Conservatives loved her. She spoke her mind and defended traditional values.
Phyllis Schlafly is why we don’t have an Equal Rights Amendment today. She single-handedly killed it in the 1970s by appealing to primal fears over unisex bathrooms and women in combat, issues that four decades later continue to resonate politically.
Her death Monday at age 92 stirs memories on both sides of the feminist divide of a woman who signaled the emergence of a new and more powerful right, and who lived the life of activism and travel and power that was the antithesis of the stay-at-home motherhood model that she put on such a pedestal.
The ERA had passed both houses of Congress, and 28 of the 38 states needed to ratify the constitutional amendment were onboard when Schlafly launched her “STOP ERA” movement. It was an acronym for “Stop taking away our privileges,” and for women that meant separate bathrooms from men and exemption from being drafted into the military.
I remember feminists wondering at the time if Schlafly had ever taken a plane ride and used one of those dreaded unisex bathrooms. On Schlafly’s other bugaboo, women in combat, women today compete on an equal footing for combat-ready jobs in the military.
But factual answers are not what the fight was about then or now, and that’s what made Schlafly such an infuriating figure to those who were on the other side. She and her husband had six children, and she wasn’t at home all the time taking care of them yet she demonized women who wanted a career. Her oldest son was gay, yet she was a willing partner in singer Anita Bryant’s homophobic campaign of the 1970s.
She ran for Congress in 1952 and again in 1970, losing both times. She self-published her first book, A Choice Not an Echo, playing off Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Convention speech. She went to law school later in life, after her children were grown, getting her J.D. degree in 1978, when she was in her mid-fifties. During World War Two, she worked as a ballistics gunner and technician at an ammunition factory.
Her life in totality reflects so much of what we all share as women—work and family and children and aspirations and wanting a place in the world. She struggled with it, and those of us who disagreed with her have more in common than either side would like to admit.
“She drove me crazy because she ran through every door that foremothers worked so hard to open, NEVER saying thanks and then used her position to attack people trying to open other doors for women,” emailed Patricia Schroeder, a frequent Schlafly foil during her quarter-century in the House of Representatives starting in 1973. “AND we knew the minute there were new opportunities for women, she would elbow her way to the front of the line to take advantage of them!”
Schlafly died at her home in St. Louis the day before the publication of a new book that bears her name as author, The Conservative Case for Trump. The book’s jacket lists two co-authors, but it’s Schlafly’s name that is prominent, testimony to her legacy as the founder of the Eagle Forum, one of the enduring pro-family, social conservative organizations.
Schlafly came out in support of Trump in March, while the GOP primaries were still in progress, and not everyone in the Eagle Forum’s hierarchy agreed with her decision to put her faith in the blustery billionaire as the conservative whose time had come. “This year we have the candidate that will finally give us the choice, not an echo,” Schlafly said at the time.
Trump lauded Schlafly upon her death as “a conservative icon who led millions to action, reshaped the conservative movement, and fearlessly battled globalism and the ‘kingmakers’ on behalf of America’s workers and families.” The GOP nominee planted himself squarely in the traditions she had shown decades earlier could mobilize voters and steer the country in ways neither of them fully represented or perhaps even believed in.