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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Schlafly in Schenectady

From the Slush Pile Dept.: Here’s a piece that turned up as I searched for something else in a file cabinet recess. I’m guessing I wrote it in the mid-1980s, possibly in 1985, as it’s typewritten and I was switching over to a computer shortly thereafter. It was turned down by The Nation, with a note explaining that arch-conservative woman-hater Phyllis Schlafly was old news at that point. A group called “Ladies Against Women” demonstrated amusingly outside the event, mocking the Schlafly-ites by pretending to agree with them in a manner that lampoons their idiocy. Here’s my report.


ALL YOU NEED are a few NRA eagles hanging here and there to give crumbling downtown Schenectady the time-warp look of the early ‘30s. During vaudeville’s heyday, performers got a laugh at just the mention of the city’s name. They knew it as a tough city to please. It’s tough on business, tough on entertainers, tough on the workforce. General Electric looms beside the arterial, but even that institution has taken to closing down – and then knocking down – its unprofitable plants.

Phyllis Schlafly
A has-been city doesn’t bother to roll out the red carpet for a has-been entertainer, but some civic pride could be taken in the reception given to Phyllis Schlafly when she spoke at Union College in early March. A local chapter of the Berkeley-based “Ladies Against Women” turned out in full ‘fifties regalia to wave placards. “We’ll be there to protect Mrs. Schlafly from those radical, bra-burning women’s libbers,” one of the members declared in preparation, but there was no need for worry. The audience of about 300 comprised college students and the curious from the community. Some students heckled, loudly; there were some oldsters who applauded Schlafly, even louder. But nobody got too excited.

From my balcony vantage I could split the factions according to hair. Those with lots of it supported the hecklers; those whose heads were pink or white responded to such catch phrases as “defend the morals of our children” and “as President Reagan so wisely said.”

All in all, though, I don’t think Schenectady is ready to be told what great shape this nation is in. If that truly is the case, then this city is an embarrassing contrast. But here was Schlafly, a woman who’s actually been on TV, saying, “When I talk about women’s rights, I talk about the wonderful opportunity to live in the United States of America, where you can have any occupation you want, and where we have enough freedom for savers and businesses to invest in new jobs. In the last few years, this country has made the most remarkable resurgence of economy in the western world!”

Well, we sure would like to believe that. And Schlafly’s just-folks approach to facts and statistics is a comfort to people who don’t want the bother of looking things up. “Some people get kind of intimidated when you use a lot of numbers,” she said in dispute of some liberal statistics.

It’s comfort, not science, that that she offers. “There are millions of families out there that are not in trouble,” she assured us. “Millions of women believe in monogamous relationships – they don’t suffer the trauma of abortion, the trauma of herpes, the trauma of AIDS.”

Feel better? Things could be a lot worse. Schlafly clued us in on the situation of women throughout the world. In Nairobi, for instance, where she attended the UN Women’s Conference, she noticed that local women “are forced to do what we would consider ‘housework,’ while men do the things that men like to do, you know, hunting and fishing and so on.” Oh, the post-feminist irony!

And then there's the condition of the poor gals in the Soviet Union. “The average woman has eight abortions a year,” (I think she said “year,” but the word was garbled. Anyway, the important term was “abortions”), “while the average man is anesthetized on vodka. In communist China, there is compulsory, mandatory abortion for any woman who already has one child – but the men and women wear those same pajama outfits, so you can’t tell them apart anyway!” I didn’t grab the relevance of that observation unless it’s suggesting that there are a lot of Chinese men who mistakenly have abortions.

In other words, we should feel pretty good about ourselves. Schenectady must be OK. But then she zapped us. “The greatest achievement this country has given us is that by World War One a man was able to make enough money to take his wife out of the factory – or whatever job she was working – and put her into a nice family life, in a single-family house.”

Not here! That only happens to GE executives, and the next thing they know they get moved to the headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut and the wife has go to work again to pay for a house that’s five times more costly.

Schlafly's talk, as comforting and fact-free and it was, was not what the Union College Speakers Forum originally planned. Someone with an opposing point of view was supposed to have been brought in as well, but the group ran out of money and opted for Schlafly solo. The Union College Women’s Network countered at the door by handing out leaflets quoting Schlafly’s more pointed comments about women, which may have caused more puzzlement than controversy.

I mean, according to Schlaflified precepts, feminism isn’t an issue in Schenectady. Never has been. “Feminism was a real fad of the ‘70s,” said Schlafly, and we wondered why we missed it. She assured us that there is a post-feminist generation out there now (much as she hates the media, Schlafly went to the New York Times Magazine for source material) that considers “feminism” a dirty word. “No we don’t!” hollered a student, to the applause of other students. Well, Schlafly went on to tell us that two key elements of the feminist movement were bitterness and Lesbianism, so that took care of that heckler.

Anyway, I went there as one of the curious, talked to a few people, took some notes, and watched my wife writhe throughout the proceedings. During the question-and-answer period, her repeated query, directed at me, was, “Can we go now?” But I’m glad I stayed. I learned how to quickly spot an unsubstantiated argument.

A student rose and flourished one of UC Women’s Network leaflets, then read one of its Schlafly quotes: “‘The Positive Woman recognizes the fact that, when it comes to sex, women are simply not the equal of men. The sexual desire of men is much stronger than that of women.’” The student then asked, “Where did you get your information? And do you still believe this is true?”

Schlafly gave her best Edna Mae Oliver smile and said, “Yes, I believe it is true. And my information is based on having observed the world around me.” And, speaking of sex, “It’s clear that the female suffers twice as much from extramarital affairs, twice as much from promiscuity. And there is the ultimate suffering of divorce, and the poverty of children born out of wedlock. Any way you slice it, girls ought to be told that if you engage in premarital sex, you’ll suffer twice as much.” This, too, was based on having observed the world around her.

As we drove home from the college, I said to my wife, “Schenectady is doing fine. It’s pretty prosperous.”

“Where do you get that?” she asked incredulously. “I can’t even find a decent job here!”

“Just basing it on having observed the city around me, Empty storefronts mean there is great opportunity for commerce. Long lines at the unemployment office mean the workforce is waiting to be tapped.”

“You’re not being very realistic.”

“I’m taking my cue from Phyllis Schlafly,” I concluded. “Realism is an expensive luxury. I can’t afford it here.”

Unpublished, c. 1985

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