By Kathy G.

The decision on the part of Washington University, the highly respected research university located in St. Louis, Missouri, to award an honorary degree to the odious Phyllis Schlafly is deeply distressing to me. One reason why is that this story has gotten nowhere near the attention it deserves, either from the mainstream media or from the left blogosphere (although there are a few blogs that, against the grain, have been on the case).

I think part of the problem is that, these days, many people have no idea who Phyllis Schlafly was and is. And, compounding that, a lot of folks don’t understand what awarding an honorary degree means. I will try to correct what I see as those lacunae, or misunderstandings, in this post (which I’ll warn you right here, is exceedingly long).

Let me start by posing a question: how would you feel if a great university decided to bestow its highest award — an honorary doctoral degree — on Ann Coulter? Or on Karl Rove? Well, the reprehensible Schlafly is very much their equivalent, as I’ll explain later.

Washington University has defended its outrageous decision to honor Schlafly with these disgusting weasel words:

Alumna Phyllis Schlafly’s articulation of her perspectives has been a significant part of American life during the last half of the 20th century and now the 21st century, serving as a lightning rod for vigorous debate on difficult issues where differences of opinion are profound and passionate. Not only should a university serve as a place where such discussions take place, but it may also choose to recognize those who provide leadership and articulation — both pro and con — on vital issues.

Well, yes, there can be doubt that Phyllis Schlafly has been a “significant part of American life,” that she has been a “lightning rod,” that she has shown “leadership.” As Alan Wolfe pointed out in a 2005 review of a biography about Schlafly that appeared in The New Republic (but which, unfortunately, is unavailable online, because the TNR archives are still screwed up, as they have been for about a year now):

If political influence consists in transforming this huge and cantankerous country in one’s preferred direction, Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century. . . Had she never been born, the Constitution would now include an Equal Rights Amendment.

I am in complete agreement with Wolfe here — Phyllis Schlafly is indeed probably “one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century.” That is a bitter and painful truth, but a truth nonetheless. Wolfe again:

Critchlow [author of the Schlafly biography Wolfe is reviewing] is right to insist on Schlafly’s influence–but influence is a neutral category. It may be a force for good or a force for ill, depending upon the ideas that animate it. Let it be said of Phyllis Schlafly that every idea she had was scatter-brained, dangerous, and hateful. The more influential she became, the worse off America became.

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