Schlafly Syndrome Redux

By on April 24th, 2014

Maxine Berman

Maxine Berman

Schlafly Syndrome Redux

April 25, 2014

I never realized how much I missed Phyllis Schlafly until she jumped back into the fray over the debate on equal pay for women. Schlafly, founder of yesteryear’s conservative Eagle Forum, is the namesake for what I long ago dubbed the Phyllis Schlafly Syndrome: Whenever men in control face women demanding something or opposing what the men are doing, the men find a woman to front for them. Back in the day, that was almost always Phyllis Schlafly. This is supposed to signal to the public that women are actually split down the middle on the issue in question, so no one has to pay attention to it.

It did not surprise me that Schlafly came up with the most unique problem caused by the equal pay controversy: Women prefer partners that make more than they do and men prefer to be the higher earning partner. Translation: “Be careful young women, because if you demand that higher pay, you may never find a husband.”

Seriously, Phyllis, you’re showing your age.

Conservative male legislators—no doubt having seen problematic polling for themselves on the issue—quickly hid behind the skirts of conservative women willing to take up the Schlafly mantle, including some in congress and Terry Lynn Land, former Michigan Secretary of State and current candidate for the U.S. Senate.

According to Land, what women really want is job flexibility, not equal pay. She gleefully points to Claire Shipman, national correspondent for Good Morning America and wife of presidential press secretary Jay Carney, who works part-time in order to care for their children and who said what mothers really want is flexibility. I cannot find any evidence, though, that Shipman says if she works half-time, she would settle for less than half of her full-time pay.

Hanging her hat on Claire Shipman’s head exposes the problem with Land’s argument. Here’s what Land assumes:

  • That all working women are married and/or have minor children
  • That all working women who do have children have husbands with an income comparable to Jay Carney’s or better (see Schlafly above).
  • That all working women are making salaries comparable to Claire Shipman’s and even cutting their pay by half would still provide them with a good home and probably enough to send their children to college if they have them.
  • That all working women can afford a drop in pay to work less hours.
  • And, perhaps most important, that flexible hours and calls for equal pay are somehow mutually exclusive concepts. Women can’t have both. Why not?

I consider myself pretty lucky. When I began teaching in the late 1960s, male and female teachers were paid identically, though it hadn’t always been that way, and the same was true for my legislative service. I have been able to support myself with jobs I loved which allowed me to live a comfortable, though hardly posh, lifestyle.

Terry Lynn Land has apparently been pretty lucky too. She and her husband contributed close to $2 million to her two campaigns for Secretary of State and she has already contributed over $1 million to her senate race.

But what she does not seem to understand is that there are many women out there who have been the victim of gender discrimination in terms of pay and hiring and women who barely make enough to support themselves, not to mention children, if they have them. Nor does she seem to understand that when married women endure pay discrimination, their husbands are affected by it as much as their children. She also does not seem to know that approximately two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women. Not every working woman is Maxine Berman or Terry Lynn Land or Claire Shipman. It’s that vision thing again.

If our former women Secretaries of State, Land and Candice Miller, or current holder of that title, Ruth Johnson, had been paid less than the men who preceded them, do you think any of them would have just shrugged it off as the way of the world? I doubt it. And I would have been standing right next to them protesting loudly.

Women have indeed come a long way. But I think those of us who have made it have a special obligation to put out our hands and help out those who haven’t. In a country where many women still face wage discrimination, legislation is sometimes the only remedy.

I don’t expect throwbacks to another era like Phyllis Schlafly to get it, but she has apparently spawned a whole new generation of the syndrome which bears her name. I’d say thanks for the memories, but not this time.

Maxine Berman is the former Griffin Endowed Chair in American Government at Central Michigan University, the first woman named to the post. She served seven terms in the Michigan House and most recently was director of special projects for Governor Jennifer Granholm. She is the author of the 1994 book The Only Boobs in the House Are Men.

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