“It has been a semester of turmoil for lesbians and gays at California State University, Long Beach.”
So begins my article, published June 5, 1982 in the national LGBT newsweekly, Gay Community News. By the time students returned to campus in the fall, the women’s center had been shuttered, faculty and staff members had been fired and the women’s studies program had been placed under administrative review.
I had covered the rise of the New Right for over a year, including the “war on homosexuals” enthusiastically waged by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. This was my introduction to the grassroots political guerrilla tactics employed by Phyllis Schlafly.
The trouble began early in the spring semester when a handful of conservative women, including the state president of Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, sat in on women’s studies and psychology courses at the suburban university. One of the women visited the university’s women’s center and was rebuffed when she attempted to place anti-Equal Rights Amendment literature there. Shocked by what they considered a “pro-lesbian” curriculum and “tolerance of homosexuality” in the classroom and in the women’s center, they launched a sustained political attack on the programs.
Conservative state and federal legislators backed the women, putting intense political pressure on the university’s conservative president, Steve Horn. Brushing aside faculty concerns over academic freedom, Horn gave in to the pressure. He later won election to congress as a conservative Republican.
Fight for Freedom
Backed by the ACLU, more than a dozen faculty members and students filed suit against the university. After a nine-year court battle, they ultimately defeated Schlafly and saved the women’s studies program and the women’s center.
While Schlafly’s passing brings media attention to her role as a leading conservative organizer, her attacks on academic freedom were shameful and dangerous. The women’s studies faculty members who stood up to her bullying—Betty Brooks, Denise Wheeler, Sondra Hale, Linda Shaw, Diane Wicker and Sheila Kuehl—paid a heavy price for their courage. Some never attained tenured positions, others were denied fellowships or were passed over for promotions. But today they are rightly remembered as heroes and role models for a younger generation of feminists. (For more on the legal case, read Anti-Feminism in the Academy, published in 1996 by Routledge.)
History professor Sharon Sievers, chair of the women’s studies curriculum committee, who died in 2010, told me she wished Schlafly and members of the Eagle Forum had taken the time to understand the teaching process before demanding that books be banned, centers closed and curricula changed. Almost any book or course may be considered offensive by someone, she said. A teacher’s job is to challenge students to think critically, not to avoid unpopular or uncomfortable ideas.
Ironically, while Schlafly’s group demanded that the university teach “basic American values,” they seemed to forget one of the most fundamental: free speech.