100 Percent Mid-Century, Zero Percent Modern: Phyllis Schlafly's Not-So-Secret Formula For Keeping Women Disempowered

05/01/2014 12:04 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2014

Recently, Phyllis Schlafly emerged from her 1950s time capsule with both hot glue guns blazing. She took aim at the issue of income inequality and the proposed legislation to address the problem. The more I read Schlafly's articles, the more I felt like I was reading a guide on how to be a "good wife" written sixty-plus years ago. And just like when I stumble across one of those guides, I couldn't put Schlafly's articles down until I had read every last word. Sometimes it's hard to quit crazy.

Schlafly states that women prefer to marry men who make more money than they themselves do, while men have no such preference. According to Schlafly, "While women prefer to HAVE a higher earning partner, men generally prefer to BE the higher earning partner in a relationship."

Schlafly doesn't acknowledge that this so-called preference is likely (a) borne of necessity since decent paying jobs historically were not available to women, (b) nurtured by enculturation since generations of men and women have been raised in a world where men generally earn more than women thereby establishing that as the cultural norm, and (c) maintained by a skewed pool since a + b = c. But Schlafly not only unquestioningly accepts that this is the way things are, she further seems to feel it is the way things ought to be.

Extrapolating from this, Schlafly speculates, "Suppose the pay gap between men and women were magically eliminated. If that happened, simple arithmetic suggests that half of women would be unable to find what they regard as a suitable mate.

Obviously, I'm not saying women won't date or marry lower-earning men, only that they probably prefer not to. If a higher-earning man is not available, many women are more likely not to marry at all."

It's clear that Schlafly believes that fewer women getting married would be bad for society, but the fact that she doesn't bother to explain why reveals an underlying assumption on her part that this view is universally held. Behind this sentiment is the simplistic belief that the institution of marriage is somehow inherently good, and that married women are somehow superior to unmarried women. According to this thinking, most any marriage is a good marriage, and the more marriages there are, the better off society is.

Unlike Schlafly, I'm not blindly pro-marriage, but I am pro-healthy marriage. Call me old fashioned, but I believe the only good reason for a woman to get married is because she is so in love with a particular person that she wants them to spend the rest of their lives together. (And while that's a good reason to marry, it alone may not be enough.)

While Schlafly and I have different views on marriage, I'll bet we'd find common ground when it comes to wanting to bring down the divorce rate -- although even on this issue our reasons are probably different. I have no moral or religious objection to divorce, but I do know first hand how grueling it can be for everyone concerned. And if something grueling can be avoided, so much the better. The best way I know of to bring down the divorce rate is to reduce the number of marriages motivated by bad reasons -- because marriages motivated by bad reasons are not likely to be healthy enough to go the distance.

When it comes to bad reasons to marry, the list is longer than the train on Princess Diana's wedding gown, and close to the top are societal and economic pressures. Girls are raised to think that getting married is mandatory rather than optional, and they historically have been steered toward "nurturing" professions like teaching and nursing which tend to pay less. If we were to relieve women of the expectation to marry, remove the educational biases and career obstacles that steer them toward lower paying jobs, and eliminate the pay gap, just think of how many bad marriages and subsequent divorces might be avoided.

But Schlafly doesn't only have outdated views about the inherent goodness of marriage. Her comments reveal a disturbing belief that women are somehow inferior to men, and need to be kept dependent on them. Accordingly, she isn't just okay with ignoring the pay gap, she's actually okay with increasing it.

As she explains it, "the best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap." In other words, Schlafly believes in trickle down marital economics. And because her thinking never evolved past the 1950s, Schlafly never got the memo from the 1980s that let the world know that trickle down economics doesn't work.

Rather than rigging today's job market in an attempt to recreate a 1950s society, how about we just pay men and women equally? That way people would be free to get married because they want to rather than marrying because they need to in order to make ends meet.

Schlafly claims that, "In two segments of our population, the pay gap has virtually ceased to exist. In the African-American community and in the millennial generation (ages 18-32), women earn about the same as men, if not more. It just so happens that those are the two segments of our population in which the rate of marriage has fallen the most. Fifty years ago, about 80 percent of Americans were married by age 30; today, less than 50 percent are."

She says this like it's a bad thing. That's in sharp contrast to everyone else I know. The trend to marry later is widely regarded as positive for a lot of reasons, but mainly because people who get married later have a good chance of dodging their starter marriage and their first divorce all together. Over the years, I have given my kids plenty of lectures on the importance of not marrying too young. I've even gone so far as to tell them that the minimum age for marriage in our home state is 30. They didn't believe me, of course, but it demonstrated to them that not marrying too young was important enough for me to make up a fake law over.

Like any decade, the 1950s were a mixed bag. There were good things and bad things about it. It's okay to be selective about what we carry forward and what we jettison. I vote to keep rock and roll and commercial air travel, but let go of antiquated theories about marriage and gender norms. Phyllis Schlafly may believe that a woman's place is in a home she can't afford without her husband's income. But I believe the place for Phyllis Schlafly is in a permanently sealed time capsule.