Rest in peace, Phyllis Schlafly. I respected her for her leadership skills, even when she campaigned against almost all of the causes that I supported.
I also was often bewildered by her contradictions. In that I was not alone. Schlafly, who died Monday at age 92 in her home in St. Louis, was the quintessential anti-feminist leader in the 1970s, yet she lived a life that embodied in many ways the feminist dream.
She was a proud wife and mother but also a lawyer who built her own media empire, wrote or edited 20 books, published a monthly newsletter, wrote a syndicated newspaper column (a colleague!), produced radio commentaries, anchored a radio talk show and maintained stardom on the college lecture circuit.
To me she was the anti-feminist feminist. She founded the Eagle Forum, a potent social conservative group, denounced feminism as promoting “power for the female left” and called “oppression by the patriarchy,” among other feminist arguments, a “ridiculous idea.”
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Yet she maintained the view that a woman’s most important job was to be a wife and mother – even as she publicly thanked her wealthy lawyer husband, Fred Schlafly, who died in 1993, for saving her from “the life of a working girl.”
Instead he enabled her activism by employing a full-time housekeeper to help them to raise their six children. Nice.
Hypocritical? Of course, she believed in equal pay for equal work, she said. But she opposed the government “intrusion,” in her view, that the Equal Rights Amendment would bring – including, she argued, the drafting of women into the military.
False as I believe that argument to be, I cannot deny that Schlafly’s rallying of opposition to ERA in 1972 until it died a decade later was a breathtaking demonstration of how much power one determined woman can leverage against a major cause – and win.
The ERA merely declared that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Schlafly’s campaign killed that seemingly innocuous amendment by linking it in the public mind to coed bathrooms, gay rights and the draft.
But as a politically aware African-American kid, I felt Schlafly’s influence as early as 1960. She was one of the “moral conservatives” whom I saw on TV in full revolt at the Grand Old Party’s convention against a civil rights plank that called for “aggressive action” against segregation and discrimination.
As a politically aware African-American kid, I saw access to jobs, housing, education, lunch counters and – not the least important to 12-year-old me – amusement parks hanging in the balance of that debate. Much of today’s conservative GOP began in that year’s ideological conflict between the party’s moderates and right wing.
Four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be enacted – with the crucial help of moderate Republican votes against Southern Democratic segregationist opponents. But Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona voted against it on the same states’ rights principles that Schlafly held, and Schlafly loved him for it.
She also achieved national fame that year with her first book, the self-published “A Choice Not an Echo,” which attacked the GOP’s eastern liberal Rockefeller elites for ignoring Goldwater’s grassroots heartland conservatives. It sold more than 3 million copies.
Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination that year but lost in a November landslide. A liberal resurgence virtually exiled Schlafly and her allies from power in the party. But she wasn’t done yet. Her Eagle Forum and its allies staged a comeback that led to the election in 1980 of another veteran of Goldwater’s movement, Ronald Reagan.
If much of this factional infighting sounds familiar, children, think of Donald Trump, whom Schlafly endorsed, as today’s leader of grassroots conservatives against today’s GOP establishment.
The last time I saw Schlafly speak, she was rallying the Conservative Political Action Conference after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat.
The GOP establishment’s “autopsy” called for more outreach to minorities, liberals, women and the young. Schlafly scoffed at that. As delegates roared their approval, she called for them to knock on more doors and rally GOP conservatives who had stayed home.
That sounded like folly to me in light of population changes. But it turned out to be Donald Trump’s path to the nomination. Whether it takes him all the way to the White House or not, I expect Phyllis Schlafly’s influence to shake up our nation’s political scene for years to come.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.