Phyllis Schlafly Turns 90 Today
Very few individuals who were not politicians or generals have had a major impact on American political history. Phyllis Schlafly is one of the exceptions. Twice. In 1964, she helped launch the grass-roots conservative movement that flourishes today, transformed by the internet, and in 1972 she inaugurated what came to be called “social conservatism.”
More than any other individual, she was responsible for the nomination of Barry Goldwater, and thus, indirectly, Ronald Reagan. And virtually single-handedly, she defeated the so-called Equal Rights Amendment.
Schlafly was born 90 years ago today in St. Louis, the daughter of John and Odile Stewart. Her father was a machinist who was unemployed through most of the Great Depression. But the Stewarts were not Democrats. “We left the party under Grover Cleveland,” Schlafly says. Her mother worked as a librarian and teacher to support the family, and Schlafly put herself through college (Washington University, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa) working in a munitions plant during the war, test-firing .30 and .50 caliber rifles and machine guns 48 hours a week.
Her becoming a political activist was entirely fortuitous, she says. She had married attorney Fred Schlafly and the couple had moved across the Mississippi to Alton, Illinois. In 1952, some local Republican leaders came to their home to invite Fred to run for Congressman. The district was heavily Democratic, Fred’s practice was flourishing, and he was not interested. They turned to his wife. Phyllis agreed.
Female candidates were a novelty in those days, and she was invited to address the state Republican convention. She gave a dynamic speech to the 10,000 delegates sweltering in the unairconditioned Armory in Springfield, and received a lot of media attention. Schlafly lost the race in November, but was hooked on politics.
She was frustrated, though, that the party’s Presidential nominees were invariably selected by a handful of “king-makers.” They didn’t share the convictions of the rank-and-file, nor aggressively attack the opposition where it was vulnerable. Frequently, they were not even Republicans: Hoover, Wilkie, Eisenhower. She was particularly irked by the way Robert Taft was shunted aside in 1952.
In 1964, she was dismayed to see that once again an East Coast liberal, Nelson Rockefeller, was about to be crowned by the party’s establishment. In a white heat, Schlafly wrote A Choice, Not an Echo, had it privately printed, and began selling copies from her garage.
The book caught fire like no other political manifesto since Tom Paine’sCommon Sense. By the time the Republicans convened at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, about 3 million copies were in print. Virtually every delegate had read it.
After indicting the Democrats for craven policies overseas and corruption at home—what else is new?—A Choice, Not an Echo takes a close look at Republican conventions from 1936 to 1960 and argues that the nominee was selected very much as the hemlines of women’s dresses were determined. Just as women have no say in the new season’s fashions, so the wishes of the Republican rank-and-file have been ignored or subverted by powerful men meeting in corporate offices and private clubs in Manhattan. The chapter on the marketing in 1940 of the insipid, unknown Wendell Wilkie, the RINO prototype, is particularly instructive. So is her account of the manipulation of the Texas and other delegations at the 1944 convention.
Schlafly has recently updated A Choice, and a new edition, with chapters covering the nominations from 1968 to 2012, will be out in November.
Not long after the success of this book, Schlafly was contacted by Admiral Chester Ward, who told her she must write about the Soviet missile threat. They worked together on a book, and it sold two million copies. Schlafly wound up collaborating on five books with Ward, and toured the country warning about the danger posed by the Russians.
When a friend invited her to talk to a library group in Connecticut in 1972, she was prepared to give her standard lecture on the subject. But the friend said her group didn’t want to hear about the missile threat, but about the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly replied that she’d hardly thought about the issue, and didn’t even know if she was for or against it. The friend said she’d send some literature, and predicted, “You’ll be against it.” She was right.
The amendment sounded innocuous. But as with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, there was an agenda not publicly acknowledged (or consequences not recognized, in the case of the Civil Rights Act) by its sponsors.
Schlafly saw that the amendment would grant no new rights to women, while it threatened to abolish two privileges women enjoyed: immunity from the draft and the legal guarantees in every state mandating that a husband support his wife and family. Also seemingly endangered were laws against sexual assault, and legal precedents awarding alimony and child custody to women. With American troops still in Vietnam, these possibilities struck a resonant chord both with young single women and with married homemakers. Funding for single-sex colleges might also be in jeopardy, critics pointed out, and quotas in the workplace might be mandated by judges.
As Schlafly saw clearly, the hidden objective of ERA was to deny women any legal claim on their husband’s earnings. Homemakers, for the first time in history, were to be deprived of the support of society.
The talk Schlafly gave at the library in Connecticut (Ann Coulter’s brother was in the audience) became the basis for a speech she would deliver countless times across the country.
It was peppered with humor (“Women,” she would note, are not mentioned in the ERA, only “sex”—“presumably the sex you are, not the sex you do”) and her trademark candor (the act was “a cheat and a fraud”).
By the time STOP ERA got underway in 1973, 30 states had ratified the amendment, and five more would do so. But legislators, obliged to hold public hearings, began having second thoughts. As Section 2 made explicit, the rights of states would be over-ridden by Congress and federal judges in legislation concerning families and the workplace. States stood to be big losers.
Five states repealed their endorsements, and despite a three-year extension to the time limit ordered by Jimmy Carter, the amendment was dead in the water.
ERA had almost no opposition before Schlafly swung into action. It had been endorsed by three presidents and their wives, and by both parties. The campaign to get the GOP to oppose the amendment could be said to mark the beginning of social conservatism. Schlafly then lobbied to include a plank in the party’s platform calling for the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
She would spend much of the rest of her life defending the traditional family.
When asked what’s the biggest change in the country that she’s witnessed during her lifetime, she doesn’t hesitate: “it’s the decline in marriage.” And the most pressing problem today is “the decline in the number of intact families.”
A new book—her 21st—will be out on this subject in a few weeks: Who Killed the Family.
Read the rest here.