The Gender of Justice: Part Four
The more women demand equality the least safe we become. The 1967 bullhorn over the segregation of ‘want ads’ in the New York Times quickly morphed into a rallying cry for autonomy on the steps of the United States Supreme Court. By 1973, Roe v Wade was handed down and the E.R.A (Equal Right Amendment) passed legislation. In the midst of the battle everyone went home. Confident they had won, the volume came down and women’s liberation became a distant reverberation of a housewife’s fever dream.
Women believed they had finally conquered man. Yet the journey for states to ratify the E.R.A hit an unexpected wall, built by a woman, Phyllis Schlafly. Phyllis may not have filled the classroom history books like Steinem and Friedan, but she certainly had a lasting impact on women’s rights. A loud whisper in a room held by men, she continued to voice her rhetoric and distaste for the ideal of equality between men and women.
At the National Women’s Conference in Houston Texas, November of 1977, Phyllis was asked about federal dollars being used to establish shelters for battered women, her response spoke volumes. Insisting that giving a wife who has been beaten a vacation at the taxpayers’ expense isn’t going to solve her problem. Though a self-proclaimed Catholic Conservative she insisted the woman only needed a divorce lawyer.
Her anti-feminist campaign not only stalled the Equal Rights Amendment but had long reaching effects on social policy and conservative politics until her death. She vehemently opposed The Domestic Violence Against Women Act, insisting it promotes the breakup of marriages, divorce, and hatred of men.
From physical abuse to violent rape, Domestic Violence is real. It’s a very real nightmare that millions of women live in every day. What do you do when your rapist isn’t a stranger, but the man lying in your bed every night, the one you swore to love in sickness and health. The man whom you can’t wake from. When your husband is your attacker, who can a woman turn to?
Phyllis Schlafly once insisted “by getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.” Schlafly wasn’t alone. Spousal rape exemption clauses can be traced back to the 17th century jurist Matthew Hale, in which he proclaimed a man cannot commit rape upon his lawful wife, as the marital contract itself established consent. This common interpretation affected women’s lives for centuries. In thirty-eight states the exemption would include unmarried men, who cohabitated with a woman.
The first state to repeal such an exclusion was Nebraska in 1976. Many states followed in some form, but it would take until 1993 before Oklahoma and North Carolina joined the ranks. Repealing spousal exemptions weren’t all they promised to be, as many went a step further in creating a difference between rape and spousal rape. Allowing the punishment for spousal rape to be less harsh, not much changed for women. As recent as 2002, only 24 states had completely abolished marital rape exemptions.
Assault against women has many forms, and sexual is only one. The beating of one’s wife was often viewed as a private domestic issue. Going back only 60 years, states like New York referred domestic violence cases from criminal court to family court, where only civil procedures could apply.
Yet four years later, a change to New York Domestic Relation Law included physical abuse. A beating, as a form of cruel and inhumane punishment by a spouse, finally became valid grounds for a divorce. However, the 1966 ruling required the plaintiff to establish a sufficient number of beatings had taken place. What was considered ‘sufficient’ remained evasive when the Court of Appeals held that two beatings did not constitute enough reason for divorce. The court would also question the validity of such a claim, if the woman continued to cohabitate following an act of cruelty. Any woman that stayed, clearly enjoyed a beating or was making it all up for attention. A woman with limited resources, would be required to flee her home and in many cases for a predetermined amount of time, before a judge would grant her a divorce on such claims.
Getting a divorce is only one barrier for a woman seeking safety. When Francine Hughes divorced her abusive husband in 1971, he refused to leave and continued to reside with her and their children. In March of 1977, after yet another physical altercation, she poured gasoline near the bed he was passed out in and lit it. Charged with murder, the court set a groundbreaking precedent when she was acquitted on grounds of ‘temporary insanity’.
As though in her last breath, Phyllis Schlafly’s final book The Conservative Case for Trump, released in 2016 the day after her passing, she attempts to sway the minds of the masses once again by proclaiming more government interference in things she found repulsive, would equal less restrictions and a more comfortable life for conservative Christians like herself.
In 2023, we can be certain the Phyllis’ of the world are still here, still fighting and still rebelling against the majority, in the hopes of a minority rule. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, we must not falter in our step nor retreat in a perceived defeat. We must rise, as never before, and lift those behind us as we climb. Our daughters are watching.