Politics make strange bedfellows, especially since Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin won the Republican Party nomination for vice president.
On Sept. 2, four days after John McCain announced his vice presidential preference, the New York Times devoted considerable space to a story reporting that American women were feeling conflicted about Palin. The story dubbed it "the Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition."
On one hand, women applauded the rare appearance of a female on the presidential ticket. On the other hand, they questioned whether it is appropriate for a mother of five children, including a pregnant unmarried teenage daughter and a 4-month-old son with Down's syndrome, to seek the second-highest office in the United States.
The story quoted moms from around the country — some of them workers outside the home, some stay-at-home mothers, some liberal, some conservative, some supporters of Palin's decision and some critics.
And then I came upon a paragraph in the story that stopped me cold.
Phyllis Schlafly was quoted speaking in defense of Palin's run for vice president. Phyllis Schlafly, the 84-year-old founder of the conservative Eagle Forum. Phyllis Schlafly, who has spent 30 years opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and insisting that the most important duty of women is to devote themselves to their husbands and children.
She told me so herself.
In the 1970s, Schlafly was a household name. She traveled the country speaking out against the women's movement and the Equal Rights Amendment. She warned that the amendment would mandate unisex public rest rooms and co-ed dormitories at universities and the merging of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts. She said women occupied a special, genteel place in society that they ought to appreciate because if the amendment passed, women would be forced into the gritty male world, perhaps even drafted into the military. A woman's place, she said, was not out there with the men, but in the home.
I was in my 20s, working for the newspaper in Raleigh, N.C., when I was assigned to get an interview with Schlafly. She agreed to be interviewed during a layover at the airport, so I reserved a conference room in the airport terminal. I was joined by a female photographer from the paper who was also in her 20s. We were both married, but neither of us was a mother yet.
I no longer remember the questions I asked Schlafly. But I remember well the moment when the interview got out of control.
Schlafly, who was distant and a little grumpy during the interview, said something that the photographer, an ardent feminist, just couldn't let pass. She asked a confrontational question, which angered Schlafly. She lit into both of us, and her comments were personal. She denigrated us for trying to be "career women" and told us we should stay home and take care of our husbands.
I hurried the photographer out of the room, hoping to complete the interview, but Schlafly was done.
It was only later that her hypocrisy hit me: Schlafly was a "career woman," too. She spent her days traveling on airplanes, giving speeches and interviews, lobbying lawmakers, appearing on television and leading a nationwide political movement against equal rights. And she did it while a wife and mother of six. Six!
Schlafly hasn't had such a high profile in recent years, surfacing in the media primarily when anyone lobbied a state legislature to vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell three states short of the 38 required for passage. Behind the scenes, however, Schlafly and her Eagle Forum remain potent advocates for conservative causes.
Now, Palin has given Schlafly new vigor.
Reportedly thrilled with McCain's choice of Palin, Schlafly seems to have forgotten her mantra that women should stay home and devote themselves to their husbands and children. Perhaps in this case, Schlafly thinks the needs of the Republican Party trump the needs of Palin's family. Here's what Schlafly said in the New York Times about Palin's decision to run for vice president despite her family obligations: "I think a hard-working, well-organized CEO type can handle it very well."
The irony, given Schlafly's comments in the past, is breathtaking.
Strange bedfellows indeed.
Diane Steinle can be reached at [email protected] To write a letter for publication in the newspaper, go to tampabay.com/letters.