Mother Teresa & Phyllis Schlafly: Reactionary handmaidens

Mother Teresa & Phyllis Schlafly: Reactionary handmaidens September 9, 2016

By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Co-President
Freedom From Religion Foundation

The recent coincidence of the “sainthood” of “Mother” Teresa and the death of anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly provides an irresistible chance to reflect on the Catholic Church’s use of its dutiful handmaidens.

Mother Teresa Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Turelio. Phyllis Scholarly Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Gage Skidmore.
Mother Teresa Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Turelio. Phyllis Scholarly Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Gage Skidmore.

The pompous and self-congratulatory pageantry over the canonization of Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhiu), positively wallowing in credulity, has dominated TV news and social media all week. Sainthood is dependent on supposedly proving that Bojaxhiu was involved in posthumous “miracles.” How ironic the Church requires superstitious claims to supposedly be backed up by “scientific evidence” before it will accept their validity.

My primary objection to the fawning adulation Bojaxhiu received during her lifetime and after her death is rooted in her opportunistic use of almost every public occasion — notably including her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize — to attack women’s rights. She not only went after abortion, but, in the time-honored tradition of Catholic bishops, contraception. I’ll never forget her gratuitous tirade against abortion during her Nobel acceptance:

“Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today.”

So much for compassion. What a minimization of human suffering by someone credited as the apotheosis of saintliness! She blamed moral decay on access to abortion. Quite the opposite is true. When women have the means to mitigate both infant mortality and control their own fertility, they have the ability to write their own life scripts and control their own destinies. And societies as a whole blossom. As the beautiful poem by James Oppenheim, “Bread & Rose,” put it: “The rising of the women means the rising of us all.”

The ironic anti-feminist 

How unfortunate that is a truth Phyllis Schlafly, another Catholic myrmidon, never acknowledged. But she and the church whose pillars she buttressed have well understood the power of women rising. That’s why they’ve worked so relentlessly against the “rising of the women” and to deny women reproductive liberty.

Schlafly so very ironically launched her successful, in some ways groundbreaking public career by seeking to deny other women the same opportunities she grabbed. Her hypocrisy was unbounded. While trumpeting women’s subservience, she made a public career out of working against other women’s rights.

Schlafly was the face of the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, becoming chair of Stop ERA, the group that turned into the Eagle Forum. Like Mother Teresa, Schlafly was a front for her church and for patriarchy — and a very convenient one. The media directed its coverage of the anti-ERA movement to Schlafly, a woman, rather than to the concerted opposition of the patriarchal Roman Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant and Mormon churches and their male political allies actually responsible for defeating the ERA. Instead of being covered as a legitimate civil rights movement, the Equal Rights Amendment campaign could be covered like a catfight.

And Schlafly reveled in that. She would groaningly preface public appearances by “thanking my husband, Fred, for letting me come here.”

But who remembers Fred? She was the powerhouse in that household. She ran for Congress as early in 1952 when Fred was asked to run and refused. Although her candidacy was unsuccessful, it kicked off the start of a life-long career of public and political activism.

Back in 1958, she (and her husband) started the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation to fight communism. The pair was also members of the notorious John Birch Society, and Schlafly even wrote a bestselling pocket book to promote Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964.

Unlike Mother Teresa, Schlafly was, in the good Catholic tradition, actually a mother — of six children. (This includes one gay son, John, who has defended his mother’s antigay activism.) She remained true to form to the end, never deviating from her radical Religious Right agenda, even endorsing Trump before her death.

Feminists old enough to remember the harm she created will remember her legacy with bitterness. We came so close to adoption of the ERA, written by feminist and freethinker Alice Paul in 1923, and introduced into every session of Congress between 1923 and 1972: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Those simple, beautiful words (who could oppose them?) were ratified by Congress in 1972, with an unfortunate seven-year time limit in the proposing clause. Congress extended the deadline to June 30, 1982, and it was an achingly close battle to the end. Victory was so close, and then so elusive, thanks to the machinations of various patriarchal churches and their legislative representatives. At the deadline, the ERA had been ratified by 35 states — only three shy of the required 38.

Church leaders took care not to argue directly from religion. The main emotional arguments against the ERA were that:

1) Men and women would share unisex bathrooms (already common in the 1970s). Unisex bathroom threats look laughable in the midst of the current ridiculous hullabaloo over transgender individuals using toilets and locker rooms conforming to their gender identity. Cross that argument of the list. But still we have no ERA.

2) Women could be drafted. The Senate voted this year to require women to register for the draft. It’s inevitably going to happen someday pretty soon. But still no ERA in sight.

3) The ERA would allow “gay marriage.” We now have marriage equality (and our nation prospers, I might add) but still no ERA.

In some ways, I feel sorry for Mother Teresa and Phyllis Schlafly, who spent their lives shilling for the Catholic Church and its antiquated doctrines requiring female subservience.

What little Phyllis and Agnes needed was to grow up in a culture that honored the political, social and economic equality of the sexes (the very definition of feminism). The Equal Rights Amendment is the constitutional path to such equality.

In their memories, let’s redouble our activism

In their memories, and to prevent more such patriarchal handmaidens, let’s do our bit to revive public support for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which continues to be introduced in every session.

If we work hard, maybe we could see its passage in time to celebrate the centennial of its introduction in 2023.

Annie Laurie Gaylor is author of “Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So” about bible sexism and is editor of “Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters,” the first anthology of women freethinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries.


FFRF is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. For more information and a copy of our paper, Freethought Today, please click here.

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