It’s a shame that Phyllis Schlafly had a corner on skepticism about women’s liberation. “Why should we trade in our special privileges and honored status for the alleged advantage of working in an office or assembly line?” the conservative crusader, perhaps best known for her successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, asked in 1972. “Most women would rather cuddle a baby than a typewriter or a factory machine.”
Schlafly masterfully sold the narrative that women’s rights, including those which would enable their greater participation in the workforce, would hurt women. In the process, she polarized the debate, making conservatives loath to recognize women’s gains, and liberals equally reluctant to acknowledge that progress might entail trade-offs. As more women have joined the workforce and become leaders in traditionally male spheres, gender roles have shifted, and women have lost their exclusive hold over traditionally female spheres. One of these is the home, as Schlafly argued. But women’s dominion over another part of public life has also declined: civil society.
Women have long formed collective organizations intended to improve American society. They volunteered their time, waged political campaigns, and advocated for the poor and elderly. They organized voters, patronized the arts, and protested the government. In the years since women’s liberation, this kind of civic engagement has dropped precipitously. The kind of community involvement that has replaced it, where it has been replaced at all, is a weak substitute: When women advocate, it’s often on behalf of their own kids or families. And when they get involved in causes, they tend to cut checks rather than gather in protest. The most vulnerable members of society have lost their best allies—women—partly because those women are too busy working.