothered.

You just made the case for Shlafly a bit more eloquent -- thanks again for this!

Of all the things that Schlafly foresaw and held back, only the actual registration of women for the draft has not yet taken place, and it can be seen on the horizon, and not so dimly, either.

I think that the registration of women has been, by most, effectively conceded as a done deal, just waiting for the last couple pieces to fall into place. It would take someone even greater than Schlafly to stop it now. It would take not defeating a constitutional amendment, but getting one, in the face of even more opposition to it than she faced with ERA, and zero appetite for it in establishment Republican circles (sadly).

Which isn't to denigrate Schlafly, not at all. I suspect that it is not really true that of all the things she foresaw, only this is left to happen. It remains true that in millions of homes across America, mothers still desire to stay at home with their children, and still do. They are (some, that is) not berated by society for "not doing something useful". We are still bit away from the total disintegration of that picture of family life, that people do NOT simply expect and demand all mothers to put their kids in daycare and return to work after a month or two of maternity leave. Her rearguard actions helped us maintain a core of belief in home, mother, and family that Eastern Europe ditched in Communism, Western Europe (and, especially, Scandinavian Europe) denied in the last quarter of the 20th century. The vocal feminist minority is, still, a minority, however effective they and their fellow-travelers have been in the last few decades.

We judge conservatives by the results of choices made, not by choices thwarted
Well, Jonah Goldberg would say that, wouldn't he. A few months ago, they were running self-celebratory articles as how America is the most conservative country ever and how great the victories of conservatism have been. Price control is no more! Airlines and banks are deregulated! The political conservatives (Of Jonah Goldberg's ilk) are complicit in leftist makeover of the family. A recent article published in Claremont Review of Books may be noted-the Flight 93 election:
To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.
if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

Well Bedarz if you look at the trajectory of history, the trend is clearly devolution. Now I know many, and probably you, think this is awful. And except for big-bang moments, which are few and far between, this devolution of authority has continued slowly but relentlessly with no central planning or planning at all. You can call it democratization, or any number of other names really with less baggage, especially for anti-democrats and anti-liberals for whom everything is a catastrophe anyway. Perhaps in time people will come to think the shipping container was the most momentous political driver in the last 100 years.

I think we grossly exaggerate our abilities to plan and execute politically. Conservatism may be more successful than you think, but not in the framework you're using. We'll see. I was never a capital L libertarian, but the trend disruptive trend continues unabated. But increasingly I think there is a Libertarian tipping point coming in education and government. I think we'll see disruptive change, and nothing can stop it and nothing else will do. Whether it is for the better or not we'll have to wait and see. As Walter Ong pointed out long ago, romantic understandings will be the attitude of choice for the foreseeable future. Which means basically even if things did get better we know that most would swear that they're worse nonetheless. In the long run most battles are won by buying time. Delay until your opponents make worse mistakes than you did. That's the main thing Conservatism in the modern American sense tries to deliver, and it's probably done that a bit more effectively than many of us can see. It isn't sufficient by any means, but Liberals might want to remember that past gains are no guarantee of future profits.

Devolution?? When five judges can redefine marriage for the entire country, is it a sign of devolution?

Bedarz, I said it was the general trajectory, not that centralized authorities had vanished. Besides, you know that even if there was a relevant case of devolution in the case you've raised, you'll immediately switch over and extol the benefits of central authority in supposedly unifying society by enforcing universal shared values. Things were better back then. You're going to equivocate between theory and practice. I know the drill.

So don't think I'm fooled into thinking you give damn about the question you've asked, because I know better, but in fact perhaps in canon law that held for many centuries before the American Revolution one might well consider a larger unitary system beyond national boundaries. Yes I know there were regional variations, and they to an extent were even considered in what was undoubtedly a unitary system of law. But I also know well enough that you can heave an egg out of a Pullman window and hit a Christian medieval idealist that clings tightly to the supposedly universal shared agreement of those days in most places were Christian folk gather. So I know how that quite thoroughly poisons the well. But anyway, there you go.


The quite relevant consideration of how Schlafly, in her final years, thought it best for conservatism to proceed, and consequently which candidate she believed conservatives ought to rally behind in Election 2016, merits a mention, no?

Lydia wrote:

All of these things have been brought upon us by a combination of the courts and of increasingly leftist federal and sometimes state legislatures. But mostly the courts.

And often often helped along by the unwitting assistance of Bush-style conservatism, content to play the role of controlled opposition.

merits a mention, no?

Actually, no.

And I do mean, no.

Are people in all the cities and towns really agitating to implement transgender-friendly bathrooms, for instance?
Surely it is being implemented top-down. There was nothing deterministic about shipping container either.
Free speech is under challenge. This is not devolution.

Didn't see this earlier Bedarz. You have clearly taken my "devolution" comment to be implying something entirely different than I did. It wasn't a claim that authorities weren't trying to centralize and obtain the benefits authorities see from that. That has never stopped and will never stop.

Well where are all the folks screaming "individualism" when you really need them? Have they all gone underground? Free speech is the ultimate devolution from what went before, that it is under attack is no evidence of it. I don't think ultimately the attacks will succeed. If you do, great and the trajectory will be in reverse. That hasn't happened yet so I don't see how you can call your expectation, if that's what it is, a trend.

No idea what you mean about shipping containers and determinism. The shipping container transformed economic geography and moved traffic away from traditional ports like New York and London and dramatically grew what were obscure ones. There are political consequences to this. I'm not saying that it makes the red/blue divide so much different though since it may not. That's the best I can tell you. I think we're talking about entirely different phenomena. That's the best I can say. Cheers.

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