Phyllis Schlafly, the 92-year-old founder of the Eagle Forum who died on Monday evening, is best known for her grassroots movement that prevented ratification of the equal rights amendment in the 1970s. But conservative women say that it would be a mistake to think of her as solely involved or interested in countering the feminist agenda.
They credit her reach as spreading far beyond that, to empowering women in the conservative movement, many of whom now lead their own national women’s groups whose areas of focus have broadened to include “free markets”, “personal liberty”, and “family values”.
“It wasn’t a women’s-only cause that she led,” explained Lil Tuttle, the policy director at the conservative Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute. “It was a conservative cause.”
“She encouraged us to speak out and speak boldly,” Tuttle added. “She was a uniter in a lot of ways.”
Tuttle’s organization works to “prepare young women for conservative leadership” and promote conservative leaders. Its board members include Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, and Marji Ross, the president of the conservative Regnery publishing house. Its speakers bureau includes Bay Buchanan, the sister of conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan who, with Schlafly, forced the Republican party’s anti-abortion platform to eliminate all references to exceptions in 1996; and Lila Rose, the founder of Live Action who, with conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe, participated in a series of stings against Planned Parenthood clinics.
“Perhaps it is part of her legacy that conservative women found their voice,” mused Tuttle. “She certainly promoted activism.”
Schlafly got her start in politics writing about and campaigning for conservative candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964 because of her interest in opposing communism, and gained renown when she turned a grassroots movement of conservative women – many of whom were stay-at-home mothers with little prior political activism – into a force that could not only credibly counter but defeat the ratification of the equal rights amendment.
The ERA, which at one point had been part of both the Republican and Democratic party platforms and the culmination of decades of work by women’s rights campaigners, was just three states shy of ratification when Schlafly began her campaign against it in 1972. Galvanized by the US supreme court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion in Roe v Wade, Schlafly and her volunteers began knocking on doors and delivering homemade baked goods to state legislators, claiming that a 54-word amendment to the US constitution guaranteeing women equal rights would force women out of the home and into the workplace, add them to the ranks of military draftees and combat veterans, institute universal unisex bathrooms and force everyone to perform same-sex marriages, among other then terrifying visions of the future.
Schlafly won, defeating the ERA, but lived to see the US supreme court legalize same-sex marriage, the US military accept women in combat roles, Congress poised to require women to register for the selective service, and even the issue of same-sex bathrooms – the subject of her last published column – come to the fore. Nearly 60% of adult women now work outside the home, comprising 47% of the overall US workforce, and equal pay remains the top issue for working women, Americans tell pollsters.
And though by the time Schlafly gained political prominence there were individual Republican women who had been elected to national office, her anti-ERA efforts led to the founding of the Eagle Forum in 1975, an influential conservative organization with active state chapters often led by women.
Charlotte Hays, who serves as the cultural director of the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum, acknowledged with an appreciative laugh that Schlafly “drove the feminists crazy”.
But she agreed that Schlafly’s legacy expands far beyond that.
“She was involved in every movement of the Reagan years”, and not just opposing the issues championed by feminists.
“She was just absolutely indomitable, absolutely essential,” said Hays.
The Independent Women’s Forum focuses on the issues of “free markets and personal liberty” and counted Trump campaign manager Conway among its board members until she recently took a leave of absence, and Lynne Cheney, the wife of the former vice-president, among its board directors emeritae.
In an interview with NPR, Penny Young Nance, the president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, credited Schlafly with her own organization’s success.
“I stand today on her shoulders in that I have a national platform to speak about the life issue and conservative issues,” she said.
The CWA considers itself one of the frontline organizations in America’s ongoing culture war, promising to “bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy” by focusing on issues of “the family, the sanctity of human life, religious liberty, education, sexual exploitation, national sovereignty, and support for Israel”.