As the leading woman politician today consorts with the rich and famous at glittering locales, let us pause to consider the legacy of Phyllis Schlafly—she of the helmet hairdo, pastel suits, and pearls—who mobilized an army of cookie-baking mothers to step in at the last minute and defeat the all-but-inevitable passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly, who died earlier this week at the age of 92, brought women who had never before participated in the political process into the arena, creating a powerful grassroots movement that became an essential part of what was then dubbed the New Right. With good reason, feminists loathed her.
Indeed, the New York Times obituary for Mrs. Schlafly (that’s Mrs.—she once ordered, “Don’t call me Ms. . . . it means misery”) contains this gem: “On the left, Betty Friedan, the feminist leader and author, compared her to a religious heretic, telling her in a debate that she should burn at the stake for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Ms. Friedan called Mrs. Schlafly an ‘Aunt Tom’.”
Aunt Tom she wasn’t. In a review a decade ago of a Schlafly biography in First Things magazine, aptly headlined “The Great Woman Theory of History,” Charlotte Allen wrote about Schlafly’s “unyielding quality” and of her “resolute refusal to cultivate the intellectual and cultural elites of either coast, [or] even the conservative intellectual and cultural elites who were her natural ideological allies.” She was unyielding until the end. “Phyllis died with her pumps on,” a close friend reported to journalist John Fund.
Unlike Hillary Clinton, a woman who publicly sneered at the idea of staying home and baking cookies, Schlafly positively encouraged her army of homemakers to bake cookies and make jams—and then send them to the lawmakers who would be voting on the ERA. When fifty-three members of Congress reintroduced the ERA in 1983, after she had for all intents and purposes driven a stake through its heart, Schlafly sent them each a quiche. In a nod to the book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, Mrs. Schlafly attached to each gift quiche a note that said, “Real Men Don’t Draft Women.”
She was born Phyllis McAlpin Stewart in 1928 into a devout Catholic family in St. Louis. She attended Catholic schools and went to a Catholic college but, finding it not challenging enough, transferred to Washington University, paying her own way by working at a munitions factory. She went on to earn a master’s degree in government from Radcliffe. When, during debates, she was reminded that she was not a lawyer, and thus commenting above her pay grade, she returned to Washington University and obtained a law degree in 1978. Schlafly’s was a perfect feminist resume, but Phyllis had to go and ruin it all by proclaiming, “Those feminists who think they opened up college for all the women—that’s ridiculous. I didn’t have any trouble competing against all the boys.”
She married Fred Schlafly, fifteen years her senior and a successful lawyer, in 1949. She homeschooled her six children and, after some local business people approached Fred to run for Congress, he adamantly declined. Somebody finally said, “Why not Phyllis?” She lost but went on to provide intellectual ballast for the Barry Goldwater candidacy in 1964 with her book, A Choice, Not an Echo. She was involved in the anti-communist movement and her activism in this area is credited with helping Ronald Reagan become president. But Schlafly’s chief cause was always the family, and it was her strong belief that the ERA would prove inimical to the interests of the family that spurred her to defeat it. She founded the 80,000-strong Eagle Forum, which advocates on issues from a conservative women’s point of view. Just this summer, Mrs. Schlafly was at the GOP convention in Cleveland, lobbying to maintain the party’s strong opposition to abortion.
That we are currently engaged in a debate over whether women should be required to register for the draft, alas, says a lot about which side actually won. Even though Schlafly defeated the ERA, many of the social developments (some would say ills) she saw resulting from its passage happened anyway. It was inevitable that her last hurrah would be staunch support for Donald Trump. She died the day before her book on Trump, written with two colleagues from the Eagle Forum, was to appear.
The conservative women’s movement today is more likely to talk about work/life balance and is mostly led by women who don’t get to bake cookies as often as they might like. But Phyllis Schlafly is a worthy foremother, and, though the battle appears bleak just now, you never know what will happen. Remember what happened with the ERA. Phyllis Schlafly, R.I.P.