Phyllis Schlafly

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Phyllis Schlafly

Phyllis Schlafly (born 1924) was an American conservative political activist and author, noted for her vocal and well-organized opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.

Phyllis Stewart was born August 15, 1924, in St. Louis, Missouri. She received a mainly Catholic education but transferred from a Catholic college to Washington University in St. Louis in 1942. While there she had a World War II defense job in an arms plant test-firing ammunition. After her graduation in 1944 she went on to Radcliffe, where she received an M.A. in government in 1945. She worked for a year in Washington, D.C., for the American Enterprise Association (now Institute). In 1946 she returned to St. Louis, where she became a research director for two banks and worked in a campaign to return a conservative congressman to office. In 1949 she married Fred Schlafly, a wealthy lawyer from Alton, Illinois, a devout Catholic, and an ultraconservative anti-Communist. The Schlaflys raised six children, four boys and two girls. Phyllis Schlafly received her law degree in 1978 from Washington University.

Political Action

In 1952, during the Korean War, Schlafly made her first unsuccessful run for Congress from the 24th Illinois District in a right-wing conservative, Cold War, and anti-Communist issues campaign against big government and the conduct of the war. Throughout the 1950s she made statewide speeches as a state officer and national defense chairman of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Schlafly self-published two bibliographical pamphlets, A Reading List for Americans (1954) and Inside the Communist Conspiracy (1959). She wrote and spoke for the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, co-founded by her sister and a missionary priest and, in 1971, co-authored Mindszenty the Man with the anti-Communist Hungarian prelate's secretary. She was president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women from 1956 to 1964. In 1963 she was chosen Woman of Achievement by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. A delegate to Republican national conventions beginning in 1956, she went to the 1964 convention pledged to the conservative Senator Barry Goldwater.

In 1964 Schlafly published A Choice Not an Echo, a paperback history of Republican national conventions that told how the "kingmakers"—the party's eastern, internationalist wing—had cheated the "grass roots" of their choices. It championed Goldwater, and its three million copies were in part responsible for his winning the Republican presidential nomination. His landslide loss in the election to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson intensified a conservative-moderate power struggle that was developing within Republican ranks. In 1967 Schlafly lost a bitter fight for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women; founded the Phyllis Schlafly Report, a monthly newsletter for her growing corps of ultraconservative women supporters; and published Safe—Not Sorry, with comments on urban Black ghetto riots and other topics.

In 1970, during the unpopular Vietnam War and in a tense climate generated by the riots, she again ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Illinois, waging a militant law-and-order, Cold War issues campaign. She charged that federal bureaucrats had created a permanently impoverished welfare class and that civil rights and New Left groups "saturated by Communists" and federal poverty workers (among others) had organized the riots. She opposed the war as a no-win Soviet trap to divert U.S. resources from a strong defense.

Between 1964 and 1976 she wrote five books on national defense with retired Rear Admiral Chester Ward: The Gravediggers (1964); Strike from Space (1965); The Betrayers (1968); Kissinger on the Couch (1975); and Ambush at Vladivostok (1976). The books charged that an elite group of men—the "gravediggers"—chief among them Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense (1961-1968), and Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state (1973-1976), had undermined American defenses during the 1960s and 1970s by negotiating U.S.-Soviet weapons agreements and détente and by scrapping U.S. weapons systems. The personal attack style of the books and their idiosyncratic conservative content offended liberals, moderates, and some conservatives— even the far-right John Birch Society.

The Equal Rights Amendment

During the 1970s Schlafly almost single-handedly prevented ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing equality of rights for women. In 1972 the amendment passed Congress, and 30 of the 38 state legislatures needed for ratification passed it. Schlafly opposed it for allegedly striking at traditionalist family and religious values (opening the door to legalization of homosexual marriage, abortion, and conscription of women), for tampering with financial support and protective labor laws for women, and for transferring state power to the federal government.

Throughout the 1970s she barnstormed the country with her supporters, lobbied state legislatures, and debated feminist leaders. Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum, a national organization of volunteers to champion conservative causes, in 1976. The Positive Woman, in which she compared a traditional wife and homemaker, pro-family and pro-defense ideal, to feminist ideals and values, was published in 1978. Her style and content again offended readers across the political spectrum, but some commentators acknowledged a strong vein of common sense in her arguments, and the women's movement became less insensitive to her constituency and changed some of its tactics. The ratification period for the amendment expired in June 1982.

After the ERA

Schlafly was awarded seven medals by Freedoms Foundation (1970) and in 1975 received the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In the 1980s she continued to lobby for ultraconservative and traditionalist causes—e.g., for school prayer and against equal pay for women for comparable work. For three decades she was a populist who spoke effectively to and for the resentments of her constituency and a salient precursor of a 1980s resurgence of conservatism. Her opponents found her to be an incredibly fierce and capable fighter for her views.

By the mid-1990s, the author of 16 wide-ranging books focused her considerable energies on Eagle Forum campaigns, a syndicated column appearing in 100 newspapers, a daily radio show on 270 stations, and a radio talk show on education broadcast weekly on 50 stations. She remained a spokeswoman for conservative causes, speaking around the country and presenting her views on day care, comparable worth, and the Family Medical Leave Act to the U.S. Congress. She weathered attempts to discredit her family-values message, most notably when the news media took great glee reporting in 1992 that her son was a homosexual. She was voted Illinois Mother of the Year that same year.

Further Reading

The only biography as of the mid-1990s of Schlafly was Carol Felsenthal's fair and thought-provoking The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority (1981). Other articles appeared in Rolling Stone (November 26, 1981); Ms. (January and September 1982); Newsweek (February 28, 1983 and September 28, 1992); and National Review (October 19, 1992). Articles by Schlafly appeared in The Humanist (May/June 1986); and The Congressional Digest (May and November 1988) as well as in dozens of other publications. An Internet site maintained by the Eagle Forum offers a large selection of Schlafly's writings. □