By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
Suzanne Venker is the niece of Phyllis Schlafly — and her intellectual heir. Schlafly, the activist, author and ideological grandmother to such conservative voices as Ann Coulter and Michele Bachmann, not only endorses Venker's ideas, but also cowrote Venker's latest book.
Venker, a feisty 43-year-old who squeezes in writing between naps and piano lessons, lives in suburban St. Louis with her two preteen kids — a boy and girl, naturally, with blond hair and fairly perfect manners — and her husband, who supports the whole clan by selling chemical manufacturing. Her provocative book titles serve as a battle cry: 7 Myths of Working Mothers: Why Children and (Most) Careers Just Don't Mix came out in 2004, and The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know — and Men Can't Say was just released.
What conservative women know, according to Venker, is that feminism is "bunk."
"Feminism is based on the notion that women are victims," Venker says. Sitting by a sunny window at a Saint Louis Bread Co. in Kirkwood, she wears capri pants and wedge sandals that reveal her pedicure and speaks with an energy that hints of her past life as a fitness instructor. Her short blond hair is stylish but no-nonsense.
"Feminism was perpetuated by miserable women," she continues. "They preach to women that they're under the patriarchy: 'Never depend on a man for money; never take their name.' You cannot empower anyone, male or female, by telling them they're a victim."
In Flipside, Venker writes that children are best served by having a parent at home, and because women have a biological imperative toward nurturing, they should be the ones doing it. She also argues that there's been no systemic discrimination against women — that any suggestion thereof was fabricated by liberal extremist women who want to silence and disenfranchise men.
"To suggest a social scheme to keep women down is a farce, the biggest con game of the last 50 years," she says. "Men and women aren't equal." She adds, "Of course we're equal in worth. How do we go forward accepting the unique roles we bring to marriage and family? The value is equal, though the roles may be different. It's a biological thing."
The idea that women belong at home in the kitchen, thrilled by every move the children make, might seem, well, a little retro.
But Venker is part of a chorus of women calling for a return to "traditional" values — women who are bright, college-educated, modern and capable, who argue that men belong in the rat race and women belong at home, raising the next generation of breadwinners and stay-at-home moms.
"Progressives just want to paint conservatives as a throwback," she says. "A conservative world-view wants to save, conserve, keep these things that we know work and not mess with it. That's not the same as not wanting to go forward. Progressives are so hell-bent on change for change's sake.
"People say I just want to bring it back to the '50s," she adds. "Do I look like I represent the '50s?"
Suzanne Venker and her husband, Bill, are in the midst of selling their home in Kirkwood, planning to move closer to both better schools and Suzanne's mother, so any visit has to be carefully timed around showing the house. The comfortable, modest home is immaculate, but Venker insists it's not because she's some kind of Stepford wife automaton — it's because you can only sell a clean house. And even though the rugs are freshly vacuumed and Venker herself is in stocking feet, she insists that it's not necessary for visitors to take off their shoes upon entering.
The front yard is lovely, but the scene inside is downright idyllic. Family photos line the walls. On the dining room table, a Phalaenopsis orchid is in full bloom, and fish drift around an aquarium on the sideboard. In the kitchen, chicken is thawing on the counter next to fingerling potatoes, carrots with the greenery still attached and a bottle of red wine. The family is preparing for a dinner visit from Suzanne's mother-in-law.
The couches in the living room face each other, and bookshelves — not a television — are the focal point. Conservative favorites, including the 2003 polemic Day Care Deception: What the Child Care Establishment Isn't Telling Us, line the shelves. The piano in the living room gets plenty of use by eleven-year-old Emma, a musician and aspiring writer.
Suzanne's office, off the dining room, is sunny and bright. The office is one place — in addition to coffee shops and anyplace else she can snag a moment — where the magic happens. It's here where she labored over the 226 pages of Flipside and their extensive citations. Like her first book, this one took several years to write; she drafted chapters in bursts of work sandwiched between carpool runs.
WND Books, a subsidiary of WorldNetDaily, is a right-wing outfit that's published birther tomes, screeds against climate change and books claiming to expose the "Muslim Mafia" at work in America. It's also responsible for Flipside, which came out early this spring with an initial run of about 15,000 copies.
Flipside boasts a blurb from none other than Ann Coulter. In a recent review, the Washington Times' Rebecca Hagelin praises it mightily, calling it "witty and fast-reading," which it indisputably is.
Hagelin adds, "The feminist promise that women could be just like men and enjoy everything men typically do — like casual sex, long hours at work, less family time — proved empty.... It turns out — no surprise — that human nature cannot be repealed, overturned by judicial fiat or reshaped by media messages."
Not surprisingly, the book has been excoriated in the feminist press. Feministing.com found it "so divorced from reality, you have to question if it's worth engaging at all...feminism gets simultaneously blamed for everything and credit for nothing."
The writer adds, "If Schlafly and Venker really believe that the future of civilization depends on mothers staying home to raise their kids, they would spend less time shaming women who choose not to be full-time mothers and more time working to ensure that all parents actually have that choice."
"Feminists think I'm the devil," Venker shrugs. "Traditionalists — non-feminists — are very grateful. I feel like I'm speaking for the underdog." She believes that, with the ideological chasm between the right and left as deep as it has ever been, the moment is ripe for a book like hers.
"The reason there are not more women CEOs or women in government is because they are all-consuming jobs," she adds. "Men sacrifice relationships with their children. Women have babies. They have biological urges. That's what the family unit is set up for — a breadwinner and a caregiver."
By going against these tenets, she says, we're upsetting the natural order of things. The consequences are grave. Women feel forced to abandon their children to excel at work, while men have to compete with women to support their families. And woe betide them if they speak out against the women in their midst!
Biology, Venker says, is no social construct. In Flipside, she repeatedly writes that the majority of women actually want to stay home with their children; they just feel compelled to return to work as soon as maternity leave is over because they've been brainwashed by feminists, a complicit media and academics who tells them that raising a family is beneath them.
As for Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the seminal feminist text that convinced many women that the "problem with no name" was a conspiracy by men to keep them down, Venker believes that the reality was that Friedan was a messed-up woman in a messed-up marriage who wanted someone to blame for her own unhappiness.
When society picked up on her twisted message, Venker says, the rest became history — first-, second- and third-wave history. The idea of the oppressive patriarchy caught on and became not just fashionable, but a pernicious given in our society, she says.
And, Venker says, it's bunk. (That's one of her favorite words.)
In Flipside, she ascribes even more sinister motives to feminists.
"Single moms are a major target of the female left," she writes. "The goal is to increase the number of single moms by increasing the flow of taxpayer-paid incentives that subsidize the non-marriage lifestyle."
Suzanne Venker was born in St. Louis to traditional parents. Her mother stayed at home with her and her older sister, and her father, whom she describes an extremely traditional man, supported the family as an accountant for PriceWaterhouse.
The family wasn't particularly religious, but the children attended Villa Duchesne, the west-county academy responsible for educating the daughters of St. Louis' most prominent Catholic families. (Both Stan Musial and a few of the Busches — yes, those Busches — sent their daughters to Villa Duchesne.)
While her aunt, Phyllis Schlafly, was making headlines opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and calling on women to stay at home with their children, Venker wasn't close with her. Still, the family shared a view that women had a responsibility to their families and their children.
After high school, Venker set out for the East Coast. As a student at Boston University in the mid-'80s, she studied to be a teacher. She says she found a campus atmosphere that took feminism as unexamined gospel and did a little squirming in her chair from time to time.
For instance, in a marriage and family class, the name of a certain culture warrior from Alton, Illinois, would be discussed — known to some as something of a dragon lady but to Venker as Aunt Phyllis.
"Her name would come up — invariably it would be disparaging," Venker says.
She's sitting in a different Saint Louis Bread Co. this time, this one in Clayton. She has been conducting business here all morning, iPhone in hand, cramming in as much work as she can before Emma and Henry, eight, need to be picked up from school.
"I could have said, 'She's my aunt, and I have a different take,' but I was young. I remember chuckling and feeling somewhat proud I was part of causing so much ruckus."
She recalls heated discussions with her roommate and friends about their expectations for their adult lives.
"I knew that feminism was a farce all my life," she says. Part of that attitude came from her family, she realizes: "I try to think about contemporaries of mine who didn't have [traditional parents]. If I had a baby-boomer mother, if they had a different position..."
Venker worked outside the home before her kids were born. In that regard, she followed the example of the women in her family: "Phyllis, but really my mother and their mother — my conservative, matriarchal grandmother — everyone had degrees, careers, kids." But not, she's careful to note, at the same time.
Indeed, after Venker had her children, she never considered day care. She was certain that no career outside the home could ever be as important as the one inside it. She even chose what she did — teaching — to allow maximum flexibility and to let her prioritize raising a family.
She's convinced that too many young women fail to plan for motherhood because feminism tells them it's something to be shoehorned in around a career. When the kids actually arrive, young families are in for a shock. And while a hyper-material culture has convinced families that they need two incomes, simple arithmetic takes the wind out of that argument, she says. A second income is mainly gobbled up in child-care and the incidental costs of working anyway.
But even outside the context of motherhood, feminism is a lie.
"Feminists only want the victims in the spotlight," Venker says. The so-called sisterhood, she sniffs, is "empowering for weak people. It's not going to get you forward. It's just banding together and yapping."
Indeed, she says, American women have the easiest, most spoiled existence of any human society ever to walk the earth. There is very little to complain about — thanks to men.
"Women do not owe feminists for their opportunities," she says. "They owe men. It is men who have developed the technology to allow women to pursue other opportunities. All these things we take for granted have freed us to ruminate on our place in the world and have careers. Technology and the Pill came about before the feminist movement — they were made by men. They are the most obvious reasons women have the cushy lives they have today. So how could they be the oppressors?"
Venker says she'd never deny that there are sexists and misogynists out there, but she's convinced they are rare.
"There are all kinds of ways people will dismiss you because of who you are. There are cads, but it's not like you have to sift through them. Sexism happens. There's all kinds of buttheads in the world. There's a more empowering way to face up to the buttheads of the world."
Many of Venker's claims sound awfully familiar to folks who've been following the debate about working mothers for the last five decades. In fact, aside from words like "butthead," she's often speaking from the same script as her mother's sister — the Eagle Forum's 86-year-old founder, Aunt Phyllis.
"Everything you've learned in college is gearing you toward a career in the labor force," Phyllis Schlafly tells Riverfront Times. "There isn't any space for men, marriage or children in the way you've got your life planned. Many young women find they'd really like to get married or have children after all."
It's worth noting that Schlafly herself started a political think tank, ran for office and earned a law degree — and raised six kids. She's said that it was all in the timing; when her children were home, so was she. She might have been a major public figure in the '60s culture wars, but she was Mom first.
"It's a dogma of the feminist movement that there really isn't any difference between men and women, that the differences you think you see are a social construct. The book is a very strong bid to change the conversation and to tell young people what they've been hearing is wrong and not helpful," Schlafly says.
Schlafly and Venker aren't all that close even today. Schlafly says that she and Venker are busy with their own lives. They mainly keep in touch over e-mail. But they're definitely on the same page philosophically.
"Look at the feminists," says Schlafly. "Most of them are unhappy."
As long as there have been feminists, of course, there have been anti-feminists: Even as feminists have argued that women should have the right to choose a life outside the home, anti-feminists have struck back, saying that choice is the downfall of civilization. And though it might be tempting to anyone dreaming of "sisterhood" to think of women as feminists and men as their opponents in this discussion, that's simply not the case: For every Betty Friedan, there's been a Phyllis Schlafly.
When it comes to individual women and their choices, it's even more complicated. Plenty of liberal women—feminists, even—are torn on what's best. In 2003, Lisa Belkin wrote an endlessly discussed (and blogged about) article for the New York Times Magazine, "The Opt-Out Revolution." In it, Belkin explored the phenomenon of highly educated and formerly career-focused women who drop out of the rat race to stay home with their children.
''This is what I was meant to do,'' one stay-at-home mom was quoted as saying in Belkin's article. "I hate to say that because it sounds like I could have skipped college. But I mean this is what I was meant to do at this time. I know that's very un-PC, but I like life's rhythms when I'm nurturing a child."
Belkin found plenty of others — physicians, attorneys, women with MBAs — who were giving it all up to focus on parenthood.
But as discomfiting as some feminists find the trend, there's still a big difference between the women profiled by Belkin and what Venker is advocating. Indeed, the women stressed to Belkin that it was their choice to opt out, not a cultural directive.
Feminist scholars, not surprisingly, mock Schlafly and Venker's assertion that motherhood is a woman's only path to happiness as backward and simplistic. In fact, Dr. Linda Nicholson, a professor of history and women's studies at Washington University, goes a step further, calling Venker's ideas "shameful."
Venker is "making a mistake that a lot of people from her political vantage point make," Nicholson says. After all, the "traditional" nuclear family and the gendered division of labor that Venker and her ilk praise is actually quite new, arising only after the economic boom following World War II: "If we really wanted a traditional family structure, we should reorganize ourselves into tribes."
Women tying themselves to their homes is a societal disaster, Nicholson says. Domestic violence goes up when women depend on men for money, because they can't leave, and men know it, she says. Women staying home also deprives society of women's "unending" contributions.
"You can't have a highly productive work force and say that half your population should not be in it," Nicholson says.
As for the idea that women are biologically programmed to nurture, Nicholson says it's so crude as to be laughable. "As any biologist will tell you, there is no gene for any specific type of behavior — certainly not a complex one like staying home with children. We're built to be adaptive! History abounds with examples of women working, women doing provider work, of men doing child-care."
She agrees with Venker that society doesn't value the work of motherhood. But to pin that on feminists misses the boat. "Feminists today don't trounce on women who stay home. It is the larger culture that does this," she says. "It's feminists who've pointed out the undervaluing of women's labor."
As the mother of two preteen girls, Sharon Dunski Vermont is quick to admit that she has been lucky in arranging her life. Vermont describes herself as a part-time pediatrician, part-time writer and full-time mom. She writes from home and sees patients a few days a week. Mostly, she's home when her girls are home.
Her husband is also a pediatrician with a fair bit of flexibility himself, but it is Vermont who handles the bulk of the work of running the household. And that's OK, she says.
There's no one-size-fits-all answer, after all.
"Before I had kids, I always said I'd work full-time and put my kids in day care. Then I had my first child!" she says. Even as a pediatrician who routinely counseled new and expecting moms, she was broadsided by the love she felt for her daughter.
"I went from being full-time to working part-time. Then I had my second child, and I decided I was going to quit working. That lasted a few weeks."
Vermont was caught between two urges: to be a mother and to be in the office, seeing patients and using her brain. She was fortunate to be able to afford child-care and to have help from her own mother, who was close by.
"I don't believe it's healthy for a child to be home with her parents 24/7," she says. "They need to make friends and learn social skills, learn to trust other adults. If you're home with your kids all day long and not having adult conversations and not using your brain, it's not healthy, either."
Nicholson says Venker's message is ugly and intolerant, serving only to demonize women who don't make the same choices she does.
"Are you going to tell your daughter who wants to be a doctor that she, unlike her brother, can't have both?" she wonders.
From a very young age, Suzanne Venker knew what she wanted.
In the intro to Flipside, Venker writes, "I assumed motherhood and marriage would be the center of my life. I always knew I would work outside the home, but I never expected my career to become my life."
Venker had these values in place when, in college, she met the man she would marry — and then divorce.
Her ex-husband has moved on and has a wife and kids of his own, and Venker's uninterested in involving him in this story. She never allows bitterness to color the discussion of her divorce, though it's clearly a sore point. In the intro to Flipside, she writes, "I even struggled with my boyfriend (who would become my husband — and then, duh, ex-husband), who I mistakenly thought shared my values.... I didn't realize people could vote Republican and still be liberal. Today, this is obvious to me."
"Our biggest problem was geography," she says today.
That's simplifying the story a bit.
She married for the first time at 23, after the pair bonded working on the campaign for George H.W. Bush and overlooked their differing sexual résumés — he thought her inexperience was "cute," and she figured his past was, well, past.
Her husband also wasn't prepared to leave behind the life they shared in New York City.
"I wanted a slower-paced life. I wanted to be near my parents," she says. Her husband didn't.
And that, too, was part of her dream of motherhood: Venker knew she'd need to lean on her parents to help her raise the kids she wanted to have. Ultimately, when she and her husband couldn't come to a compromise, they divorced without having any children. Venker returned to St. Louis at 27, taught school and licked her wounds.
Meanwhile, Bill Venker had given up on ever finding the smart, conservative woman he knew he needed to start a family with.
A tall, bearish man of 47, he sits on the family couch in a Mizzou sweatshirt and shorts, trying to keep young Henry from wriggling entirely off the couch during boring grown-up talk. He and Suzanne routinely talk over each other, but it's polite and respectful, with Bill often ceding to Suzanne — but not always.
Luckily for Henry, a friend arrives before too long to break up the conversation. His pal gets a high-five from "Mrs. Venker," and the pair head into the den for their allotted half-hour of screen time in front of the family Wii.
The youngest of six kids, Bill Venker is a child of divorce. His father moved out when he was nine years old, and his parents finalized their divorce when he was eleven. Though they had extremely traditional roles, Bill says it was always clear to him that his parents' division of labor, though distinct, was fair.
"There's a lot of mythology about men who don't respect what women do," he says. "Even though they were divorced, you could see that my father had tremendous respect for my mother and the work she did."
He, too, was disturbed by the climate he found on campus in the '80s.
"You had a whole cultural shift," he says. "There was a lot of talk about women's roles and men's roles. My thinking was whomever was making more money should work. Ultimately, it should be the woman at home, but if she's making more money, and he's amenable, more power to him."
Around the same time Suzanne ended her marriage and returned to St. Louis, Bill had recently ended a relationship with a woman who had a seven-year-old kid. He had broken down crying, considering giving up on ever having a family of his own. (As the conversation among the adults continues, Emma gets up and moves to the kitchen, returning wordlessly with a plate of Girl Scout cookies to share.)
Family was always high on his list of priorities, Bill says. He studied poetry in college and wanted to be a professor. He shelved that dream, he says, when the very real and rhymeless reality of supporting a family occurred to him: "I realized I wasn't a genius who was going to make all kinds of money." His poetic endeavors now extend mostly to helping Emma with her verse.
Not too long after the devastating breakup when he almost gave up his dream of a family, he and some friends went to the Cheshire Inn on Clayton Road for a few beers after a wedding. In talking with the bartender about their high school days, Bill caught the ear of a cute blonde sitting nearby.
After last call, Bill didn't quite realize how pervy it sounded to ask her if she wanted to "go to Uncle Bill's" with him. She declined. After all, she'd been away from St. Louis for ten years and didn't realize he just wanted some pancakes to sop up a bit of the beer.
Yet six months later he slipped a diamond ring into a glass of white wine, and Suzanne soon became Mrs. Venker.
Emma was born when Suzanne Venker was 32, and Henry came three years later. Suzanne hasn't worked outside the home since.
"When your real life happens," she says, and make no mistake, by this she means marriage and motherhood, not career success or another kind of fulfillment — "your life is going to completely change. Your perspective on your life and your future all change when you have a baby."
That was true for Bill as well, who often compares having children to putting on a new pair of glasses and finally seeing clearly. He's well aware that he sacrificed his poetic aspirations to be a dad — and to him, it's worth every unpublished stanza.
He's also aware of how much time with Emma and Henry he gives up to be the breadwinner, even though he's based mostly at home.
He knows he could advance further in his company and make more money if he were willing to relocate, but he believes the cost of moving away from their extended family and home would outweigh any extra income.
"Conservatives are much more concerned with the basics of life: family, religion, education," he says.
True to the message she's preaching about women's work, Suzanne Venker isn't out to get famous. When Flipside first came out, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to knock out a few television appearances — but only after Bill rearranged his work schedule to make sure there were no gaps in child-care. She does some radio from home when she can fit it in. She did even less promotion when 7 Myths came out because the kids were much younger then.
"My job as a mother is how I define myself, and being a writer/pundit is something I do on the side," she says. "The role ebbs and flows as my children grow. In another ten years, I suspect my presence will be greater — it's already greater now than when my kids were little. My only plan as of now is to continue writing books and articles, and to the degree that I need to appear on radio and TV to sell my work, I will. I'd like to speak way more often than I do, but I'm in mom mode, so that'll have to wait."
While she's a willing warrior in culture clashes, it's much more important to her to focus on her family. Proclaiming her gospel is critical work, but she'll only do it between hockey practices.
That said, some things about Venker would likely surprise you.
She's not all that religious. Bill is Catholic, and they're raising the kids that way, but she hasn't converted and probably never will. "I'm not a devout Christian," she says. "I've been to a thousand Masses in my life, but I've never gotten up and taken Communion."
She is also not particularly strident on the hot-button social issues.
"I think people would be surprised about my neutrality," she says. "I don't take a hard line on premarital sex. It's absurd to think a grown woman won't have sex. It's called being responsible. If you're responsible, loving and committed, sex has its proper place — and it's fantastic!"
Don't expect her to tackle gay marriage or abortion in a book any time soon, either. She has an opinion, sure, but those aren't her focus.
It's these contradictions, perhaps, that make Suzanne Venker such a likeable woman, regardless of whether you agree with her politics. Her persona in her books is that of a firebrand, sure, but in real life, she's a warm, approachable person. She's still forming her opinions and ideas on plenty of topics. She lives a life that hews close to her stated ideals, yet she's the first to admit she's faltered.
That's not to say she isn't judging you.
As flexible as her viewpoints are on some cultural issues, for example, when it comes to the so-called Mommy Wars, Suzanne Venker's mind is made up.
"A lot of people will take the opinion that you shouldn't have any opinion about what other people do," she says at the end of a long, discursive chat in the family living room, cuddled up in a chunky cardigan against an unseasonably chilly spring afternoon.
It'd be too easy — and wrong — to call her June Cleaver, to suggest she's just another Suzy Homemaker with a house in the 'burbs and two great kids. Behind the perky smile, she's got Phyllis Schlafly's steely certitude.
"How other people raise their children does affect my family," she insists. "My kids are gonna marry your kids. We're all in it together. This is why we get so involved in the politics of it."