It was 1984. Ronald Reagan was running for reelection and Phyllis Schlafly—conservative gadfly, ardent foe of the Equal Rights Amendment, and self-identified “little homemaker”—was presiding over a fashion show at the Republican National Convention in the sweltering heat of a Dallas August. As a giant eagle ice sculpture dripped water off its tail feathers, Mrs. Jack Kemp, Mrs. Trent Lott, and Mrs. Jesse Helms sidled down the runway in furs and jeweled gowns to the cheers of 1,300 Republican women. The announcer then displayed a three-foot pachyderm made of mink, cooing, “For those of you who think you have every kind of elephant.”
A scene like this doesn’t need much help parodying itself. But Schlafly had a little boost from some of her most dedicated “followers”: the Ladies Against Women (LAW). Outside the fashion show, a group of ruffled, frilled, and flounced women (and a few men) in white gloves and pillbox hats passed out a Consciousness-Lowering Manifesto that, as the Washington Post reported, included such action items as “Restore virginity as a high-school graduation requirement” and “Eliminate the gender gap by repealing the Ladies’ Vote (Babies, Not Ballots).” LAW welcomed new recruits, but only if they brought pink permission slips signed by their husbands.
LAW members would continue their genteel hounding two days later outside a prayer breakfast held by President Reagan. They set up an ironing board bearing the slogans “Born to Clean” and “Ban the Poor” and held a bake sale—featuring Twinkies priced at $9 billion each—to help reduce the deficit. “You have to sell a lot of Hostess Twinkies to raise $200 billion,” explained LAW founder Mrs. Chester Cholesterol (a.k.a. Gail Ann Williams), prim in her white hat. She had decorated her pink dress with buttons declaring “I’d Rather Be Ironing” and “Tupperware Preserves the Family.” Bake-sale customers could choose among a Lysol pie, Easy Cheese, Cool Whip, and assorted Hostess products.
Virginia Cholesterol holds a press conference, 1988
These are just some of the instances of ladylike havoc that LAW wreaked upon Republican administrations in the ’80s. The brainchild of a San Francisco theater group called the Plutonium Players, LAW was born when a local progressive radio station recruited the group to publicize a rally; the performers decided to invent a “Rally to Stop the Peace” endorsed by fake organizations such as Reagan for Shah and Mutants for Nuclear Power. After the press began calling Williams with questions about Reagan for Shah, she invented a spokesperson for the group: Virginia Cholesterol, devoted wife
of Chester. The Plutonium Players didn’t stop there.
From its humble beginnings, LAW evolved into both a national network of feminist guerrilla performers and an original stage revue. The group became a visible political force, heckling the Reverend Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority and riling pro-life protestors with signs that read “Sperm Are People, Too.” Other chapters sprang up, like the Southern Ladies Against Women (SLAW) and the Canadian Ladies Against Women (CLAW), sharing the original group’s witty irreverence and over-the-top performance/ lampooning of conservative femininity. Republican women wanted to cling to their pearls and wifely status? LAW would outdo them, claiming that “you’re nobody until you’re Mrs. Somebody.” Schlafly and her ilk opposed the ERA? LAW responded with a campaign for its own ERA—the Equal Restroom Amendment—and launched a campaign to “weed out uppity women” through the establishment of the HULA Committee (the House Committee on Un-Ladylike Activities). Their Ladyfesto moved to abolish the environment because it “takes up too much space, and is almost impossible to keep clean.” And they advocated “procreation, not recreation,” asking, “Where did so many gals get the idea that s_x is supposed to be f_n? It’s time to close your eyes and do your duty!”
An early ’80s sperm-rights advocate at the San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Freedom Day Parade
LAW had a soft spot for Schlafly and her hard-ass überhousewifely ways. With her organization, the Eagle Forum, Schlafly had mounted a successful 10-year battle against the ERA, helped ax attempts to get government funding for abortion in cases of rape or incest, and campaigned against equal pay for equal work. Coupled with her fondness for Nancy Reagan–style red, her hysterical hair, and her self-proclaimed status as the “best-known advocate of the dignity and honor that we as a society owe to the role of full-time homemaker,” these activities made Schlafly LAW’s perfect patron saint. The group even modeled a character after her: Phyllis Le Shaft.
The real Phyllis was not pleased. “They made idiots of themselves,” she told the Associated Press. “Nobody knew what they were trying to say. They dressed up foolishly and behaved in a childish way. If they had a point, no one got it.”
Disgruntled pro-lifers, conservatives, and religious righters—as well as delighted feminists, environmentalists, and other progressives—would beg to differ; to this day, LAW’s influence can be seen in the steal-the-master’s-tools-and-paint-his-house-paisley tactics of such groups as Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), Adbusters, the Barbie Liberation Front, and the Biotic Baking Brigade, among many, many others.
But where is LAW now? They haven’t been too active since the ’80s: There was a CLAW sighting at International Women’s Day 2001 in Winnipeg. LAW appeared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on March 31, 2001, providing entertainment for the League of Women Voters. And a few pictures and a copy of the Ladyfesto are on the web. But it seems that today, more than ever, there oughta be a LAW. What would Virginia Cholesterol and her gal pals say about W.’s plan to scrape single moms off the welfare rolls and into marriage? Or Laura Bush’s newfound love for Afghan women’s rights as a justification for military action? Or her violently ugly handbags? There’s so much to do—burqas to be trimmed with fur, chastity-belt fittings to be arranged for high-schoolers, bake sales to be run for Enron executives. So tie on your aprons, put on those pearls, and get busy, LAW—fixing this mess is definitely a job for a lady.