From the time she entered political activism in the 1950s, she says, the conservative movement was all about economics and national defense. And then came the battle over the ERA.
In 1971, the proposed constitutional amendment sailed through the House, and the ERA seemed unstoppable — but its feminist backers hadn’t reckoned on Mrs. Schlafly’s opposition.
“The feminists were not about women’s achievement,” she recalls. “They were and are about telling women they are victims; men are the enemy; if you go in the workforce, you will never be paid what you ought to be paid; and if you get married, your husband will probably beat you up.”
At the time the ERA became an issue, the war in Vietnam was winding down, but the U.S.-Soviet struggle was still a Cold War stalemate and Mrs. Schlafly was chiefly concerned with national security issues.
Then, in the February 1972 issue of her influential national newsletter, Mrs. Schlafly wrote about the ERA, declaring it a fraud that would have no effect on equal pay but would force women to register for the military draft, serve in combat and lose financial protections as wives and mothers. She also warned the amendment would, among other things, legalize same-sex “marriage.”
The response from readers was overwhelming.
“Suddenly women started to call me, saying, ‘Well, Phyllis I took your report to our legislators, and we beat ERA.’ And that’s when I knew we could do something with it.”
So in September 1972, she got 100 friends, mostly from Republican women’s clubs in 30 states, to meet her in St. Louis, where she persuaded them to lead the fight to stop their state legislatures from approving the ERA.
Establishment conservatives, however, weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the anti-ERA crusade.
“The conservative movement was little help — conservatives in those days were defeatist,” Mrs. Schlafly recalls. “We had nothing to help us. There wasn’t any Internet — any Rush Limbaugh talking about ‘femi-Nazis.’ There was no Washington Times or Fox News. Conservative publications were ignoring us. National Review never wrote anything about it until after the battle was over.”
By 1976, the ERA had been endorsed by Republican Presidents Nixon and Ford and almost all state governors, regardless of party. Indiana was on the verge of becoming the 35th state to ratify the ERA.
Then, Mrs. Schlafly says, she realized she needed to seek support from a new source — the churches. She says she got “1,000 mainline Protestants, evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and orthodox Jews” to attend an anti-ERA rally in Springfield, Ill., on April 27, 1976.
“That is when the pro-family movement was invented,” she says. “It was a coming together of believers of all denominations who would do two things — come into politics for the first time and then work together for a cause they shared.”
The newborn movement quickly grew. In November 1977, when feminists held their International Women’s Year rally in Houston —attracting 3,000 tax-funded delegates — Mrs. Schlafly organized a counterrally.
“We had 20,000 pro-family women from all over the country,” she says. “They rode on buses maybe for 20 hours to our rally, then got back on the buses and rode home.”