“To the modern woman, work is the meat of her life. A husband is the salad.”
The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know – and Men Can’t Say is more ridiculous than the provocative teasers suggested. Which is saying something. The latest anti-feminist rant from Phyllis Schlafly and her niece Suzanne Venker is so weighed down by lies, delusions, and mind-boggling contradictions, it’s difficult to even find the argument. And, once found, it’s so divorced from reality, you have to question if it’s worth engaging at all. And yet, here is my 1,500 word review.
In the introduction, Venker describes her conservative upbringing by writing, “It was like watching Fox News instead of CBS: when most people were taught to think one way, I was presented with a different view” (8). Needless to say, that doesn’t bode well. Reading this book requires accepting an argument based in an alternate reality where, to take just a few examples, men are sex-obsessed brutes who need an “incentive” to get married, the Democratic party has a vested interest in increasing the number of single mothers to shore up their base, putting a child in day care is the worst thing you could possibly do to them, and Elizabeth Gilbert “could be Virginia Woolf’s best friend.” (81).
But it’s the contradictions that are really stunning. Schlafly and Venker are in the awkward position of trying to denounce feminism while not alienating the vast majority of women who, even if they don’t consider themselves feminists, credit the movement with many of the freedoms they have today. To do so, they claim the “pro-family” suffragettes for their team and define “feminism” as a movement that began, apparently spontaneously with neither a good reason nor any historical roots, in the 1960s.
Of course, they still have to deal with the reality that there have been some pretty major changes since the 1950s that many people think are kind of nice. This requires a strange dance: feminism gets simultaneously blamed for everything and credit for nothing. Sure, more women entered the workforce then, but that was “natural” and due to factors that don’t “have anything to do with feminism,” such as labor-saving inventions, the Great Depression, World War II and the Equal Pay Act (55). The birth control pill even gets its fair due, but don’t be fooled—that was “invented before 1960—by men” (54). On the other hand, pretty much every social ill–from the “epidemic of defiant school children” to premarital sex–is directly attributed to feminism (100). Feminism either had absolutely no effect on American culture or has been the single most transformative movement in the history of the world.
This tension extends to the present as well. Perhaps the only thing Schlafly and Venker and those of us at Feministing agree on is that feminism is not dead. But for them, feminism is both so mainstream it is “in the air” and a “fringe movement.” This is possible because “elite feminists,” who often don’t call themselves feminists, control the media, as well as Hollywood, academia and, oddly enough, women’s magazines. They have a lot of power. Their influence, however, seems to be debatable. On the one hand, Schlafly and Venker say “most Americans think like a feminist even if they vociferously deny being one” (169). On the other, they assert that “most women in America are a right-of-center bunch and don’t want what women on the left want. [They] are traditionalists and don’t want to change America.” (14). We are either seriously winning or totally out of touch.
But the most glaring contradiction centers on what, exactly, makes feminism “the single worst thing that has happened to American women” (55). Again, there are two options: feminism is either bad because it allows women to make any choices they want or it is bad because it pressures women to make choices that go against what they want. The former individualistic “choice” mentality, which “encourages them to do what they think will make them happy,” (the horror!) is condemned for being selfish, irresponsible, and narcissistic (19). Yet at the same time, feminism supposedly pressures women into doing things–working outside the home, having casual sex, getting divorced–that they don’t really want to do and “go against their values” (19). It’s quite a feat to argue that feminism is dangerous precisely because it offers a buffet of equally acceptable choices and then turn around and claim it’s pushing one specific dish.
In fact, the only real way to reconcile these two charges is to argue that women do not really know what they want. That by encouraging women to do what’s right for them, feminism leads women astray and makes them unhappy. Because that’s what happens if you give a woman a little freedom, right?! This is, of course, the kind of deeply paternalistic attitude Schlafly and Venker try to avoid saying outright as much as possible. But that’s it in a nutshell: Get back in the kitchen for your own good, ladies. Calling for “different pedestals” instead of “separate spheres” does not make the argument any less of a regressive 19th century throwback (174). And it makes the C.S. Lewis epigraph at the beginning of Chapter 2 hilariously ironic: “Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
Of course, one easy rejoinder to this tired anti-feminist argument is to point out that many women have no choice in the matter. In fact, many women were never in the kitchen to begin with–or rather they were in the kitchen and the workplace and everywhere else they needed to be to support themselves and their families. It is a privileged woman–person–indeed who can choose whether or not to work. That was true in the 1950s and it is perhaps even more true today. Schlafly and Venker would have been wise to simply acknowledge that upfront–and admit that this whole discussion is relevant only for those middle-upper-class women who have the option of “opting out.” Sure, this would have written off huge segments of the American population, but that would have been far better than what they actually did–which was to deny these class dynamics exist at all.
For Schlafly and Venker, the idea that many American families depend on two incomes is nothing but a feminist lie. Before feminism came along, the U.S. was a mythical land where every woman had the “right” to be supported by a husband. American families, they argue, never needed a second income–but once mothers entered the workforce, they became accustomed to “posh lifestyles.” By simply being a little “thrifty”–taking just one vacation a year and cutting their kids’ hair themselves–most married mothers could stay home (112). Single mothers, meanwhile, look to “Uncle Sam” for their “living expenses.” And Democrats are more than happy to provide because it’s in their political interest to “increase the number of single moms by increasing the flow of taxpayer-paid incentives that subsidize the non-marriage lifestyle.” (138). I kid you not.
I don’t know what country Schlafly and Venker are living in. But I live in a country where income inequality is among the highest of all the developed nations. Where 47 million people live below the poverty line at $22,400 a year for a family of four. And where one-third of the population, 100 million people, live on only twice that much and 6.3%, 19 million people, live on only half that much. Where 20% of all children live in poverty and 1 in 6 workers are currently unemployed or underemployed.
Look, I get that Schlafly and Venker believe that systemic oppression of any kind–based on gender, race, class–simply doesn’t exist. Their worldview is perfectly embodied in the introduction, where Venker writes that Schlafly’s path as an ambitious young woman in the 1940s “proves” that “any woman who’s willing to put in the effort to become successful will be” (9). Anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and those who can’t have only themselves to blame. Schlafly and Venker’s anti-feminist disdain for other women who dare to “complain” about their lives intersects perfectly with their conservative disdain for poor people in general. And makes them pretty much the most mean-spirited people on the planet.
But, like it or not, facts exist. They can say “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade” as much as they fucking want–it’s not going to make it any easier for millions of American women to follow their advice, even if they wanted to. If Schlafly and Venker really believe that the future of civilization depends on mothers staying home to raise their kids, they would spend less time shaming women who choose not to be full-time mothers and more time working to ensure that all parents actually have that choice. If they really cared about “family values,” they would be on the front lines working to strengthen the U.S.’s embarrassing parental and family leave laws. If they truly valued motherhood, they would give a shit about actual mothers–even the single ones and the working ones. Instead their “advice” is to choose a husband who is a “good provider.”
Until they can provide a “new road map for women” that has any connection whatsoever to the realities faced by living, breathing women and families, Schlafly and Venker should really just follow their own advice and get back in the kitchen.