Politics & Policy

Phyllis Schlafly, Happy Warrior

Schlafly at a Tea Party Political Fair in Charlotte, Mich., in 2010. (Reuters photo: Rebecca Cook)

Phyllis Schlafly had a wonderful talent for driving men and women — especially women of a rigid political bent — mad. She was the leading American anti-feminist and the chief antagonist of the so-called Equal Rights Amendment, making the case for traditional maternal and uxorial virtues while balancing the raising of six children against the demands of a career that included publishing 27 books (one of them posthumously, if only barely), thousands of articles and op-eds, constant travel and lecturing, and the founding and maintenance of a large, complex, and — the unforgivable sin for her opponents — extraordinarily effective advocacy organization, Eagle Forum.

She liked to begin her speeches by thanking her husband, Fred, for “allowing” her to appear. No one who knew Schlafly seriously believed that anyone allowed her to do much of anything.

Schlafly was the daughter of a father who fell on hard times and of a highly educated and ambitious mother (born at the end of the 19th century, she earned two college degrees and wrote a history of St. Louis) who supported the family by working as a teacher and librarian. Schlafly herself was an extraordinary student, entering Maryville College at 16 and leaving at 19 with a Phi Beta Kappa key and a scholarship to Radcliffe, where she finished her master’s degree in less than a year. She went to work for the predecessor to the American Enterprise Institute, which shared her hereditary Republican opposition to the New Deal. She married Fred Schlafly, a conservative activist and lawyer; later, the New York Times would sniff that she had been liberated from paying work by family money, a criticism that would never in a million years be similarly leveled at a Kennedy or a vanden Heuvel. (Indeed, the Times thought so highly of that line of argument that it repeated it in her obituary.) But that was not the sort of thing that got Phyllis Schlafly down — indeed, nothing seemed to. She was one of the original happy warriors: funny, gracious, and grittier than one might expect.

She backed conservative Robert A. Taft in 1952, and in 1964 she was an important supporter of the Barry Goldwater campaign, the foundational drama of the modern conservative movement. She wrote a book making the case for the Arizona senator, A Choice, Not an Echo, millions of copies of which went into circulation, making her one of the best-known conservative activists of the period. But it was her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment that made her truly a national figure — one of admiration for the Right and a hate totem for the Left. She almost single-handedly stopped an ERA that was considered inevitable, and was supported by all the great and good.

She had a sharp way with words. She described public-school sex-ed classes as Tupperware parties for abortion and said that while feminism had changed the attitudes of both men and women, “it hasn’t changed the attitudes of babies at all.”

Her 1964 Goldwater book contained dark and not altogether defensible animadversions regarding a purported secretive cabal of “kingmakers” in the Republican party, an attitude that she never outgrew and one that was part of her enthusiastic support for the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, an issue on which we disagreed.

She was effective and influential in quieter ways, too. Like William F. Buckley Jr., she was a Catholic operating in a Protestant-dominated activist milieu that in the 1950s and 1960s still had in its ears the occasional echo of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” That today’s pro-family and pro-marriage organizations are characterized by deep comity and fruitful cooperation among Catholics and Evangelicals is in no small part a result of her talent for the building of institutions and the cultivation of relationships. Her leadership here and elsewhere (notably in the 1996 convention) played an important role in making — and keeping — the Republican party a pro-life party.

She dedicated her life to fighting for the proposition that men are men and women are women, and lived long enough to see the phrase “men with vaginas” used straight-facedly in public discourse.

R.I.P. Phyllis McAlpin Stewart, dead at 92. 


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