‘Phyllis died with her pumps on,” one of her close friends told me last night.
Indeed, Phyllis Schlafly was in the arena fighting for conservative causes to the very end — when cancer claimed her at age 92 yesterday. Just last month, she was on the floor of the Republican convention in Cleveland ensuring the party’s platform remained pro-life. Her 21st book, a rousing defense of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, is being published today. She was for many a leading symbol of the conservative movement in America. A 1982 biography called her “the sweetheart of the silent majority.”
Phyllis took to politics at a very young age in a career that spanned 70 years. She managed her first congressional campaign in Illinois in 1946. She ran for Congress in her own right twice — in 1952 and 1970, losing largely because the district was solidly Democratic (it elected only Democrats between 1944 and 2014).
But Phyllis proved you didn’t have to hold elective office to wield great political power. She was a delegate to every Republican convention from 1956 on, and often led the fight to preserve the party’s socially conservative platform.
But it was the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s that solidified her reputation as a political force. Her effort to defeat the ERA brought hundreds of thousands of women into the conservative fold and prompted her to found the Eagle Forum, a grass-roots volunteer group that to this day has a membership of some 75,000 women.
Her effort to defeat the ERA brought hundreds of thousands of women into the conservative fold.
Phyllis attracted the scorn of feminists for her successful effort to prevent states from ratifying the ERA. Feminist Midge Costanza famously claimed that Schlafly and Anita Bryant would make “a fine set of bookends” for Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Betty Friedan hissed at her during a debate: “I wish I could burn you at the stake.”
After Phyllis found her authority challenged by then-senator Birch Bayh as someone “with absolutely no legal training,” she went to law school at night in St. Louis “in her spare time” and graduated near the top of her class in 1978.
Against all odds, Phyllis was able to stop the ERA. But, as she acknowledged to me this year, no victory is permanent. Through presidential executive orders and activist judges, the three things she warned about most — women serving in combat, the spread of unisex bathrooms, and same-sex marriage — are being implemented by liberals without a constitutional amendment or congressional law to justify them.Toward the end of her life, Phyllis’s understandable suspicion of the subversion of constitutional principles caused her to make some wrong calls. Her opposition to free trade was principled but seemed to be rooted in a belief that powerful economic forces could be held at bay. She became a passionate critic of conservatives who wanted to have the states call a constitutional convention to propose amendments to balance the budget and impose term limits on Congress. She similarly warned against a convention of the states, an idea promoted by former senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma that would have state legislatures convene a meeting under Article V of the Constitution for the purpose of proposing limited amendments. “She can’t be right about everything,” Coburn quipped to me last year.
But Phyllis was so right about so many things in a career that spanned American politics from Robert Taft to Donald Trump.
“She was at the center of the conservative movement for decades successfully organizing in all 50 states,” says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. “The magic of grass-roots activism that many conservatives project onto the radical Saul Alinsky actually existed in Phyllis.”
— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.