Phyllis Schlafly could have been America’s number one feminist. She graduated from good universities, wrote important books on serious topics, was an outspoken orator and political organiser, didn’t let her life be defined by her husband’s career, and stood up to bitter abuse from her opponents. In reality, however, she was America’s leading anti-feminist.
Her death this week, at the age of 92, marks the passing of an organisational and publicity genius who did all she could to fight against the spirit of the age. When passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution seemed imminent and inevitable in the mid-1970s, she created a democratic grassroots pressure group, ‘StopERA’, that managed to kill it once and for all.
She was born in St Louis and grew up a devout Catholic. During the war years she paid her way through college test-firing machine-guns. Married at the age of 24 to a 39-year-old lawyer, she raised six children but was always looking about for something to do. Thrice she ran for Congress. When the kids were all in school she put herself through law school and at once passed the bar exam.
She became famous in 1964 when Barry Goldwater was running for president on the Republican ticket. Then, as now, many mainstream Republicans hated the choice their party’s members had somehow made in the primaries, and anticipated a trouncing that November. Not Schlafly. Her surprise bestseller, A Choice, Not an Echo (1964), was a celebration of all that Goldwater represented, and a scorching rebuke to the Republican party’s bosses.
Schlafly had a gift for indignant rhetoric. She denounced her party’s mainstream drift over the previous 15 years. In the 1950s, she said, President Eisenhower had accepted co-existence with the Soviet Union and had failed to intervene in support of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, leaving the brave Catholic rebels to be crushed by Soviet tanks. She didn’t want co-existence; she wanted to liberate what she called the ‘captive nations’ of eastern Europe.
She remained active in anti–communist causes but switched, in her late forties, to anti-feminism. In her view men and women were different, and society should be organised to reflect the differences. She also believed that American women were exceptionally privileged and that the assertion of gender equality would be, for them, a step backward. She feared a decline in chivalry, the abolition of separate public bathrooms for men and women, and warned that women might face the military draft and frontline combat. Feminism, in her view, degraded rather than exalted women, undermining the status of wives and-mothers.
The Equal Rights Amendment drew her ire in 1972. A draft of the amendment had been voted down in Congress time after time since its first appearance in 1923. A new feminist wind was blowing through the USA by the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, driven by Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963) and lobbying organisations such as the National Organisation for Women. Under these changed conditions, the amendment finally passed both houses of Congress. It said: ‘Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.’ It added that Congress would have the power to enforce it as necessary. To become a permanent part of the constitution, an amendment has to be ratified by three quarters of the state governments. Many states ratified almost at once. By the time Schlafly got involved, only three more ratifications were needed. Wasn’t ERA a foregone conclusion?
No. Believing that ordinary women could influence the situation, Schlafly began to organise local groups to lobby their state assembly members and to turn out in force at state capitol buildings when votes were held. She was brilliantly successful, not only preventing several states from ratifying the amendment but even persuading others to rescind ratifications.-Furious pro-amendment advocates arranged an extension to the ratification period until 1982 but were never able to win the necessary three quarters of the states.
The women Schlafly mobilised against ERA were mostly wives and mothers from economically modest backgrounds. Many were also intensely religious. By the 1970s, long-standing religious antagonisms were in decline across America, such that Schlafly was able to bring together evangelical Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Jews and even Mormons. In no earlier decade of American history would that have been possible. They were unified by the belief that religion itself was under attack, and that abortion, divorce, contraception, homosexuality and pornography were affronts to God. These were the same voters who, in the late 1970s, began forming the Moral Majority and helped Ronald Reagan, Schlafly’s favoured candidate, to win the election of 1980.
I spoke with Phyllis Schlafly twice by phone, the first time when I was writing a history of American conservatism about ten years ago. Hospitable, precise, articulate, absolutely certain of everything she believed, she enthused about the wonders of capitalism and its ability to invent and distribute labour-saving devices. These, she said, had done far more to liberate women than feminism. Feminism was, she told me, ‘anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion … women’s libbers view the home as a prison and the wife and mother as a slave.’ She had no regrets about the role she had played in scotching the amendment.
When my book came out she invited me to speak on her widely syndicated radio show. For half an hour she cross-questioned me about the history of American conservatism, then invited listeners to call in and ask questions. Most of the callers were religious women, anxious that the nation, as they saw it, had come adrift from its moorings in Christianity and was now a soulless, atheist entity. They lavished praise on Schlafly herself, describing her as an inspirational figure who had helped them stand up for themselves at a moment of great discouragement.
Many of the things Schlafly opposed have come to pass. More women than ever before have full-time jobs. Divorce, contraception, pornography and abortion are widespread, as is gay marriage. In most respects the principles embodied in the ERA are now operative, even without the amendment itself. Schlafly could stop a constitutional amendment, but even she could not impede the vast social forces that have transformed the United States.
Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family professor of history at Emory University, Atlanta, and author of The Conservatives.