The Empire of Housewifery: Phyllis Schlafly, Martha Stewart, and Pilar Primo de Rivera

Do you have time today for a three-question, multiple-choice quiz?  Here goes:

Martha Stewart is:

  • a) an entrepreneur
  • b) an extremely successful businesswoman with her own line of home décor products and multimedia publications
  • c) a former Wall Street trader
  • d) a and b
  • e) b and c
  • f) all of the above
  1. Phyllis Schlafly was:
  • a) a lawyer
  • b) an expert in political science
  • c) the author of over 20 books
  • d) a wife and mother of six children
  • e) a political icon of the mid-20th century
  • f) all of the above
  1. Pilar Primo de Rivera was:
  • a) the head of Spain’s Sección Femenina
  • b) the daughter of a Spanish dictator and the sister of a right-wing Spanish leader celebrated by Francisco Franco
  • c) a single woman who traveled the world as part of the Sección Femenina
  • d) the longest serving delegate in the history of Spain’s government
  • e) a politician who insisted on the traditional family as the cornerstone of Spanish cultural and political life
  • f) all of the above

If you answered “all of the above” for all of the above, you are right!

Do you notice anything that doesn’t seem to add up, any hypocrisies?  If not, then read on.  (And, if so, you may as well read on anyway, just for the heck of it.)

As most of us know, Martha Stewart has worked in many business sectors and has enjoyed great success, despite the jail sentence she served for insider trading back in the early 2000s.  Her mega-business was predicated on women staying in the home, purchasing home products, and beautifying the private space occupied with family.  The more creative the home Halloween design, the better.  The more intricate the weekend dinner for neighborhood friends, the better.  The message?  It’s up to you, housewife of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, to make that homey place perfect for all of your people.

Have you picked up on the hypocrisy yet?  No?  Well, then read on.

Fewer people might know Phyllis Schlafly, who died just last week (see the lengthy New York Times obituary here).  Ms. Schlafly, extremely influential anti-feminist icon of the mid- to late-20th century, was extremely active—earning advanced degrees, writing over 20 books, raising six children, and advocating for “traditional” family models in which women stay at home and play only supporting roles.

Are we there yet?  I think so, but let’s go on to one more example.

Pilar Primo de Rivera, legendary head of the right-wing Feminine (or Women’s) Section (Sección Femenina) of the Spanish Phalanx (Falange), spent her life in politics, serving for 43 years as a Spanish delegate, traveling the world, and advocating for women’s supportive role in the home (see Professor Jessica Davidson’s excellent piece on Primo de Rivera here; see also Julia Hudson-Richards’ article, titled “‘Women Want to Work’: Shifting Ideologies of Women’s Work in Franco’s Spain, 1939-1962,” in the Journal of Women’s History, volume 27, no. 2 (2015), pp. 87-109).  Primo de Rivera never married or had children, but she fomented popular belief in and practice of the Falange’s 18 Points for Women of the Falange.  These include “Obey, and through your example, teach others to obey,” “Do not seek to have your personality stand out; endeavor to have another’s (masculine form, “otro”) stand out,” and “Action no longer corresponds to you” [or “Don’t try to be active”].

Okay, whew, I think we’ve arrived:

In Spanish, a woman who operates out in the world, who is visible and active, is sometimes called a “public woman” (“mujer pública”).  This term, certainly in Spanish but I think also in English, is also often linked to prostitution or sex work.  It therefore manifests a moral judgment about public women and entrenches the cultural dichotomy between the private woman (pure Madonna) and public woman (corrupt Eve).

Lessons about gender shrapnel tell us (through a number of researchers’ excellent work; see, for example, Jeanine Silveira Stewart’s “Mothering Out of Place,” Linda Hirshman’s Get to Work, and several articles by Peter Glick and Susan T. Fiske, all cited in Chapter 4 of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace) that many people in the world can accept a woman “out of place,” that is, in the public space, as long as that woman is advocating for other women to stay “in their place,” in private.  This is exactly what Martha Stewart, Phyllis Schlafly, and Pilar Primo de Rivera did.  They pursued advanced degrees, moved freely through national and international spaces, wrote books, weighed in on business or public policy, all the while preaching for a stable domesticity that would ensure women’s financial, cultural, and political subordination to men.  Their platform—the empire of housewifery—encompasses a “do what I say, not what I do” approach that somehow has successfully hoodwinked many men and women who are not hip to the hypocrisy.  This strikes me as both hilarious (How are people played like that?) and deeply revealing of the stealth with which cultural gender impositions function.

I prefer my anti-feminists to be full-out anti-feminists, eschewing hypocrisy between their public platforms and personal and professional decisions.  As for the feminists, we can always look to 17th-century genius, writer, and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who, even through the dangerous fires of Inquisition, signaled gender hypocrisies and tried to undo them. Check out her famous poem “Hombres necios” (in Spanish and/or in English) for your Monday poetry pleasure.


2 thoughts on “The Empire of Housewifery: Phyllis Schlafly, Martha Stewart, and Pilar Primo de Rivera”

  1. You are absolutely right and thanks for pointing out the hypocrisies here. I also prefer sor Juana and we read hombres necios in class although I feel bad for the guys when we do;)
    In your opinion, why did these 3 women believe this way when they were so obviously very intelligent and independent?


    1. Hi, Pam. Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment and question. I think having the women and men students read Sor Juana is a great exercise. It has them all reading against the notion that male-authored literature is universal (I’m thinking about all of the lessons about women’s obedience in El Conde Lucanor, for example, an opportunity to talk about gender scripts and norms ). In any case, your question is interesting, and I guess I would say that we sometimes have trouble discarding entrenched ideologies, especially when we ourselves accede to and enjoy privilege. That is likely the case for Stewart, Schlafly, and Primo de Rivera. They enjoyed privilege, in a sense, by telling a whole group that they shouldn’t enjoy that self-same privilege.


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