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There are a few debates regarding what Harvard University was like in the 1940s. A 1965 Crimson article declares that, during the ’40s, “Harvard was almost the Berkeley of its time,” while a 1988 Crimson article says Harvard’s 1940s culture was “a bastion of conservatism.”
But one thing is for certain: Radcliffe College was alive and well, educating a legion of bright women in the same classroom as men for the first time. As World War II enveloped the globe, faculty shortages permitted “’Cliffies” to temporarily enroll in classes alongside men.
An unexpected figure joined the men in graduate Government classes: Phyllis S. Schlafly, matriarch of the religious right.
Take any U.S. history class and Schlafly will inevitably pop up alongside other notorious 1980s figures like Jerry L. Falwell Sr. and James C. Dobson Jr. Her legacy? Dismembering the Equal Rights Amendment on the operation table; beginning the grassroots conservative movement that changed the face of the Republican Party; and fusing antifeminism, anti-communism, and family values to the Grand Old Party’s platform — an amalgamation that endures today.
In and of itself, the fact that Schlafly — an early link between evangelicalism and conservatism — attended Radcliffe does not warrant much surprise. But her impact on the University is shocking.
The Crimson contains a record of Schlafly’s influence in academia in the decades following her political preeminence. In 2003, an op-ed included her in the “conservative canon” of literature missing from the syllabus of the Harvard sophomore tutorial for Women’s Studies. Complimentary copies of her book “A Choice Not an Echo” were handed out in 1964 at a rally in Boston Commons supporting Republican presidential candidate Barry M. Goldwater.
Schlafly continued to affect Harvard after she graduated. She spoke at the Kennedy School in 1981, saying that those who support the Equal Rights Amendment are “working to use the power of government as compulsion to take away our free choice and promote a gender-free society.” The event drew major attention, so much so that the Radcliffe Student Union protested her presence on campus, with their president calling Schlafly “a totally unrealistic woman whose views are too ancient to work in today's society.”
Even though our collective memory has moved on, she made a mark at Harvard in tandem to her mark on American society.
Many have noted the seeming contradiction between Schlafly’s words and Schlafly’s actions. On the one hand, she expounds anti-feminist rhetoric; on the other, she ran for Congress twice, wrote several popular books, and earned a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis at night. Her husband, John Fred Schlafly Jr., supported her aspirations in what they called a “happy intellectual partnership.”
There is not much known about her time at Radcliffe, but we can speculate.
Ann D. Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, does not suspect Harvard was the place where Schlafly solidified among the religious right. In fact, it is more likely that her ideology swerved after she entered the realm of politics.
Braude sees anti-communism — which wasn’t prevalent in U.S. politics by the time Schlafly graduated from Harvard with her masters in 1945 — as the way that Schlafly entered politics, the director explained.
Regarding Schlafly’s outlook in 1945, Braude said, “I very much doubt it was as conservative as it would later become.”
Tracing Phyllis Schlafly’s marriage reveals a similar trajectory. When she married Fred Schlafly in 1949, she promised to “cherish him but not obey.”
This seemingly independent sentiment faded later, when she would be quoted saying, at the beginning of her speeches, “First of all, I want to thank my husband Fred, for letting me come — I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad!”
Stories regarding Schlafly are fascinatingly paradoxical. Did she not realize the irony in her own intellectual theorizing when she reiterated that “woman tends to be emotional, personal, practical, or mystical” where “man is discursive, logical, abstract, or philosophical”? Did she not realize the contradiction of founding and overseeing the conservative political interest group Eagle Forum for 44 years, while also referring to herself solely as “homemaker” and “volunteer,” citing “mother” as her primary occupation”?
Yet, as Braude notes, Schlafly is not an anomaly.
“Women always have been the enforcers of conservative gender roles,” Braude said.
“When I was in seventh grade, it was the girl’s vice principal who made us kneel on the sidewalk to see if our skirts were more than two inches above the knee,” she continued.
Other 1970s sources reinforce this claim that women both receive and implement conservative gender doctrine.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” provides a modern historian’s analysis of Marabel Morgan’s popular 1973 book “The Total Woman: How to Make Your Marriage Come Alive.”
Du Mez argues that Morgan’s book offered women a “biblical” solution to rocky marriages: “Treat your husband like a king, revere him, and cater to his every need.”
Morgan’s prescription was based on “God’s plan for women to be under a husband’s rule,” Du Mez writes. Wives were supposed to be “feminine, soft, and touchable,” and, above all, loving their husbands “unconditionally” — meaning “making herself sexually available to him,” the historian argues.
Morgan’s instructive recipe spread rapidly. These gender roles, guided by supposed biblical mandate, were directed to women, and women were the ones who enforced them.
Schlafly and Morgan were not alone in their use of religion to talk about femininity, and they were not alone in who they intended their words to be directed to.
Mary Daly was a radical feminist philosopher who taught a variety of courses in both theology and patriarchy at Boston College. In 1971, she was invited to speak at Memorial Church, where she used that time to lead a walkout, condemning patriarchal religion.
“She was on that Puritan pulpit, where the Word [of the Bible] is primary. And she said, ‘Let’s leave this behind and walk out into the light of day,’” Braude said, recounting the walkout.
“I think it’s one of those pivotal moments, in religion and feminism,” she continued.
That one moment does not begin to capture Daly’s radicalism.
In 1969, after publishing her first book, “The Church and the Second Sex,” which sheds light on sexism in the Catholic Church, Boston College issued her a terminal contract. Ironically, it was support from the then all-male student body that brought her back.
Later, in 1999, Daly wanted to limit enrollment in one of her classes to only women. When two male students threatened to sue under Title IX charges, Daly retired from Boston College after administrators gave her an ultimatum.
Daly defended her decision in the Los Angeles Times: “Even if there were only one or two men with 20 women, the young women would be constantly, on an overt or a subliminal level, giving their attention to the men because they’ve been socialized to nurse men.”
It is this contrast I’d like to focus on, between Schlafly and Daly: Two women who touched Harvard’s campus. One who would be encouraged to speak only to women; the other forbidden from teaching only to them.
Harvard’s history is rich with the stories of religious women using their voices and taking action.
Schlafly, both on Harvard’s campus and beyond, encouraged women to be servile to men. She was a devotee of complementarianism: the theological view of men and women as distinct but complementary in family life.
Daly, both on Harvard’s campus and beyond, encouraged the opposite. She advocated for the view that a woman’s spiritual development or religious formation comes from within, not in relation to man.
Schlafly spoke to women and encouraged their submission; Daly desired to speak to women to encourage their transcendence, yet was sidelined.
More than the well-hashed irony of Schlafly’s words measured against her actions, the discursive link between these two women is ripe for inquiry. What are women encouraged to believe about themselves? How do their dashes with religion impact the women that come after them? History is made by these figures on the margin, so often exorcized from the religious imagining of this school; it is realized once we place these women back into scope.
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Deeper Dive Into Harvard’s Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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