Last month, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) became the first woman to win an influential Iowa Republican straw poll — a victory that would have been impossible before the many decades of feminist activism that proceeded Bachmann’s entrance onto the national scene. Yet, at a Tea Party event with the conservative Eagle Forum last July, Bachmann lauded Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly, who spent nearly her entire career fighting to make it impossible for women to participate equally in American society:
BACHMANN: If I could just say a couple of words about Phyllis Schlafly, she is my heroine and my example as a forerunner…She truly is the mother of the modern conservative movement. I think she is the most important woman in the United States in the last one hundred years. Whatever Phyllis Schlafly says, it’s important that we listen, because she’s there on every issue, on every front. She is our hero, our heroine, our stalwart and I absolutely adore her. So God Bless you, my dear mentor and the person I hope to be some day.
Schlafly dedicated decades to transforming “feminism” into a dirty word. Viewing it as “the most dangerous, destructive force in our society today,” she insists that working mothers pursue “false hopes and fading illusions;” that men should not marry these “career women;” that “women in combat are a hazard to other people around them;” and that, by getting married, women agreed to have sex and thus cannot be raped. Schlafly also waged a successful battle against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — a constitutional amendment that states “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Yet, for all of Schlafly’s efforts to maintain women’s second class citizenship, her war on women’s rights was ultimately a failure. Here’s just a small sampling of the many women who made far more important contributions to American history than Bachmann’s “most important woman in the United States”:
- Frances Perkins: Perkins was the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary, and she remains one of the most influential figures to hold any job in government. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Perkins spearheaded countless protections for workers and unions, including the minimum wage and overtime laws. She also chaired the commission that produced Social Security.
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Justice Ginsburg became the single most important women’s rights attorney in American history long before she joined the federal bench. While Schlafly was fighting to keep women from enjoying equal rights under the Constitution, Ginsburg successfully convinced the Supreme Court that the Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection applies to women.
- Katharine Graham: After her husband’s suicide in 1963, Katharine Graham took control of the Washington Post Company, becoming the highest-ranking woman in American publishing to that date. Her courageous decision to publish the Pentagon Papers crystallized opposition the Vietnam War, and her backing of reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward during their reporting on the Watergate scandal (despite a warning from Attorney General John Mitchell that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.”) helped bring down a president.
- Nancy Pelosi: Pelosi was not simply the first woman to serve as speaker of the House, she is also one of America’s most accomplished lawmakers. As minority leader, she led her party to almost universally oppose President Bush’s failed plan to privatize Social Security. As speaker, she presided over two of the most successful House sessions in American history, leading a divided caucus to enact the landmark Affordable Care Act despite unanimous GOP opposition.
- Betty Friedan: Friedan’s first book, “The Feminine Mystique,” remains one of the most cogent descriptions of the crushing weight faced by generations of women deemed subservient to their husbands. She is widely believed to have ignited the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, and would go on to co-found several influential women’s organizations, including the National Organization for Women and NARAL.
- Rosa Parks: In December 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks took a seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama that — per Jim Crow — was reserved for white passengers. She simply refused to move. Her defiance and arrest not only “sparked a yearlong protest” that forced Montgomery to give up the practice, but was a seminal act that helped spur the Civil Rights movement. Parks later worked for Rep. John Conyers (D) in Detroit, Michigan until she retired in 1988.
- Dorothy Height: The “grande dame” of the civil rights era, Height was a leader of the African-American and women’s rights movements for nearly 80 years. As president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997, she oversaw programs on voting rights, poverty, integration, AIDS, and was a chief organizer of the Million Man March in 1963. One of the first people “to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for African-Americans as a seamless whole,” Heights said just two years before she died in 2010, “I’m still working today to make the promise of the 14th Amendment of equal justice under law a reality.”
- Sandra Day O’Connor: O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. In this role, she effectively became the most powerful woman in the country during her final years on the Court — serving as the key “swing” vote between four solid conservatives and four more moderate justices.
- Eleanor Roosevelt: President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion of organized political reform and the first known First Lady to join a labor union. She actively campaigned to eliminate unfair labor practices, child labor, and discrimination against women in the workplace, even compelling several government agencies to create employment programs for women. Her central role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — an international agreement among nations on “the fundamental and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” — may stand as her “greatest legacy.”
- Hillary Rodham Clinton: As head of the Clinton administration’s Task Force on Health Care Reform, Clinton not only created a health reform plan for America’s uninsured, but successfully initiated the Children’s Health Insurance Program for uninsured children. As the current Secretary of State, Clinton has been a chief advocate for “faster and further” reform in the Middle East, pushing for greater democratic participation of citizens — and women — in government.