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’s Common 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. The culprits are not, she says, gays and dead-beat dads. She blames “feminists, family courts, psychologists, so-called experts.”
But when asked if there’s a connection between her campaigns against communism and against feminism, this time she hesitates, and then says there’s really none.
Schlafly was always less interested in communist ideology than in the military threat to the U.S. posed by the Soviet Union, and the not very virile responses of U.S. presidents.
One of many examples she provides: when Kennedy received a warning on August 13, 1961 that construction would begin on the Berlin wall late that night, he decided—acting just like a certain successor—to carry on with his vacation. Had he returned from Hyannis Port to D.C., Schlafly argues, picked up the phone and told the Soviets that if West Berlin is closed off, the Soviet Embassy gets closed down, this would have had a salutary effect on Moscow. Instead, by Monday the wall was a fait accompli.
So for Schlafly, the fact that a resolution to “the woman question” had long been a priority for Marxists was not much of a concern (though the connection is mentioned in a book she co-authored with Suzanne Venker, The Flip Side of Feminism.) In fact, it’s no coincidence, as Marxists used to say, that Betty Friedan was a former Stalinist, who had attacked Britain and defended Hitler when Uncle Joe gave the order. The institution of marriage was based on private property, Engels had taught, and its abolition would liberate women from prostitution and enslavement to a husband. The wife was “a slave of man’s lust and a mere instrument for childbearing.” The raising of children would be collectivized in the coming utopia: “my sister’s child is my child” would be the credo. For Bolsheviks, satisfying sexual desires would one day would be considered as simple and unimportant an act as drinking a glass of water.
Feminism, like multiculturalism and environmentalism later on, made excellent sheep’s clothing for Marxist wolves.
It has been thoroughly mainstreamed over the decades. If you question feminism, you must want to keep women chained to the kitchen, if not repeal the 19th Amendment, just as if you question “diversity,” you’re a racist. The mere mention of Schlafly’s name on college campuses is always met by a rolling of the eyes.
It’s not hard to see why feminism has been welcomed by most middle-class men. It offers a good trade-off: in exchange for a share of the housework and cooking (sometimes rewarding) and of child-care (often rewarding), men, before they marry, are able to sleep with a succession of bright middle-class women. Their fathers and grandfathers had been obliged to prey on women in lower social classes and to conduct their affairs (quaint word) furtively. And today, husbands, after 20 years or so, can exchange their wives for a newer model.
It’s not clear that the trade-off been as welcome for women. Fewer enjoy for long the free-wheeling sex life that most men find congenial. (Mignon McLaughlin defines a nymphomaniac as a woman who has the sexual desires of the average man.) After they marry and have children, middle-class women can hire working-class women of color to clean their homes and watch their children while they litigate OSHA claims, trade bonds, or work on an advertising campaign for a new shade of lipstick. Their lifestyle depends on a reservoir of such women, once African-American, now largely Hispanic, eager to do the jobs Americans won’t do. No wonder feminists favor unrestricted immigration.
And then there’s the crossed fingers behind the man’s back during the wedding vows that the women’s movement has done so much to encourage. Anticipating unintended consequences has never been a strong suit of liberals.
For those who are not professionals, businesswomen, or bureaucrats—or nurses, schoolteachers, saleswomen, beauticians, and secretaries—the husband has been replaced by the government. “A woman with children and no husband will always look to Big Brother,” Schlafly says.
Here she points to the connection between social conservatism and so-called fiscal conservatism. The U.S. government spent $398 billion on welfare programs in 2013. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program totaled another $274 billion. In 1964, before LBJ’s Great Society was launched, the entire federal budget was $119 billion, and, with the war in Vietnam ramping up, 46% was for military spending. Today, it’s 19%. The attack on the family has had an obvious impact on federal and state spending.
In the end, Schlafly asks bluntly if women are happier today. She thinks that, by and large, they’re not. “Having a husband who loves you, children to raise—nothing is as rewarding as that,” she says. “Feminists have nothing to offer—only anger. No hope, no contentment, no gratitude. No one wants to be around them.”
The truth is, most office work is soul-destroying and intellectually stultifying—and can be done just as well by someone else. Who, honestly, given the choice, would rather spend an afternoon sitting in a chair in a heated or air-conditioned room under artificial light analyzing the credit-worthiness of a muni issuer rather than be outdoors with her children, identifying bird calls, planting carrots, or watching the clouds race by, and then come inside to read them a chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson and make together a pot of soup from scratch? Which is more gratifying?
There’s some grudging admiration of Schlafly’s accomplishments among feminists. She’s twice returned to school, getting an MA in government from Harvard and a JD from Washington University, she’s published 20 books, delivers a daily radio commentary, writes a weekly column and, for 47 years, a monthly newsletter, has lectured across the country, and for 42 years has run an organization, the Eagle Forum, with about 80,000 members.
But then liberals pounce on what they see as Schlafly’s hypocrisy. The woman who has been so successful, and has been a GOP mover and shaker since 1952, remains the advocate of Küche, Kirche, and Kinder (kitchen, church, and children—a woman’s proper sphere in Imperial Germany, according to Bismarck).
Schlafly doesn’t like being hailed as prototype Super Mom. She points out that since she married, she’s never held a job. Politics is a “hobby.” She’s raised six children. When her husband requested, she would cancel lectures and return home. (She used to begin lectures, just to annoy feminists, by thanking her husband for permitting her to be with her audience.)
And Schlafly’s crusade against feminism is not about restricting women, but about giving them choices, and about making young women aware of the trade-offs feminists prefer not to discuss.
The objective of the woman’s movement is to discredit the option of staying home and raising children. Schlafly wants to encourage this choice. She believes most women find it gratifying, and natural: “human nature cannot be repealed, overturned by judicial fiat, or reshaped by media messages.” And when her children are in school, the woman who has elected to stay at home has the freedom to pursue other interests that no one with a 40-60 hour-a-week job can devote time to.
The left, of course, has never been interested in what people actually want. The social changes liberals have introduced—abortion, school bussing, affirmative action, mass immigration from South and Central America, the elimination of religion from public life—have all been mandated by judges and bureaucrats. The last thing the Democratic Party wants to do is to have public policy determined democratically.
Though her 21st book will be out in November, Schlafly is first and foremost an activist, not a theoretician.
Nothing illustrates this better than the story of her two books for children. In 1955, when her oldest son, John, was 4, her attention was caught by a book by an Austrian-born educator called Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can’t Read. It made the case that “phonics,” emphasizing pronunciation of letters and syllables, was a more effective method for teaching reading than the “whole-word” method that replaced it, and was enshrined in the Dick and Jane texts.
Schlafly bought the texts Flesh recommended, and made sure her own Johnny was an accomplished reader before she sent him to school in the second grade. She did the same with all her children. (Three became attorneys, one a physician, one a software designer with a Ph.D. in math, and one a businesswoman.)
But when the first of her grandchildren—“all geniuses, of course”—turned 4, these books were no longer available. Schlafly promptly wrote her own: The First Reader (reissued as Turbo Reader) and The First Reader Workbook.
When asked what advice she has for young people, particularly young women, she says, “Nothing’s better than the nuclear family,” and adds, “get married before you have sex.”
And what about for staying sharp and energetic at age 90?
“It’s important to think you’re doing something worthwhile. And keeping the country free is worthwhile.” She adds, “Politics has been interesting and rewarding.”
Is Schlafly optimistic about the future?
“I have to be,” she says. “America will survive. I want to encourage the grass roots. That’s the solution.” She adds wistfully, “I wish more people had the nerve to criticize feminists.”