Culture Friday – Feminism’s take on Phyllis Schlafly

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Culture Friday.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: While Mrs. America is earning rave reviews and already generating awards buzz, a few left-leaning outlets aren’t fans. They feel, even with plenty of inaccuracies, it still makes Phyllis Schlafly too compelling.

NPR’s reviewer seemed annoyed FX created the show at all, grumbling, “With everything else going on in the world, now I gotta spend almost nine hours of my life thinking about Phyllis Schlafly?”

Buzzfeed complained that “the liberal imagination seemingly can only understand conservative white women as failed white liberal feminists.”

We now welcome Katie McCoy, assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Seminary. 

Professor McCoy, thanks for being here!

KATIE MCCOY, GUEST: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

BASHAM: So while there’s little I would agree with in those reviews, that Buzzfeed quote struck me as insightful. Because there was something in their depiction that turned Schlafly into a tragic and then, to me, sympathetic figure. 

What was your reaction?

MCCOY: Well, my first reaction was it’s a lot easier to portray her as a victim than a villain. And the way they portrayed her was this woman who’s trying to maneuver with this delicate dance around misogyny and marital oppression, things that her family and especially her biographer just condemned and said that this does not at all portray the truth. And so it’s interesting that they had to, in order to make her sympathetic, they couldn’t really villainize her. That would sort of almost invalidate the power she had. But instead they made her a victim, but rather a power-hungry victim at that.

EICHER: Now, I’d like to return that NPR comment that Megan read just a minute ago asking why we need to think about Phyllis Schlafly. Or that it’s a waste of time to do so.

But I’ve got a clip here—real life this time, not the show—that gets to her political instincts, again, agree or disagree with them. She was out front early for Trump, and he returns the favor, speaking at the Values Voter Summit in 2016:

TRUMP: By the way Phyllis endorsed me a long time ago when it wasn’t necessarily something that was so easy to do.

I think we should keep in mind, mainstream Republicans like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush back in the day were quite happy back then to pass the ERA, which was Mrs. Schlafly’s big issue. So maybe it should come as no surprise that Schlafly would be more of an anti-establishment Republican than an establishment Republican.. 

But the Trump endorsement, the point is, it didn’t come without cost: Half the board of her organization, Eagle Forum, resigned when she endorsed him. 

Again, whatever you think of what she did, she did have the courage of her convictions. 

Professor, in addition to teaching women’s studies, you also describe yourself as a political news junkie. 

So how would you characterize Schlafly’s influence?

MCCOY: You know, at the height of second wave feminism in the 1970s, the dominant cultural narrative was that women were either liberated feminists or you were just brainwashed. You had not yet been liberated. So you were either decrying marriage and motherhood and family as this sort of tool of women’s oppression in culture or you were just an accomplice in your own oppression. Or, worse, you were a traitor. 

And Phyllis Schlafly really gave voice to the women who they didn’t fit either of those imposed categories. So, here’s a woman who was articulate and intelligent and educated and politically savvy, and she showed how those strengths could harmonize with pro-family, pro-life convictions. And I think she was really a forerunner and a trailblazer for a lot of women who wanted to combine both the scholarly, the deep-thinking, the critical thinking, but then also apply it to the values that they deeply held. And one of the fallacies out there especially in the 70s and second wave feminism was that if you were educated and an intelligent woman, you must have been a feminist. Because why else, what other category could a woman belong to if she was “empowered.” So, she really was in some ways representing the third category for women to follow.

EICHER: When I was in college, Phyllis Schlafly was active in the area where I went to school, in Southern Illinois. And I got myself stuck into this interdisciplinary class that I had to take in order to graduate. So I’m a senior and I’m going into these classes. And it was “Women in Society,” team taught by three really hard-core feminists at my state university. And I made the suggestion, “hey, you know, I can get in touch with Phyllis Schlafly and she can come over here and do a little debate for the class.”

MCCOY: Oh, I bet they loved that!

EICHER: They didn’t love it at all and they said, “No,” and I remember this from that long ago, “Phyllis Schlafly doesn’t speak for women. So why would we have her address a class on women’s issues?” That’s what they said.

MCCOY: That illustrates something that we see even today. Feminism likes to portray itself as this is the ideology of women’s choice. Well, it’s really only the ideology of women’s choice if you make their choices, if you’ve had their collective experience. And so one of the things that Phyllis Schlafly did, it’s the same thing that we’re having to do today is say that women are far more individualistic than just fitting into these broad cultural categories and kind of the groupthink that feminism wants women to fall into.

EICHER: Let me turn now to the related subject of complementarianism. 

For those not familiar with the term I’ll define it quickly and perhaps a little crudely. Complementarian theology holds that God designed men and women with different natures to fulfill distinct roles. 

Whereas egalitarians hold that God has not given men and women distinct roles and their callings, whether within the home or church, are interchangable.

John Piper is one of the most prominent proponents of complementarianism. And last week a video went viral in which he argues it isn’t to blame for abuse of women within the church. 

Here’s a bit of that:

PIPER: Egalitarianism can only say to husbands who tend to be abusive, Christians shouldn’t do that. You don’t treat other people that way. But egalitarians can’t say, there is a unique call upon manhood to be protective.

I think complementarians have the higher ground here when it comes to opposing abuse because we not only say humans don’t treat humans that way, but men don’t treat women that way. It’s written on your soul, man.

BASHAM: Now, this idea that there are greater degrees of accountability is certainly Biblical. James 3, for example, tells us God is going to judge teachers more strictly.

Yet it seems like a lot of the negative reaction can be summed up by one blogger who said, “Your gender doesn’t matter because God calls Christians to love others.”

Mercer University Professor Susan Codone, who’s written for outlets like the Washington Post about abuse within the church, tweeted, “[Complementarianism] may not ‘feed’ abuse, but it can provide cover.” 

What’s your response to that Professor McCoy?

MCCOY: First, we always have to separate a theory or a viewpoint from how that theory or viewpoint has been used or misused or abused. So, abuse itself, it occurs within contexts that are not complementarian. We can find examples of that because the real issue is it’s a problem of the heart. And the heart will use whatever excuse or social context it might be able to to justify sin. Now, have some taken this complementarian view of gender and applied it in terms of, I would say, in terms of a power dynamic? And that’s where I think it goes wrong. And, indeed, some have. And I think that’s a misuse and a misapplication of scripture. So, when I see gender differences through the lens of a relationship first and then if you like the term roles, I’ll tell you I’m not terribly a fan of that. I think it’s something you can sort of put on and off like a coat or a part that you play. But when I see it more in terms of relationship, then we see the commands in what we would call the gender passages of scripture through this lens of a man’s responsibility, not so much a woman’s role. We see it through accountability more than a woman’s role. And I think it’s important we make that shift in the dialogue especially as we consider the question of complementarianism and abuse.

One more thing, this also speaks to the tweet, the person who said gender doesn’t matter. Our gender is an aspect of how we image God. And we bring everything that we are to God’s service, so we serve him as male or female. And we bear his image in our maleness and our femaleness if we bring that to our relationships. So, there again, Christianity is a very relational faith and it expresses that characteristic within the relationships that people have with each other.

EICHER: I’m hearing another criticism out there, professor, that Pastor Piper and others complementarians are wrong theologically. It’s not that they’re wrong theologically, they say, but that they’re distracting the church from fighting abuse. 

Example: author and former managing editor at Christianity Today, Katelyn Beaty, said, “In the video, [Piper’s] not passionate against abusers. He’s passionate against people who malign complementarianism.”

To be fair to Piper: He believes complementarianism is a biblical concept that should prevent abuse, so shouldn’t he passionately, to quote Titus, give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it?

In short: Can’t it be both?

MCCOY: Well, I’m so glad you brought up that question, the statement you refer to. It highlights just how quickly and easily we can end up framing this whole issue into this kind of unfair either-or. He was addressing the allegation that his interpretation of scripture was the source and sponsor of abuse. So, I think we need to take a step back and look at that. These are two different questions. These are two completely different issues. So, imagine if a doctor went on TV and she’s arguing that some particular treatment did not cause cancer and then imagine all kinds of people dismissing her argument because she wasn’t angry enough about cancer. It doesn’t follow. I think one of the unfortunate things, too, is in this conversation we end up reducing someone and their ministry to our hot take on those two-minute videos, things like that. We end up making these assessments about someone. And someone like a Pastor Piper with whom I may have plenty of disagreements, but here’s a man who is finishing his ministry, a very large and influential ministry, free from scandal. And wouldn’t we all like more stories like that happening in the church today. So I think we need to be honoring him along with other pastors who are finishing their lives well.

To answer your question, it isn’t just that we can be both, we must be both. In fact, if we’re not both, we are doing a disservice to our own faith.

EICHER: Katie McCoy, assistant professor of theology in women’s studies at Southwestern Seminary in Texas. Thank you, Katie, for being with us!

MCCOY: Thank you. It was great to be with you all!

(Sabrina Lantos/FX via AP, left, and AP Photo) This combination photo released by FX shows Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in a scene from the miniseries “Mrs. America,” left, and Phyllis Schlafly, chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Organization in St. Louis on Jan. 17, 1973. 

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