The conservative activist who battled feminism
Phyllis Schlafly 1924–2016
In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly went to war against the Equal Rights Amendment. The 52-word constitutional measure, intended to prohibit gender discrimination, was coasting toward passage, but Schlafly, a conservative activist, saw it as a fullscale assault on the American family. She formed a grassroots organization called Stop ERA—later the Eagle Forum—and began mobilizing stay-athome moms and religious conservatives to protest an amendment that she claimed would lead to same-sex marriage, the conscription of women into the military, and the displacement of men as breadwinners. “What I am defending is the real rights of women,” she said, “the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.” The ERA was defeated in 1982, falling three states short of the 38 it needed for ratification; the conservative, profamily movement that Schlafly galvanized remains a dominant force in the Republican Party today.
Schlafly was born Phyllis McAlpin Stewart in St. Louis to a librarian mother and a machinist father, said The Washington Post. She paid her way through college by working in a World War II ordnance plant, and after earning a master’s degree in political science from Radcliffe College, she went to work for a conservative Washington think tank. She said she was “saved from life as a working girl” by marrying wealthy lawyer Fred Schlafly in 1949. Although she called herself a homemaker, the mother of six “had a résumé that most feminists would envy,” said the Los Angeles Times. She ran for Congress twice, both times unsuccessfully, wrote books on the threat of international communism, and helped Barry Goldwater secure the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1964.
Schlafly’s fierce opposition to the ERA earned her the enmity of many feminists, said TheAtlantic.com. During one debate, author Betty Friedan told her, “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” But Schlafly “seemed to delight in angering establishment politicians and progressives.” When President Reagan’s surgeon general attempted to introduce AIDS education into public school curricula in the 1980s, the activist likened it to “the teaching of safe sodomy.” She fought the liberalization of divorce laws, warning it would encourage husbands to walk out on their wives, since “a woman fat and 50 isn’t attractive to men.” And she often began her speeches by thanking her husband “for letting me come here.” Schlafly liked that opening, she explained, “because I know it irritates women’s libbers more than anything else.”