U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Phyllis Schlafly

FEB 7 1984, FEB 8 1984; Phyllis Schlafly at the State house pressroom;  (Photo By Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

FEB 7 1984, FEB 8 1984; Phyllis Schlafly at the State house pressroom; (Photo By Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

On the occasion of Phyllis Schlafly’s death at the age of 92 there has been much said about her political importance. Below are excerpts from my book, A War for the Soul of America, that demonstrate her crucial role in shaping the intellectual foundations of the conservative culture wars. 

(Excerpted from Chapter 3: “Taking God’s Country Back”)

The individual most responsible for foiling the ERA was Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist from St. Louis who first made a name for herself with her self-published book, A Choice, Not an Echo, widely distributed in support of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for president. In September 1972, after being convinced of the need to resist the feminist movement, Schlafly founded STOP ERA. Until then, she had focused her activism primarily on national defense issues. As a Catholic, she had not yet been attuned to the social issues that animated evangelicals, like school prayer. By shifting gears, Schlafly brought a large network of conservative Catholic women—those who read her Phyllis Schlafly Report, which had in the range of 30,000 subscribers throughout the 1970s—into the majority-evangelical movement to defeat the ERA. In this, like Francis Schaeffer, she built ecumenical bridges to likeminded conservatives of different religious faiths. (1)

Schlafly’s first shot against the ERA hit its mark, in the form of a 1972 Phyllis Schlafly Report essay, “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” Schlafly argued that the ERA would obliterate special legal protection afforded to women, including the insulation provided by the traditional family, which “assures a woman the most precious and important right of all—the right to keep her baby and be supported and protected in the enjoyment of watching her baby grow and develop.” In this, Schlafly defined the parameters of the winning campaign to defeat the ERA: if men and women were legal equals, men had no obligation to provide for mothers. In other words, equal rights for women actually meant that special rights for mothers would be revoked. Such special rights were paramount because Schlafly believed that motherhood was a woman’s most fulfilling calling, a belief that directly challenged “women’s libbers” like Betty Friedan, who “view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave.” Schlafly tarred feminists as the enemies of motherhood, an association that stuck. (2)

As resistance to the ERA grew throughout the 1970s, the ratification process stalled. Some states that had previously ratified the amendment even reversed their votes. As it became less and less likely that the ERA would be ratified, Schlafly’s reputation as the intellectual force behind the movement to defeat the ERA grew. With the 1977 publication of The Power of the Positive Woman, arguably the definitive antifeminist manifesto, her status as the nation’s most iconic antifeminist was cemented. The first step in becoming a “positive woman,” another term for a confident antifeminist in Schlafly’s elocution, was to embrace the natural differences between men and women. Consistent with such an essentialist understanding of sexual difference, Schlafly encouraged STOP ERA activists to accentuate traditional gender roles, such as dressing particularly feminine, when lobbying state legislators. To the dismay of feminists, this strategy worked to perfection. Some of the more conservative legislators, of course, hardly needed their paternalistic egos stroked in such a way. “To pass a law or constitutional amendment saying that we are all alike in every respect,” argued Illinois State Representative Monroe Flynn, “flies in the face of what our Creator intended.” Conservative Christians like Flynn related feminist attempts to eliminate sexual difference to secular efforts to erase God from the public sphere. Schlafly snidely suggested that if feminists had a problem with sexual difference they might also have a problem with God. “Someone, it is not clear who, perhaps God,” she wrote, “dealt women a foul blow by making them female.” (3)

Schlafly’s antifeminism had a playful side to it. When addressing conservative crowds, she often started in the following customary way: “First of all, I want to thank my husband Fred, for letting me come—I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad!” Such friskiness was an effective contrast to the humorless recriminations feminists directed her way. During a 1973 debate on the Illinois State University campus, Friedan infamously told Schlafly: “I would like to burn you at the stake.” “I consider you a traitor to your sex,” Friedan continued, “an Aunt Tom.” Florynce Kennedy wondered “why some people don’t hit Phyllis Schlafly in the mouth.” Such nastiness spoke to the fact that Schlafly had come to signify the backlash against feminism and the impending defeat of the ERA, which feminists believed was a necessary and inevitable step to full equality. (4)

Schlafly’s rhetoric, of course, could also be hard-hitting. This was specifically the case when she theorized about the ways feminism might empower an immoral government over and against the moral family. Describing these implications in hypothetical fashion, she wrote: “if fathers are not expected to stay home and care for their infant children, then neither should mothers be expected to do so; and, therefore, it becomes the duty of the government to provide kiddy-care centers to relieve mothers of that unfair and unequal burden.” Such analysis suggested that women’s liberationists, in their demand for total equality, wanted to empower Washington bureaucrats to enforce social engineering programs that would undermine the traditional family. In this, Schlafly helped bring together two conservative trajectories—cultural traditionalism and anti-statism—demonstrating that the culture wars, rather than an evasion of political economic debates about how power and resources were to be distributed, represented a new way of having such debates. Exemplifying this commingling of conservative ideologies, a 1976 Phyllis Schlafly Report headline about a coming convention on women screamed about “How the Libs and the Feds Plan to Spend Your Money.” (5)

The convention referenced in Schlafly’s headline, a government-sponsored International Women’s Year (IWY) conference, became a lightning rod for cultural conservatives. Schlafly described the 1977 Houston convention as “a front for radicals and lesbians.” Indeed, many of those involved in organizing the IWY convention were outspoken feminists, thanks to Midge Costanza, who, as Carter’s chief of the White House’s Office of Public Liaison, was charged with appointing members to the IWY Commission. Costanza designated liberal New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug—who once claimed “a woman’s place is in the house, the House of Representatives”—to chair the commission. Pentecostal televangelist Pat Robertson, who until then, happy to have a fellow born again Christian in the White House, had sung Carter’s praises, seethed: “I wouldn’t let Bella Abzug scrub the floors of any organization that I was head of, but Carter put her in charge of all the women in America, and used our tax funds to support that convention in Houston.” Costanza’s other selections, highlighted by feminist notable Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. magazine, did little to inspire the confidence of religious conservatives, who organized to gain their share of delegates to the Houston convention. After managing to secure only 25 percent of the delegation, Schlafly and other conservative women decided to put on a counter-IWY conference at Houston’s Astro Arena. Their Pro-Family Rally attracted some 20,000 attendees. (6)

The IWY convention’s official platform, approved by vote of the delegation, was decidedly left of center. Not only did it call for the ratification of the ERA, but it also included abortion-on-demand and gay rights planks. The staid feminism that informed NOW at its origins had given way to a more radical vision of gender equality, signaled by Friedan’s public change of heart regarding the relationship between feminism and gay rights. In 1969, she infamously called lesbianism a “lavender herring,” charging that gay rights would tarnish the feminist agenda. But at the 1977 Houston convention, Friedan seconded a resolution to support gay and lesbian rights, a huge symbolic victory for the gay rights movement. Although this newly expansive alliance illustrated the power of New Left feminist sensibilities, it also played into the hands of religious conservatives like Schlafly, who believed the radicalism of the IWY platform signified “the death knell of the women’s liberation movement.” “The Women’s Lib movement has sealed its own doom,” she proclaimed, “by deliberately hanging around its own neck the albatross of abortion, lesbianism, pornography and Federal control.” (7)

(Excerpt: introduction to Chapter 5: “The Trouble with Gender”

At a swanky party in Washington, D.C. on June 30, 1982, 1,500 right-wing activists gathered to celebrate the defeat of the ERA. Much to the delight of the guests, who included prominent conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly, Jesse Helms, and Jerry Falwell, a rendition of “Ding, Dong the Witch Is Dead” marked the official passing of the deadline to ratify the amendment. The Christian Right, it seemed, had risen from the ash heap of history to reclaim the nation from feminists and secular humanists. As President Reagan optimistically pronounced two years later: “Americans are turning back to God.” (8)

(1) Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 212-242. The definitive work on Schlafly.

(2) Phyllis Schlafly, “What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” Phyllis Schlafly Report (May 1972). Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, 217-218.

(3) Phyllis Schlafly, The Power of the Positive Woman (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1977), 11-12. Monroe Flynn’s quote is in Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, 226.

(4) Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, 247, 12, 227.

(5) Schlafly, The Power of the Positive Woman, 21. Self, All in the Family, 313.

(6) Schlafly quote is in Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, 245. Robertson quote is in Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of the Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right, 121.

(7) Marjorie J. Spruill, “Gender and America’s Right Turn,” in Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 71-89. “Betty Friedan,” in JoAnn Meyers, The A to Z of the Lesbian Liberation Movement: Still the Rage (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2009), 122. Schlafly’s first quote: Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of the Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right, 149. Second quote: Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, 247-248.

(8) Elisabeth Bumiller, “Schlafly’s Gala Goodbye to ERA,” Washington Post, July 1, 1982, C-1. Brian T. Kaylor, Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics (New York: Lexington Books, 2010), 55.