Friday, July 29, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Phyllis Schlafly's What's Wrong With Equal Rights for Women?

Phyllis Schlafly, the "Queen of Conservatism," became a household name for her rousing challenge to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. But she's been firing up supporters and detractors for more than five decades with an expansive repertoire that includes topics from education to same-sex marriage to the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices and arms control treaties.

From the start, Schlafly was a tireless worker. She paid for her education at Washington University in St. Louis in part by test-firing machine guns in a World War II ordnance plant, and she wrote her own speeches and planned her own speaking engagements during two unsuccessful bids for a congressional seat. Feminists were quick to point out that Schlafly's own life as a political activist and public speaker was far from the path that she championed for women.

But Schlafly countered that she had never meant for women to abandon a public life--just that the duties of wife and mother should come first. "I have canceled speeches whenever my husband thought that I had been away from home too much," she told Time magazine in 1978. And in a 2006 New York Times interview, she insisted that she never left her family overnight. "I'd drive out to give a speech, and sometimes I'd bring a nursing baby with me," she recalled. "There was always someone outside willing to take care of a baby rather than listen to a long lecture."

What's Wrong With Equal Rights for Women? began as an 1972 essay in her newsletter The Phyllis Schlafly Report, but she quickly adapted it for speeches and debates on behalf of STOP ERA, a group founded by Schlafly. What can you learn from the speech?
  • Tell me something I don't know. When Schlafly first wrote the speech, the ERA had been passed by Congress and the idea of women's rights was gaining mainstream acceptance. But Schlafly delivered a very different--and attention-grabbing--message: "The truth is that American women never had it so good," she declared. "Why should we lower ourselves to 'equal rights' when we already have the status of special privilege?"
  • The rule of three. Examine the speech, and you'll see that Schlafly uses a time-honored tradition of breaking down her argument against the ERA into three simple ideas: Women are already privileged because they bear children, because they receive special respect in a "Christian Age of Chivalry," and because the male inventors of the washing machine and frozen peas have relieved women of onerous work.
  • Us and Them. Throughout her speaking career, Schlafly has done a remarkable job of identifying with her audience and speaking of "us" against a carefully-defined "them." In her What's Wrong speeches, she made it clear that the era's feminists did not speak for all women.

Schlafly was also keenly aware of how a woman's appearance could affect her credibility as a speaker. She held workshops with local chapters of STOP ERA to prepare women to debate and testify at public hearings. She emphasized good grooming, makeup and colors that look good on television--and poise and smiles in the face of an attack.

Still publishing and still consistent in her theme, Schlafly this year co-authored The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know -- and Men Can't Say.

Freelance writer Becky Ham contributed this edition of Famous Speech Friday. Photo from Gage Skidmore's Flickr stream.

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