Most of you have probably heard by now that Washington University of St. Louis has decided to honor Phyllis Schlafly, a native St. Louisan and two-time Wash U. graduate, with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. This unanimous decision by the university's Board of Trustees has caused a furor, and rightly so.
Over the years, Schlafly has done it all. She's well known for her successful efforts to defeat the ERA because it was "dangerous." Folks can argue the relative merits of the ERA, but really -- it's anything but dangerous. Schlafly, a lawyer by training, also said there should be bans on women holding certain non-traditional jobs -- like firefighting or construction. And, in controversial statements that have been recirculated since the Wash U. story broke, Schlafly has apparently even doubted whether a wife could really be raped by her husband. Worthy of an honorary degree? Um, not so much.
The school's web site calls Schlafly "a national leader of the conservative movement." A true statement, and in and of itself not a disqualifier for an honorary degree. I wish they had also mentioned, though, that she is the leading anti-feminist of the second wave of the women's movement, who continues to put forward opinions that are anti-theticial to the very lives the women graduates of Wash U. aspire to lead. I don't know about you, but I always thought it was the height of hypocrisy that Schlafly has always been a vocal advocate of the full-time housewife -- while she herself was traveling the country, making speeches, founding and running the Eagle Forum, writing more than 20 books, doing radio and newspaper commentaries, etc. Who was home raising HER children, I wonder??
Not surprisingly, the Wash U. community is fighting back, and the Internet has proven fertile ground to voice their protests. Students have set up a Facebook group, "No Honorary Doctorate for Anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly." At last count, the group has attracted close to 2000 members since the controversy hit the airwaves. Interestingly, parents, students and alumni alike are threatening to hit the university where it hurts -- its pocketbook -- and withhold those sought-after alumni donations in response to the Board's poor judgement. Professors apparently aren't much happier than the alumni and students -- and seriously, there's not a whole lot of things scarier in academia than a pissed off tenured professor.
I think Mary Ann Dzuback, the director of women's and gender studies at Wash U. as well as an associate professor of education and history, hit the nail on the head when she made it clear that she wouldn't be against Schlafly being invited to lecture at the school -- I wouldn't be either. To me, that represents the best in academic freedom, in discourse and debate and differing opinions. But, as Dzuback says, recognizing Schlafly with something as important as an honorary degree is something quite different:
"This tells the world that this administration thinks so highly of the honoree that they give her the highest degrees the university can give, the highest degree of respect. And that is deeply troubling...This is a woman who has spent her whole career arguing against full rights for women."It certainly seems an odd commencement message to send the women -- and men -- of Wash U. off into the world with -- new graduates, full of hope and excitement, whose choices would be immediately curtailed by a woman who believes that women don't deserve the same opportunities and rights as men, and that the men don't deserve full, accomplished partners who've pursued the full lives they've dreamed of -- whether that is to stay home and raise kids or climb the career ladder or some some combination in between.
The key here, the point here, is that feminism has always been about choices -- opening doors and breaking down barriers so that people can make the choices that are best for them, freely and without restrictions based on their gender. Schlafly would unilaterally take fundamental choices away from women -- and that is not honorable. It is disturbing that Washington University of St. Louis has not only forgotten this history, but that it is also willing to so dishonor the futures of its graduates that it would bestow an honorary degree on Phyllis Schlafly.
Feeling feisty? Send the Chancellor of Wash U. an email or personal note, or heck, give him a call -- the more people he hears from, the better.
Copyright 2008. The Zaftig Redhead. All Rights Reserved.