I’ve been watching Mrs. America, the show about the anti-ERA movement headed by Phyllis Shlafly. It’s an interesting view of marriage, one that bears little resemblance to my own, but one that “traditional” and “conservative” women (at least those who were comfortably middle class) in the 1970s rose up to defend, with many good reasons, reasons that are mostly no longer valid, but that were based partly in fear and hyperbole with some roots in reality. Watching this show is a real slice of life, an era long gone and good riddance, but one that many still living lived through.

When I was young, I became aware of the ERA movement. I smugly thought to myself how great it was to be a part of a Church that was always on the side of right, that did what God really wanted, not what fallible humans thought was best. I naively assumed that the Church would support equal rights for women. It didn’t even occur to me that they wouldn’t. What kind of people would oppose such an obvious thing? I was completely unaware of the lengths the Church went to in order to oppose the ERA, similar efforts to Prop 8, until about 5 minutes ago. Those are actions that have not worn well.

Shlafly’s inaccurate claims that women would be drafted, lose access or alimony, or have to pee in front of men didn’t convince me. The hysterical explanation that the libbers wanted everyone to have a government-sponsored abortion that would lead to the end of the human race also didn’t sway me (nobody was going to force anyone to have an abortion, and I was just a kid and didn’t really think about abortion at that point in my life, but since the argument against it means that women are forced to have children they don’t want, I didn’t see that as a great default).

My budding feminist brain could only come up with two possible reasons that God would oppose the ERA: 1) that it would completely change the economic structure from a family income model to an individual earner model making it a huge disadvantage for families to have children or have only one earner, and 2) that the economy as we had it was so male-centric it would be better to start from scratch than just to grandfather women into these male structures (e.g. no appropriate leave benefits or child care benefits in place, rampant sexism in the workplace, etc.).

The view of marriage among Shlafly’s Eagles presented in this show is a complementarian model in which wives are subservient to outwardly doting (but inwardly dismissing) husbands. The sky is the limit for these (mostly white) women: political power, access to financial benefits of the marriage, and often access to the labor of women of color to support them as their nannies, cooks, and cleaners. Their anti-ERA model is “STOP ERA” which stands for Stop Taking Our Privileges. Indeed. Shlafly even supports the idea of equal pay, although she is eager to claim that’s already a right. Okey-dokey.

By contrast to the STOP ERA women, the ERA women are excited to have the full range of human experience opened up to women. They want options and choice, not maintaining a privileged status based on patriarchy (which is demonstrated to be already unavailable to women of color and unmarried women as well as very limiting to the women it privileges). Episode 4 culminates in a historically-accurate debate between Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique who is largely credited with the original spark of the feminist movement, and Phyllis Shlafly who shrewdly opens by publicly thanking her husband for allowing her to speak to them. Her goal in this debate is to wind up the feminists so that they look irrational while she maintains a cool veneer, and unfortunately, she succeeds.

When her attempts to rally women against being drafted fall flat, the comely Shlafly turns her arguments personal, implying that Friedan and other feminists are simply failures in the marriage market, women who didn’t choose their husbands well, who were dumped for younger models when they got middle-aged and frumpy, and whose strident views turned men off. She said that she didn’t believe the government should bail out women for being unhappy, that it was up to the women to make their own happiness. It’s a low blow that lands, resulting in a fierce retort from Friedan and a stunned silence from the audience.

This view of marriage is the same as how conservatives talk about the free market. When opportunities and wages aren’t equal for both sexes, marriage becomes an economic proposition for women, a job that either pays well (with a high-earning provider) or a job that doesn’t pay well or has other risks (e.g. domestic abuse, divorce). Friedan rightly points out that alimony is not guaranteed to any woman, regardless the actions of her husband, so preventing women from earning on par with men is patently unfair. Shlafly knowingly looks at her as if to say, “I haven’t jeopardized my economic status by losing my looks.”

In 1977, Spencer W. Kimball said:

“While marriage is difficult, and discordant and frustrated marriages are common, yet real, lasting happiness is possible, and marriage can be more an exultant ecstasy than the human mind can conceive. This is within the reach of every couple, every person. ‘Soul mates’ are fiction and an illusion; and while every young man and young woman will seek with all diligence and prayerfulness to find a mate with whom life can be most compatible and beautiful, yet it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage if both are willing to pay the price”

What I and many others heard was this snippet:

it is certain that almost any good man and any good woman can have happiness and a successful marriage

While we women understood that it might mean hard work and personal sacrifice, the idea that men and women were interchangeable in terms of marital success was something that got terrifyingly stuck in my subconscious. I’ve discussed it many times with other Mormon women, even in the last few years. It’s clearly an idea that got legs in church culture. It made its mark on us psychologically.

As a teen, I used to have a recurring nightmare that I was suddenly married to someone I didn’t find at all attractive or interesting, and I was expected to make a life with this person if I was a good Mormon / Christian. Failure to make it work would be evidence that I was too faithless, selfish, not a good person, morally inferior, with my heart set on the wrong things, the things of this world. My own wishes didn’t matter, only filling this role that was handed to me with this unknown, unattractive and uninteresting person (he was always wearing white flannel pajamas with a horse head pattern for some reason, and we lived in my childhood bedroom). In the dream, it was bedtime, and I was trying to find any way possible to get out of this situation, despite my parents expecting and urging me to do my duty. I always woke up before entering the bedroom.

Taken out of the full context of the quote (which frankly, we all did, to the extent that it must have been intentional to imply that whom you marry mattered less than how righteous you both were), this points to an economic model for marriage. In an economic model for marriage, all men fill one set of job duties and all women fill another. Any man or women will do because the roles are prescribed based on one’s sex, not chosen based on interest and skills. It is the commodification of marriage. A man is shopping (or hiring) for a specific need that any woman (or any true woman) can fill. A woman likewise could be said to be shopping or seeking a specific employer in this model, one with the benefits and pay she hopes to attain. In the traditional model, the man brings pay and benefits; the woman fills a domestic role, bringing youth, beauty, fertility, nurturing skills, child rearing, cooking, good genetics, etc.

In George Eliot’s book Middlemarch, the marriage of Dr. Lydgate to Rosamond Vincy illustrates one problem of an economic model of marriage in which each spouse is solely responsible for one purview (domestic or financial). Dr. Lydgate marries Rosamond Vincy because she is beautiful and clever, but when her extravagant taste is too much for his meager income, she regrets marrying him, and he becomes miserable. When he tries to explain the need to curb spending, she looks bewildered as the earning is not her purview, but his, and what has it to do with her? It was her responsibility to make the domestic decisions, including purchases for the home. It was his to provide financial support. If she were to scrimp on purchases for the home, she would be falling short in her sole duty, to create a pleasing home.

“Poor Lydgate! or shall I say, Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing”

The problem is that people my age or younger (and I’m not young) don’t generally have economic marriages because reducing marriage to interchangeable parts dependent on one another isn’t ideal. Within Mormonism, the economic model of marriage is further exacerbated by restricting priesthood to men (also by gerontocracy–most Church leaders are from the generation of economic marriages). An unmarried woman (or a woman of color prior to 1978) has no access to priesthood in the home. Only through marriage to a Church-worthy man can a woman access priesthood.

This is a way to raise the stakes on the economic model of marriage in the Church. A friend of mine told me that if her husband left the Church, she didn’t think she could stay married to him. I don’t really believe her claim, but it is evidence of an economic view of marriage. Marriage is her ticket to access to priesthood. Dereliction of priesthood worthiness could be seen as grounds to dissolve the union. Likewise by this reckoning it would fair to divorce a women for infertility (particularly since the Church continually insists on making motherhood the equivalent of Priesthood – a nod to the economics of marriage in the Church.) But it also means that we don’t value the individual so much as what we get from them: any opposite sex partner will do. Even one in horsehead pajamas.

The problem with free market marriage is the same problem with unregulated markets in general; it favors the lucky. Those for whom it works assume that the system is fine and blame those for whom the system has not worked. They believe they deserve their happiness and good fortune, so conversely, those who don’t have good fortune also deserve their bad outcomes.

Friedan’s view in the debate (and in life) was that we needed to free women from the wife as employee model by granting women the means to financially support themselves through paid work. She was a proponent of government-subsidized childcare for families, among other things to even the playing field for working women. Shlafly demurred, saying women should not look to the government for help, leaving women with one option: keeping their meal-ticket husbands happy enough to support them financially and if there were children, being wealthy enough to hire a nanny.

So what do you think?

  • Have you watched the show Mrs. America? What were your impressions?
  • Do you remember the Church’s opposition to the ERA? Did you agree with it? Have your views changed?
  • Do you strive for an egalitarian or complementarian marriage?
  • Do you remember the Kimball statement? Did it have an effect on you? Do you agree or disagree with the idea that any two people can make a marriage work if they work hard enough?
  • Is male-only priesthood part of the economics of marriage in the Church in your opinion? Why or why not? What are the risks and benefits of this system?