Max Boot’s Shoddy Attack on Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly addresses the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., in 2007.
(Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)

Boot messes up history in service of a dubious argument.

After the president’s lamentable “disinfectant” remarks, Max Boot began “searching for the origins of our current madness.” His search into the depths of American malaise culminated in his most recent column for the Washington Post, where he lays part of the blame for “our current madness” at the feet of the late Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Boot came to this realization after watching “the historically accurate drama ‘Mrs. America’ on Hulu,” a dramatization of Schlafly’s fight against the ERA. The film, he tells readers, provides a window into how the United States came to “have a president who thinks that windmill noise causes cancer.” Boot believes that Schlafly “pioneered the kind of incendiary, irrational rhetoric” that ultimately propelled Donald Trump to victory.

A tall claim — let us examine his argument.

Here, as elsewhere, Boot assumes that Donald Trump’s outsized character flaws are the logical terminus of conservative theory and practice from 1964 onward. As he wrote in his book The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right, extremism is not merely an aberration confined to the conservative fringe but “is embedded in the DNA of the modern conservative movement.” From this premise, Boot derives his theory that the late Phyllis Schlafly’s opposition to the ERA is at least partially responsible for the wayward musings of the sitting president of the United States.

Boot’s analysis relies on a miniseries whose creator, Dahvi Waller, admitted to taking dramatic liberties: “We really wanted to be free to imagine these private conversations” between Schlafly and others, Waller told Harper’s Bazaar, “and not be beholden to one person’s memory of what happened 40 years ago.”

In the film, Boot says, Schlafly is shown to be a “walking paradox.” He writes that while Schlafly postured as a “champion of ‘homemakers,’” she “was herself a liberated woman who devoted most of her energy to political activism, not to looking after her husband and six children.” She was, in other words, not a real homemaker.

It’s not clear why Boot thinks that Schlafly’s homemaking credentials are tarnished by her public arguments about a proposed constitutional amendment that implicated the lot of housewives. Neither does he make clear why, exactly, Schlafly’s status as a housewife should have any bearing on the merits of her opinions. But if we are to play this game, “walking paradoxes” abound: If it is acceptable for someone who never served in the armed forces to advocate countless foreign interventions that put military personnel in lethal danger, surely it is acceptable for a homemaker like Phyllis Schlafly to have a public opinion on the Equal Rights Amendment.

Schlafly, at least, had skin in the game.

Undeterred, Boot moves from arguments about Schlafly’s fitness as a homemaker to his more substantive critique, such as it is. He dismissed the ERA that Schlafly vigorously opposed as “an innocuous constitutional amendment” that was well on its way to ratification until Schlafly began laundering what Boot calls “incendiary — and far-fetched — claims that passage of the ERA would eliminate alimony, child support and single-sex bathrooms and force women into combat.”

That Boot roundly mocks Schlafly for making such “incendiary” claims leads one to wonder where she got these “far-fetched” ideas about the ERA. Did Schlafly — whom Boot taunted for her “lack of legal knowledge” — misunderstand future Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1977 report Sex Bias in the U.S. Code, in which Ginsburg claimed that the Equal Rights Amendment would require that all special alimony provisions for women and wives be “eliminated” from the federal code, and argued that “all alimony and support provisions should be recast in sex-neutral language”? What does Boot — with his apparently superior “legal knowledge” — think that Ginsburg meant by this remark?

Similarly, where could Schlafly have gotten her “incendiary” and “far-fetched” notion that women might be conscripted into the military with the passage of ERA? Did she misapprehend feminist Betty Freidan when she told Schlafly in a debate that “there isn’t any reason women should be exempt on the basis of sex” from the draft? If so, what does Boot think Freidan meant by this remark?

He maligns “Schlafly’s tendency to play fast and loose with the facts,” and quips that her dishonesty “was as real as her beehive hairdo,” but fails to engage with even one of the disputes at the heart of the ERA debate. He doesn’t even seem to be aware that these debates were ongoing.

Boot moves on and suggests that Schlafly and other “anti-ERA activists had unsavory views.”  He highlights a racial slur uttered by one of the characters in the movie as evidence of their bigotry: “We don’t want the same thing happening with uppity libbers as happened with uppity Nigras.”

This is a terrible remark, yes, but what is the intended takeaway here? Boot seems to ask us to assume that because an actress playing a fictional character in a fictional movie uttered an incendiary line from a script that, by the creator’s admission, potentially recounted imaginary dialogue, the opposition to the ERA was motivated in part by racism.

We don’t know, of course, whether this particular sentence was ever stated at an anti-ERA rally. Maybe it was. It is almost certain that someone at some point in the long history of opposition to the ERA did, in fact, say something “unsavory.” But what does the potential utterance of an “unsavory” remark have to do with the character of the late Phyllis Schlafly, who, Boot claims, “pioneered incendiary, irrational rhetoric”? What could be more “incendiary” than impugning a political movement and its figurehead on the basis of a dramatization whose producers felt “free to imagine” some of the dialogue? What is more “irrational” than criticizing a political movement that Max Boot demonstrably does not himself understand, or failing to recognize the most basic contours of the relevant debate?

Boot’s parting indictment of the late Phyllis Schlafly was her alleged membership in the John Birch Society. While she denied it during her lifetime, Ronald Radosh at the Daily Beast purports to demonstrate that Schlafly was a member of the conspiracy-minded organization until she left the group in 1964. If the accusation against Schlafly is true — and it appears to be credible — it is a blemish on the career of an otherwise admirable woman. But one would think that Max Boot — who wrote a book expressing his regret for years of membership in a political movement that he claims was complicit in upholding systemic racism and had “extremism embedded in [its] DNA” — would be more willing to forgive those who have made unwise political alliances in their past.

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