Sunday, June 1, 2008

Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History
(with thanks to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich)

I have been inspired by Phyllis Schlafly to write this article. Most of you will realize how unlikely this source of inspiration is: Phyllis Schlafly is the 83-year-old ├╝ber-right wing founder of the Eagle Forum. She dedicated her early years of activism to furthering Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, but she really hit her stride in the 70s when she discovered that preventing equal rights for women was a more timeless cause. Political systems come and go, but there will always be women to oppress. So why in the world would a co-owner of St. Louis’s progressive bookstore be inspired to invoke Ann Coulter’s fairy god-mother?

We have a lot in common, actually. For one thing, Schlafly is a graduate of Washington University, as are most of Left Bank Books’ co-founders, my mother, and me. All of us are activists, having co-founded or directed various projects, including this bookstore, where the “women’s” section is not for books on diet, fashion and relationship. While Schlafly led the charge to defeat ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70s, my mother was working in Washington, D.C. as the president of Northern Virginia N.O.W. to secure its passage. Too bad Schlafly won.

Phyllis Schlafly was busy in the late 70s. She was in law school at Wash. U., graduating in 1979, the same weekend I received my bachelor’s degree in Women’s Studies. Our names are in the same commencement materials. I thought it was very inspiring at the time that she could be vociferously arguing for women to stay in the home while she pursed a professional career. Rumor around campus back then was that she was so busy on her anti-ERA campaign, that she had hired help to get through all her law school homework. I’m not saying she actually cheated, I’m just saying. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t doing her own housework.

The reason she inspires me today is that our alma mater has seen fit to issue her an honorary degree. Washington University has always been forward-thinking on the issue of women’s rights. Its law school was one of the first in the country to admit women. Even Harvard University, where Schlafly earned a masters degree in 1945, refused to admit women to its law school until 1950. Phoebe Wilson Couzins was Wash. U.’s first female graduate in 1870 and, like Schlafly, Couzins had women’s rights in mind. She co-founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Coincidentally, I’m pretty sure I was one of the first people to graduate from Washington University with a degree in Women’s Studies, about a hundred short years after Couzins co-founded the NWSA. (Ok, you couldn’t major in women’s studies, but it could be your second major, kind of like working full-time, caring for the kids, and going to school.)
The point is, here’s Phyllis Schlafly, getting another degree from Washington University (her first was a bachelor’s in 1944, one year before her master’s from Harvard), one she didn’t even have to pay for, while powerful women’s rights advocates like my mother (who, incidentally, also wrote implementation guidelines for Title IX and authored a landmark government study on families of military personnel), have gone to their graves without so much as a nod. The anti-war activism of Left Bank co-founders has made law book history, and their collective effort to provide a progressive voice in the founding of Left Bank Books still stands today, albeit beaten about the kneecaps with the lead pipes of late-capitalism. The surviving founders all do amazing community work and activism in their respective communities. One of them, Anita Diamant, even wrote a bestselling novel. []

But do any of us get an honorary degree? No! Instead, we get repeated requests for donations from a school with one of the healthiest endowments in the country. Personally, I would happily settle for a tenured position on the faculty. Come to think of it, not only did Washington University officials overlook my mother and the co-founders of Left Bank Books when they thumbed through their rolodex of prominent graduates, years ago they actually eliminated the very department that spawned all this activism to begin with: the Sociology Department. And, were it not for a generous and carefully worded matching grant from local philanthropist and Women’s Studies “major” Susan Stiritz, there would probably not even be a women’s studies “area” to second- major in any more.

And yet. In a published statement, Chancellor Mark Wrighton apologized for the “anguish” his university’s decision has caused and admitted he doesn’t even hold with most of Schlafly’s positions. He says that the degree is intended to recognize “an alumna of the University whose life and work have had a broad impact on American life,” whether or not you agree with the effect of that impact. I guess that’s why Trustee Emerita Margaret Bush Wilson, another very powerful woman, volunteered to read the citation to award the degree to Phyllis Schlafly. Ms. Wilson is the first woman of color to serve as the national chair of the NAACP, the second woman of color admitted to practice law in Missouri, a prominent St. Louis civil rights attorney for more than 40 years, and—small world--was a colleague and close friend of my mother’s, close enough to speak at her memorial service five years ago.

I am a great admirer of Margaret Bush Wilson. Her life’s work broke ground, sometimes in spite of Phyllis Schlafly’s life’s work. She inspired my mother and she inspires me. I would much rather she get the honorary degree than give it. More than being moved by Schlafly’s impact on America, I guess you could say Ms. Wilson is moved by the First Amendment. I am too. It can be a powerful tool in the right woman’s hands.