Forty years ago, Phyllis Schlafly hosted a gala for 1,100 guests at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington to celebrate the expiration of the deadline to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. A bomb threat was not enough to dampen the evening’s festivities, which included not only dinner and speeches but a musical revue featuring parodies of “The Impossible Dream” and “Old-Fashioned Girl” with lyrics adapted for the occasion by Schlafly herself. The celebration did not just mark the end of the E.R.A., Schlafly later said, but “the end of an era, the era of conservative defeats.”
Not in women’s rights, it didn’t. In the 40 years since that banquet, nearly everything that Schlafly warned that E.R.A. would bring about has been achieved by other means, from coeducation at military academies to gay marriage.
Schlafly and her organization Stop E.R.A. won the battle but lost the war. Hardly surprising when you consider that they were the underdogs. Politicians in both parties initially assumed that voting for the amendment was the safe option because its supporters were passionate and organized, whereas its opponents were politically inert — which they were, until Schlafly, who had run for Congress and worked as a researcher for what would become the American Enterprise Institute, turned masses of women who had never been involved in politics into an army of effective lobbyists.
Today there are many times more women in the conservative movement than there were when a 21-year-old named Phyllis Stewart first arrived in Washington in 1945. And yet none of those brilliant and articulate women have stepped in to fill her role as America’s foremost anti-feminist.
Those who attack feminist orthodoxy today do so because they are committed feminists themselves, as in the case of the A.E.I.’s Christina Hoff Sommers, who calls her position “equity feminism” as opposed to “victim feminism.” Dissenters from the feminist line are more likely to be motivated by a libertarian commitment to equal treatment of the sexes than a socially conservative commitment to gender roles as an affirmative good. Four decades after the death of the E.R.A., Schlafly has many descendants, but no heirs.
To some, the question of why a new Schlafly hasn’t emerged is as absurd as it would have been to ask in 1972 why no woman had appeared to lead the opposition to the E.R.A. Why would a woman sign up to defend her own oppression? Of course, that’s not what Schlafly thought she was doing. She believed she was protecting women from having a feminist agenda they did not agree with imposed on them against their will.
Today, much of that agenda has prevailed. The obstacles to expanding women’s options and empowering them to make the choices they want are now, in many areas, precisely the products of that egalitarian revolution. By making it easier for women to pursue success in the workplace, we have made it harder for them to do anything else. Pressing the brake on the trends set in motion by the feminist revolution would leave women more free to follow a diversity of paths. In that case, another Phyllis Schlafly may be just what America needs.
The worst thing about the “mommy wars” used to be their suffocating sameness. The essays that went round and round about whether women can “have it all” were often well written, but the repetitiveness of the arguments was enough to make a person believe in eternal recurrence. Not anymore. Now, the worst thing about the mommy wars is that they are about to enter a new phase and the conservative side is unprepared for it.
The American family is once again in crisis. The statistical bellwether this time is not family breakdown but failure of families to form in the first place. In 1960, 82 percent of Americans between 25 and 34 were married. Even as late as 2000, 55 percent were. In 2013, for the first time, a majority of that age bloc had never married, and the downward trend shows no sign of stopping. Even allowing for the likelihood that some of this cohort will marry in their 40s or 50s, a 2014 Pew reportpredicts that “today’s young adults will experience the lowest marriage rate in modern history.”
Marriage has become less appealing in part because of the “two-income trap,” as Senator Elizabeth Warren, now a 2020 presidential candidate, christened it in 2003, when she was a Harvard professor. Marriage simply no longer offers the financial security it once did. The consumer goods that singles buy have gotten cheaper, but the things that middle-aged parents spend the most money on — houses, education, health care — have gotten more expensive, while wages have stagnated. It has become difficult for a family with one breadwinner to afford a middle-class standard of living. “Mom’s paycheck has been pumped directly into the basic costs of keeping the children in the middle class,” Ms. Warren’s book “The Two-Income Trap” explained.
The mass entry of women into the work force is one reason for this financial insecurity. Ms. Warren said as much in her book, although she has since backed away from such a politically explosive suggestion. Those of us who don’t have a Democratic primary ahead of us can say what she won’t: When mothers started entering paid employment in large numbers in the 1970s, it led to a bidding war over middle-class amenities that left everyone paying more for the privilege of being no better off than before.
The result is a two-tiered system that isn’t working for anybody. In the bottom tier, marriage is disappearing as lower-income women have too few men with solid jobs to choose from and as the growing number of men without regular work — by one analysis, 20 percent of prime-age males were not working full time at the start of 2018 — are being cut out of the marriage market altogether.
In the top tier, college-educated women feel they can’t afford to take time off from their careers to raise their children even when they want to, as many of them do. According to an analysis of American Community Survey data by the Institute for Family Studies, only 17 percent of mothers with children 3 or younger say they prefer to work full time. Many career moms manage their stressful work-life balance thanks only to low-wage immigrant labor to take care of their children, clean their houses and deliver their takeout. Even with hired help, working women still spend nearly as much time on household tasks as their stay-at-home mothers and grandmothers did. The result is stress, frustration — and cries for national action.
The response of the conservative establishment to this crisis has been to double down on shoveling women into the work force. In 2018, the American Enterprise Institute released a report on paid family and medical leave in collaboration with the Brookings Institution that specifically cited a recent dip in the number of American women working as a problem needing to be solved. “Research shows that the proportion of working women in the U.S. has fallen behind that of other countries,” the A.E.I. website lamented. “Access to paid leave has been shown to promote labor force attachment, especially for women, which is vital for economic growth.”
In this fixation on economic growth, even when it means nudging into the work force women who would have preferred to stay home, all sides of the political spectrum are in agreement, from the conservative A.E.I. and the centrist Brookings to the liberal Center for American Progress, which crows that if child care assistance and other family-friendly policies became the norm, “the United States would see an additional five million women in the labor force and $500 billion in increased G.D.P.” It is precisely this cross-ideological consensus that has allowed the problem of the two-income trap to get worse for so long.
What is needed are dissenting voices. The conservative IndependentWomen’s Forum has had some success promoting the idea of “Social Security earned leave,” which would give new parents up to 12 weeks of paid leave in exchange for delaying their retirement benefits by weeks or months. The plan has the benefit of being budget-neutral over the long term, because parents borrow against their own retirement benefits, leaving everyone else unaffected. Senators Joni Ernst and Mike Lee, and separately Senator Marco Rubio, have turned this plan into proposed legislation, making it an excellent example of policy entrepreneurship on the part of the Independent Women’s Forum. However, this laudable plan seems to respond to the last era’s Republican worries about paid leave — that it was anti-business or too expensive or would promote long-term government dependency — and doesn’t address the fundamental issues that families are facing.
There is interesting work being done on what it would mean to make the happiness and stability of America’s families a policy goal on par with G.D.P. growth. There is Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, whose book “The Once and Future Worker” criticizes the single-minded focus on expanding the economic pie regardless of other considerations as “economic piety” (get it?). “If, historically, two-parent families could support themselves with only one parent working outside the home, then something is wrong with ‘growth’ that imposes a de facto need for two incomes,” he writes.
There is also Samuel Hammond at the Niskanen Center, who has written incisively on the benefits and drawbacks of various child tax credit plans and “the false promise of universal child care,” which would impose a one-size-fits-all model on America’s families.
Earlier this year, National Review published an essay by Patrick T. Brown, a graduate student at Princeton, called “Leaning Out,” which argues that public policy should make it easier for one parent to stay home. He proposes a “grand bargain — expanded child-care subsidies, with payments equivalent to the value of those subsidies to parents who choose not to pay for care” Mr. Brown says he got the idea for the essay during the year he was a stay-at-home dad for his two children while his wife pursued her Ph.D. studies. “I realized being a stay-at-home parent is really hard,” he said.
These innovative thinkers all have something in common: They’re men. That’s a difficulty, because there are some arguments that it’s easier for a woman to make. Phyllis Schlafly, who died in 2016, herself said, “I always did feel that the leaders of the effort to beat E.R.A. had to be women.” The optics have only become more important in an age of identity politics.
Consider the example of Tucker Carlson’s opening monologue on his Fox News show on Jan. 2, which went viral. One of the passages that got him into trouble was on the unintended consequences of rising women’s wages.
Mr. Carlson noted that manufacturing, “a male-dominated industry,” has declined, while female-dominated fields like education and health care have remained strong. “In many areas, women suddenly made more than men. Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects,” he said. “Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t.”
He went on to list the problems with low marriage rates: out-of-wedlock births and the “familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.”
The liberal journalist Judd Legum tweeted that Mr. Carlson was “arguing there’s a moral responsibility to pay women less than men” and called for Red Lobster to drop its ads on his show, which the company did a few hours later.
As it happens, there is an abundance of data on Mr. Carlson’s side. Wendy Wang is the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, and before that she worked at the Pew Research Center, where she co-wrote a report about unmarried Americans. “The number of employed men per 100 women dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012” among never-married Americans 25 to 34, her report found. “In other words, if all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9 percent of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group.”
Ms. Wang also confirmed that men and women prioritize different things when looking for a partner, with women more likely to want someone with a steady job. That’s not a stereotype, she said, but “what single Americans are telling us.” David Autor of M.I.T. and his fellow researchers found that in the regions of the country hardest hit by competition from Chinese manufacturing, marriage rates declined only when men’s wages went down. When women’s wages went down relative to men’s, marriage and fertility actually went up.
For all the statistical ammunition at their disposal, there was a distinct lack of rhetorical cover from women for Mr. Carlson. That seems to be a chronic problem for male wonks trying to think through the challenges of the two-income trap.
“If you’re on Twitter, the energy behind broadly pro-natal politics tends to be male, for reasons I’m not sure of,” Mr. Brown said. He also said he got some pushback on the medium over his National Review article, “accusing me of having an excessively gendered view of parenting.” Considering that women, as a rule, get harsher criticism online than men, this pushback may be one of the things keeping them from the debate.
At the height of the E.R.A. push, polling on the amendment was split with virtually no gender gap, just as there is no gender gap today on the question of whether having more women in the work force affects marriage and child rearing.
There is, however, a gender gap on the concrete question of whether a given parent would prefer to stay home, with few fathers saying they would rather work part time and a large majority of mothers saying they would rather work part time or not at all. The division-of-labor advantages of having one breadwinner and one caregiver apply regardless of which parent stays home, so a new Schlafly wouldn’t need to agree with her predecessor on gender essentialism. Just endorse the basic principle that healthy families are the foundation of every other political good.
Perhaps the reason no Schlafly has emerged is the same reason Schlafly was such a singular figure in her own time: The sorts of women who agreed with her aren’t those whose voices make it into the national conversation. Just as the housewives of Stop E.R.A. would never have made an impact if Schlafly hadn’t organized them, today’s political conversation tends to overlook those women who would prefer to raise their children in one-breadwinner families like the ones they grew up in.
A modern-day Schlafly would give voice to these women. Imagine another banquet at the Shoreham, 40 years after Schlafly’s victory celebration, where a woman stood up and said: “If the two-income trap has created a situation that’s making everyone miserable, maybe the answer isn’t to double down on the model that got us here in the first place.”
If there is going to be some kind of federal paid parental leave program, as seems likely, it shouldn’t disadvantage stay-at-home parents and certainly shouldn’t take increasing female work force participation as a goal in itself. Subsidizing day care does disadvantage parents who want to stay at home, by its nature. It further entrenches the mandatory two-earner model we are moving toward.
It also distorts the economic signals families need to make informed choices about whether it’s worth it to send a second parent into paid employment. There’s no point paying someone $11 an hour to raise a woman’s children so she can go out and earn $11 an hour if that woman would be happier staying home and raising her children herself.
Women want equal pay for equal work, and they should get it, but they also want men they can marry. Women were responsible for almost the entire increase in labor force participation between 2015 and 2017. Isn’t it time to focus on helping male workers specifically, their wages and their industries? If you asked the women in the David Autor study — the ones in places where the wage gap widened but marriage rates went up — which they’d rather have, a few extra cents an hour or a husband and a child, what do you think they would say?
These are policy choices that are going to be confronting us in the imminent future, and if we choose badly our social crisis is only going to get worse. An heir to Phyllis Schlafly, a socially conservative female voice who can galvanize others, could help us. She just has to step up.