Saturday, October 29, 2005


By Donald T. Critchlow

Princeton, $29.95, 438 pages, illus.


The modern feminist movement celebrated Betty Friedan for urging women into the workplace. The opposition, upholding the values of motherhood, celebrated Phyllis Schlafly.

The modern feminist movement rallied around Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. Magazine who gave radical feminist politics a persistent voice. The opposition rallied around Phyllis Schlafly, who founded The Phyllis Schlafly Report, a four-page newsletter influential for conservative women who wanted to protect stay-at-home moms.

The modern feminist movement got behind Pat Schroeder, the congresswoman who ran a short-lived campaign for president as a proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. Phyllis Schlafly took on Ms. Schroeder, the movement, the media and nearly every politician in America, and won. She’s come a long way, baby.

“Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade,” by Donald T. Chritchlow is a biography of a conservative, activist woman leader and the history of the grassroots minions she organized, almost single-handedly transforming the image of a conservative woman from “the little old lady in tennis shoes,” searching for communists under her bed, to a movement of well-organized, sophisticated women volunteers who moved into party politics. She may be the only woman of the late 20th century who could be accurately called as influential as Susan B. Anthony.

The movement she led competed successfully with the power garnered by feminists of the left, but with a completely different philosophy. In the early days when feminists were looking for ways to become “superwoman,” Phyllis Schlafly actually became one. But no one would say so.

She wasn’t exactly Rosie the Riveter, but she paid her way through Washington University in St. Louis during World War II working the night shift at an ammunition factory, testing shells for accuracy and velocity. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and won fellowships from Columbia University and Radcliffe. She took Radcliffe and earned a master’s degree from Harvard.

In those days she was a wide-eyed idealist who wrote positive papers about the United Nations. She adopted a conservative political philosophy after a year as a researcher at the American Enterprise Association (later the American Enterprise Institute), which focused on policy analysis from a conservative point of view. Later her conservatism expanded to foreign policy and domestic family-value issues, and she gradually became more activist than analyst, more strategist than thinker. Inconsistencies are sometimes writ large. She advocated a strong defense, but she was against conscription. She advocated tax cuts and a balanced budget, but wanted expansion of Social Security, veterans’ benefits, subsidies of old-age assistance and urged expanded aid to dependent children before illegitimacy was recognized as a serious problem. These payments, she argued, could be squeezed from waste and graft in foreign giveaway programs.

She first came to national prominence in the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater and her bestselling book, “A Choice Not an Echo,” contributed to the conservative rallying cry. In one of the most amusing anecdotes in the book (there aren’t many), she shared a plane with Bob Hope after the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. As the plane descended into Seattle, the pilot announced that a crowd had gathered at the gate to demand autographs. On landing Bob Hope straightened his tie and headed for the door, pen in hand. Uh, no, the pilot told him, the celebrity seekers were after Phyllis Schlafly, not him.

Her star, like those of other conservatives, fell sharply after the Goldwater debacle and the National Federation of Republican Women, dominated then by moderates and liberals, purged her from membership. But she never lost her loyal conservative constituency. Radical feminists underestimated and scoffed when she set out to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, figuring, along with all the pundits, that the adoption of the ERA would be a slam dunk. In one debate a flummoxed Betty Friedan attacked with more heat than light: “I’d like to burn you at the stake!” Mrs. Schlalfy shot back with her measured ladylike aplomb: “I’m glad you said that because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of ERA.”

Phyllis Schlafly at 81 has not given up the fight. Last year she published a book exhorting her faithful against the tyranny of judges and for the restoration of balance in the ranks of the judiciary. She’s passionate in her belief that marriage should be defined as a union only of a man and a woman.

The human side of Phyllis Schlafly ought to be fascinating; she calls raising six children her greatest accomplishment. Unfortunately we never see why. This book ignores most of her family life, illuminating only the public one. That’s too bad. We never see the full woman, the fears, doubts, anxieties and vulnerabilities that follow any mother into public life. We follow the leader who calls for family values, but we’re denied how she put family values to work in her own home.

Her greatest accomplishment as set out in this book is in galvanizing the grassroots enthusiasms of women who have no truck with radical feminism. The Equal Rights Amendment would be part of the Constitution now but for her passionate cultivation of these grassroots. No small accomplishment. Her most powerful argument was that the family “assures a woman the most precious and important right of all — the right to keep her own baby and to be supported and protected in the enjoyment of watching her baby grow and develop.” But how she did (or did not) enjoy that right will require another book.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Times.

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