Most of the graduating seniors at Washington University in St. Louis weren't even born when Phyllis Schlafly led the successful campaign in the 1970s to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment. But they will get to learn about her at commencement ceremonies next week when the university awards her a doctorate of humane letters.
Some at the university find the choice offensive, given Schlafly's career. She turned her opposition to the ERA into a national organization called the Eagle Forum through which she has campaigned against gender bias laws, Title IX, the teaching of evolution, and immigration reforms designed to expand the pool of foreign scientific talent allowed into the United States.
Schlafly continues to write columns in print and online, and to speak on college campuses nationwide -- frequently setting off controversy with her open call for legal distinctions between the rights of men and women. At Bates College last year, for example, Schlafly called for bans on women holding the positions of firefighter, soldier and construction worker and argued that a woman cannot be raped by her husband. "By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape," she said, according to an article in The Sun Journal.
The announcement last week from Washington University about the honor doesn't feature the controversy about Schlafly, but notes that she has two earned degrees from the university (undergraduate and law) and calls Schlafly a "national leader of the conservative movement," a "prolific writer," and "a motivator and organizer of grassroots activism."
While critics of the decision to award the honor to Schlafly noted that the announcement came at a time that students and professors were busy with the end of the semester, some reaction has been immediate. Students set up a Facebook group called "No honorary doctorate for anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly" that features links to information about her, as well as a link to a Northwestern University announcement that it was uninviting Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Sen. Barack Obama, to attend graduation ceremonies this year and to receive an honorary doctorate.
Northwestern said that it didn't want controversy to interfere with the "celebratory character" of commencement. "If Northwestern can rescind an offer to maintain the 'the celebratory character' of commencement, can't we do the same?" asked one participant in the Facebook group.
The Facebook group had attracted 745 members as of Sunday afternoon. Several postings suggested that students boycott fund raising drives by the university to protest the honor for Schlafly. The group's information states: "Do her views fit with the future the men and women of Wash U's graduating class see for themselves and their peers? Probably not. Then why honor her with them? Wouldn't having someone like her in the midst of Wash U's female graduates be incongruous at best, offensive at worst?"
Mary Ann Dzuback, director of women's and gender studies at Washington University, and an associate professor of education and history, said that professors were stunned and angered to learn of the planned honor last week. "The university has completely disregarded the concerns about anybody who cares about full and equal rights for women, who cares about the intellectual quality of feminist debate, and who cares about women's desire to enter the work force," Dzuback said.
Dzuback stressed that she would not object to Schlafly being invited to lecture at the university, and that she would defend such an invitation -- just as people with a range of views are regularly invited to appear. But she noted that Schlafly "isn't coming her to speak," but to "be honored." Added Dzuback: "This tells the world that this administration thinks so highly of the honoree that they give her the highest degrees the university can give, the highest degree of respect. And that is deeply troubling."
No one is suggesting that honorary degree recipients must be politically popular, Dzuback said. "We may have political disagreement" with some past recipients, but Schlafly is different in that she has argued for very specific policies that would limit the right of women generally and Washington University graduates specifically to hold some positions. "This is a woman who has spent her whole career arguing against full rights for women," she said.
Washington University released a statement Sunday in which it said that honorary degrees require a unanimous vote of the Board of Trustees and are nominated by the unanimous vote of a board committee that is led by a trustee but that also includes students and faculty members. The statement noted that past honorees have reflected a wide range of political views, and that the university has honored civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond; political and government leaders such as Madeleine Albright, John Major, Patricia Schroeder, John C. Danforth, Paul Simon and Richard Gephardt, and many others.
"Over the years, Washington University, like many universities across the nation, has chosen to grant honorary degrees to noted individuals from around the world, as well as those alumni and members of the university community who have become a part of the broad public discourse on vital issues of the times -- whether or not the majority of those within its community agree with the views expressed by those individuals," said the statement. It added that, given the diversity of views at a university, "it would be impossible to make a selection with which everyone would agree."
As to the controversy over one of this year's selections, the statement said the following: "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."