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Phyllis Stewart Schlafly ( born Phyllis McAlpin Stewart; August 15, 1924 – September 5, 2016) was an American attorney, activist, and author. She held paleoconservative social and political views, opposed liberal feminism, gay rights and abortion, and successfully campaigned against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She was opposed in turn by moderates and liberals for her attitudes on sex, gender roles, homosexuality, and a number of other issues.
More than three million copies of her self-published book A Choice Not an Echo (1964), a polemic against Republican leader Nelson Rockefeller, were sold or distributed for free. Schlafly co-authored books on national defense and was critical of arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. In 1972, Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum, a conservative political interest group, and remained its chairwoman and CEO until her death in 2016 while staying active in conservative causes.
Schlafly started college early and worked as a model for a time. She received a scholarship to Maryville College, but after one year, transferred to Washington University in St. Louis. In 1944, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts. In 1945, she received a Master of Arts degree in government from Radcliffe College (for which the then all-male Harvard University was a coordinate institution).
In Strike From Space (1965), Schlafly observed that during World War II, she worked as “a ballistics gunner and technician at the largest ammunition plant in the world”. She earned a Juris Doctor degree from the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law in 1978.
On October 20, 1949, she married attorney John Fred Schlafly Jr., a member of a wealthy St. Louis family; he died in 1993. His grandfather, August, immigrated in 1854 from Switzerland.
In the late 1870s, the three brothers founded the firm of Schlafly Bros., which dealt in groceries, Queensware (dishes made by Wedgwood), hardware, and agricultural implements. Fred and Phyllis Schlafly were both active Catholics. They linked Catholicism to Americanism and often exhorted Catholics to join the anti-communist crusade.
Fred and Phyllis Schlafly moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, and had six children: John, Bruce, Roger, Liza, Andrew, and Anne. When her husband died in 1993, she moved to Ladue, Missouri. In 1992, their eldest son, John, was outed as gay by Queer Week magazine.
Schlafly acknowledged that John is gay, but stated that he embraces his mother’s views. Andrew is also a lawyer and activist, and created the wiki-based Conservapedia. Anne married the only child of Nobel-winning scientists Carl and Gerty Cori.
Schlafly was the aunt of conservative anti-feminist author Suzanne Venker; together they wrote The Flipside of Feminism; What Conservative Women Know — and Men Can’t Say.
Schlafly died of cancer on September 5, 2016, at her home in Ladue, Missouri, at the age of 92.
Phyllis Schlafly, ‘First Lady’ of a Political March to the Right, Dies at 92
Phyllis Schlafly; whose grass-roots campaigns against Communism; abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment galvanized conservatives for almost two generations and helped reshape American politics; died on Monday. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by the Eagle Forum, the conservative organization she founded in 1975.
In her time, Mrs. Schlafly was one of the most polarizing figures in American public life; a self-described housewife who displayed a moral ferocity reminiscent of the ax-wielding prohibitionist Carry Nation. Richard Viguerie; who masterminded the use of direct mail to finance right-wing causes; called her “the first lady of the conservative movement.”
On the left, Betty Friedan, the feminist leader and author, compared her to a religious heretic, telling her in a debate that she should burn at the stake for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Ms. Friedan called Mrs. Schlafly an “Aunt Tom.”
She gave critical support to the presidential ambitions of Senator Barry Goldwater, the hard-right Arizonan who went on to lead the Republican Party to electoral disaster in 1964, but who planted the seeds of a conservative revival that would flower with the rise of Ronald Reagan.
And in the 1970s, Mrs. Schlafly’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment played a large part in its undoing. The amendment would have expanded women’s rights by barring any gender-based distinctions in federal and state laws, and it was within hailing distance of becoming the law of the land: Both houses of Congress had passed it by a vote of more than 90 percent, and 35 state legislatures — only three shy of the number required for adoption — had approved it.
But the amendment lost steam in the late 1970s under pressure from Mrs. Schlafly’s volunteer brigades — mainly women, most of them churchgoing Christians (Mrs. Schlafly was Roman Catholic) and not a few of them lugging apple pies to cajole legislators. Despite an extension of the deadline, the amendment died, on June 30, 1982.
How Phyllis Schlafly Derailed the Equal Rights Amendment?
In 1972, it seemed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment was all but a sure thing.
First introduced to Congress in 1923 by suffragist Alice Paul, the proposed 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which stated “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” had passed with both bipartisan and public support and was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.
But the ERA included a seven-year ratification time limit clause (which Congress extended to 1982), and although 35 of 38 state legislatures needed for a three-quarters majority had voted to ratify the amendment, its proponents hadn’t counted on a conservative grassroots movement led by activist and lawyer Phyllis Schlafly that would ultimately lead to the ERA’s defeat, falling three states shorts.
“What I am defending is the real rights of women,” Schlafly said at the time. “A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.”
Don Critchlow, author of Phyllis Schlafly and the Grassroots Right and Future Right, and the Katzin Family Professor at Arizona State University, says one issue was the amendment was loose in its wording.
“That meant it was going to have to be interpreted by the courts and she—and her large number of followers—were concerned that the courts would interpret it as abortion on demand, same-sex marriage and women in the draft.” he says. “Furthermore, she felt that much of the legislation protecting women in pay and gender discrimination had already been enacted.”
The ERA got as far as it did, due to the work of second-wave feminists who had lobbied for years for its passage. Those who fought for the amendment included prominent figures such as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Jane Fonda.
Brandy Faulkner, a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, says the feminist momentum influenced not only Congress, but also the U.S. Supreme Court. Faulkner points out that Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established the right of unmarried people to possess contraception on the same basis as married couples, passed in 1971—just a year after Congress passed the ERA.
Schlafly’s strategy to defeat the ERA was to convince women that equality between men and women was undesirable.
“She consistently painted worst-case scenarios which; when juxtaposed with the lives of average white women at that time; led many of them to believe that inequality wasn’t so bad after all;” Faulkner says.
“She was a biological determinist who thought that the physiological differences between men and women should be the primary determiner of their roles. And she advocated for what she thought was a privileged position for women in society.”
Critchlow, author of In Defense of Populism (to be released in the fall of 2020), says Schlafly, who died at age 92 in 2016, built up her following through her work with the National Federation of Republican Women, which became the basis for Stop ERA.
“She was articulate, quite intelligent and extremely well organized and she was deadly on the debate stage,” he says.
Schlafly’s strategy was to organize grassroots women in the multiple states to put pressure on the state legislatures to stop or rescind ERA passage.
“I’m absolutely convinced that it would have passed without her involvement,” he says. “She was able to single-handedly organize the Stop ERA movement.”
As the Stop ERA movement gained momentum, Critchlow adds, it was able to reach new constituencies, particularly in the Southern battleground states.
“The women involved in southern state organizations were able to tap into the churches, especially the evangelical churches,” he says. “Schlafly was Catholic, but she was able to reach out not only to Protestants, but also to Mormons, as well as some traditional Jews, too.”
By the late 1970s, Schlafly had risen in prominence for pushing back against the feminist movement. Her book, The Power of the Positive Woman, helped cement her following. But public opinion of Schlafly remained divided.
“Women who were opposed to her absolutely despised her,” Critchlow says.