Groundbreakers or Ground Takers?

Remove Phyllis Schlafly, Republican activist, from a list of notable women, urges the writer.

It takes all kinds: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly and feminist Gloria Steinem are all considered groundbreakers by makers.com. 

For decades Phyllis Schlafly preached that women should be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape,” she said in a 2007 lecture at Bates College in Maine. She called Roe v. Wade, “the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court,” in a 2002 Washington Post article. In November she endorsed the candidacy of Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin, the politician of victims-of-“legitimate rape”-do-not-become-pregnant infamy. 

During the 1970s, when states were voting on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Schlafly waged the STOP ERA campaign. Although she boasted that women should be homemakers, she apparently didn’t apply this rule to herself since she traveled the country on behalf of STOP ERA. Her efforts, and those of other opponents of women’s rights, were (unfortunately) successful.

The ERA, which provides that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” was ratified by only 35 out of 38 states necessary to pass the amendment.

Would you consider Schlafly a groundbreaker for women’s rights? I think it’s impossible to think of her as a pro-woman force. For some reason, the people behind makers.com disagree.

Makers.com is an initiative of PBS and AOL. It is a “dynamic digital platform…showcasing hundreds of compelling stories from women of today and tomorrow,” according to its website. There is also a documentary titled “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” that “will tell the story of the women’s movement through the firsthand accounts of the leaders, opponents, and trailblazers who created a new America in the last half-century.”

One part of the makers.com website showcases groundbreakers — women defined as “firsts in their fields, visionary role models or frontline activists who sparked, and some who opposed, change for women.” Shockingly, Phyllis Schlafly is listed as a groundbreaker along with real groundbreaking women like Gloria Steinem (founder of “Ms.” magazine) and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (second woman on the U.S. Supreme Court). Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a groundbreaker as “one that innovates.” Those who promote and bring about change are considered groundbreakers; those who oppose change, like Schlafly, are not.

National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Sonia Pressman Fuentes was shocked at the inclusion of Schlafly as a groundbreaker. She asked Betsy West and Dyllan McGee, the producers and filmmakers behind makers.com, to remove Schlafly from the website and film. When they refused, she suggested Schlafly be removed from the category of groundbreakers and that another category — opposition — be added to classify those who opposed increased rights for women. Again, the filmmakers refused.

“Since when are those who oppose progress considered groundbreakers?” Fuentes asked me in an e-mail. 
Although makers.com claims to include women who were instrumental in changing the status of women over the last 50 years, the website and documentary do not include a single one of the nine living NOW founders, such as Fuentes, retired attorney Mary Eastwood and retired public relations executive Muriel Fox. These women created the largest, feminist advocacy organization in the United States. They qualify as groundbreakers; Phyllis Schlafly does not.

When Fuentes complained about Schlafly’s inclusion and the exclusion of any of NOW’s surviving nine founders (makers.com includes only living women), Betsy West offered several times to interview Fuentes for inclusion on the website but not necessarily the film. Fuentes refused; she could not be associated with a website and film that included Schlafly as a groundbreaker for women.

“I would be a hypocrite if I complained about a website and film that purport to include those women who fought to bring about progress for women in the last almost-50 years, but include Phyllis Schlafly, who has fought against every proposed advance for women for decades and continues to do so,” Fuentes said in an email.

As a young Jewish woman, I am deeply upset about Schlafly’s inclusion on the list. I began identifying as a feminist after researching the history of women’s rights, so the fact that makers.com is billing Schlafly as a feminist pioneer of the Second Wave disturbs me no end. There is a Jewish prohibition against deception — genivat da’at. Although makers.com has no obligation to follow Jewish law, genivat da’at is a moral and ethical concept. Makers.com is violating that value by calling Schlafly — an anti-woman activist — a groundbreaker for equality.

Urge PBS and AOL to remove Schlafly from the groundbreaker category on makers.com. Fuentes and I wrote an online petition, which has garnered a lot of signatures in a short amount of time, and that means so much to the both of us. However, to get the attention of makers.com, PBS and AOL, we need we need to make this petition huge. Sign at tinyurl.com/schlaflypetition.

Send the link to your friends, family, neighbors and any organizations you think would be interested in this issue. Understanding the history of women’s rights is essential to ending gender inequality. Unless we ensure “herstory” is preserved correctly in websites and documentaries like makers.com, how can we, the next generation, learn from the past and improve the future?
 

author's bio: 
Talia Weisberg is a senior at Manhattan High School for Girls.