Phyllis Schlafly, in the spring of 1973, squared off in debate at Illinois State University against archfeminist Betty Friedan. The subject was the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, at the time just a few states short of ratification. Those were the years when feminists went out of their way to look bad: frumpy clothes; no makeup; unkempt. An angry Friedan fit the stereotype that day as she denounced her opponent as “a traitor to our sex, an Aunt Tom,” adding, “I’d like to burn you at the stake!”
Looking quite nice in her sweater, skirt, and stylish hairdo, the wife of Fred Schlafly replied that she stood for the most important of a woman’s rights: “the right to keep her own baby and to be supported and protected in the enjoyment of watching her baby grow and develop.” The “women libbers,” she continued, failed to understand that “most women want to be a wife, mother, and homemaker—and are happy in that role.”
On September 5, at age 92, Phyllis Schlafly passed from this world. The most successful social or pro-family conservative of the last 50 years, she counted early experiences that hardly predicted her later family politics: daughter of a working mother; winner of a full college scholarship; ammunition tester at a wartime machine-gun plant; a Phi Beta Kappa key; graduate study at Radcliffe and Harvard leading to a M.A. in political science; a law degree; and a fascination with nuclear weapons and strategy. More than compensating for these adventures were birth into a rare (for the time) Republican Catholic family, a strong classical education at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, a first job at the American Enterprise Association (later Institute), and a marriage at age 24 (after a model literary courtship) to Fred, an older, devout, politically conservative Catholic lawyer.
Alas, most social conservatives of her era have known only failure, from the normalization of birth control to the legalization of sodomy and same-sex marriage. Schlafly, alone, could claim success. Heavily focused during the 1960’s on defense policy (e.g., “Nuclear weapons are the best friends we’ve got”), Schlafly came late to the issue of women’s rights. It was only in 1972 that she wrote her first essay on feminism and the ERA. By then, the momentum in its favor seemed overwhelming: passage in the House, 354 to 23; in the Senate, 84 to 8; and rapid ratification by 35 states. Only five states—including, oddly, Illinois—had turned it down. The whole political class—Republican leaders even more so than Democrats—was behind it. So were the leading celebrities of the day: Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Phil Donahue, and so on. Meeting with a few dozen other women in July 1972 at an O’Hare airport motel, Schlafly launched Stop ERA. Thousands of young mothers rallied to the banner: Catholics from Illinois; Lutherans from Missouri; Southern Baptists from the Cotton Belt; and Mormons from the West.
Armed with apple pies delivered to bewildered state legislators, carrying signs that read “Send the Libbers to Siberia. We’ll Stay Home and Keep the Beds Warm,” and mobilizing teenage daughters with “Please Don’t Draft Me” buttons, Phyllis’s “Eagles” stopped, and then reversed, the momentum. By 1979, the ERA was effectively dead. So it has remained, even in the Age of Obama: a feminist Dracula with a silver stake in its heart. At the same time, Schlafly cajoled and moved millions of disaffected old Democrats into the not exactly welcoming GOP tent. Most still remain there, despite being treated by party bosses as idiot children best confined to the canvas attic.
In the whole history of the Republic, nothing quite like this had, or has, occurred. Phyllis Schlafly was both the necessary and sufficient cause of these extraordinary events.
In his splendid biography Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade, Donald Critchlow makes a key observation about her legacy. Conventional histories of modern American conservatism go like this: A few intellectuals—Hayek, Kirk, Weaver, Nisbet, and Buckley—raised alarms in the immediate postwar years; conservative foundations—Olin, Scaife, etc.—arose; they, in turn, created a network of think tanks, which produced the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and culminated in Reagan’s 1980 triumph.
Critchlow criticizes this narrative for almost completely ignoring the grassroots populist conservatism represented by Fred and Phyllis Schlafly. They were both disciples of the Old Right—readers of Henry Hazlitt and John T. Flynn; Fred, a youthful supporter of the pre-war America First Committee; both friends of the John Birch Society (albeit with a falling-out in the late 1960’s); allies of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade; admirers of John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason. In these ways they combined (in Critchlow’s words) “a libertarian espousal of the virtues of small government and individual responsibility” with “a faith in traditional values and divine moral authority.” This intellectual and political conflation, not the “fusionist” musings of New Yorkers at National Review, was the true source of the Conservative Revolution. The Schlaflys were at the center of it.
In her final book, published by Regnery the day after her death, Phyllis joins two others to make The Conservative Case for Trump. She writes, “The stakes are unmistakably high. I know that some well-meaning conservatives find Trump puzzling or even offensive, but I trust that this book—the culmination, for me, of more than seventy years of active involvement in Republican politics—might help sway them.” It appears to be a fitting—and un surprising—farewell.
Phyllis Schlafly is survived by six children, 16 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. May she rest in peace.