ST. LOUIS — Few living Americans have done as much to shape the nation’s direction as Phyllis Schlafly, who is arguably the most important woman in American political history.
She is the suburban housewife turned best-selling author who heralded conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican presidential campaign as “A Choice, Not an Echo,” followed up by becoming an authority on nuclear-missile defense and then, in a stunning upset, led the forces that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
When asked about her greatest accomplishments, however, Mrs. Schlafly takes care to mention perhaps the most important lesson of her long career — “teaching conservatives that we can win.”
Along the way, she helped arouse the slumbering giant of American politics — millions of socially conservative but previously apolitical churchgoers. She saw their potential and figured out how to turn them into a separate force on the political right.
What Mrs. Schlafly calls the “pro-family movement” helped elect Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House and establish Republicans’ decadelong dominance in Congress.
She got an early start — in 1942, at the world’s largest munitions plant in St. Louis.
“I went to work on my 18th birthday, on the night shift, firing machine guns and rifles to test .30- and .50-caliber ammunition for accuracy, penetration, hang fire, velocity — and went to college in the day,” she says.
She finished her degree a year early and sees “no reason for anybody to go [to college] any longer than three years.”
At 81 — she looks 51 — she is sitting poised, tailored and elegant in her office at the suburban St. Louis headquarters of her Eagle Forum Education & Legal Defense Fund. She speaks precisely, without a single thought-collecting “um” or “uh.”
Time-wasting is not a Schlafly trait. Hard work is.
Last summer, she sat through every long, grueling session, every day and evening for a week, of the platform-writing committee at Republican National Convention in New York. She secretly negotiated with presidential adviser Karl Rove and the platform writers to make sure it remained her kind of conservative document on everything from abortion to immigration.
Since 1983, she has delivered, five days a week, a three-minute report on more than 450 radio stations across the country, voicing her amalgam of libertarian concerns about constitutional liberties and religious conservative emphasis on social issues. She airs her views on everything from “battling the gay and feminist agenda” to “protecting freedom against government snooping.”
She broadcasts her hourlong radio call-in show, “Phyllis Schlafly Live,” every Saturday. For 38 years, she has published a monthly newsletter. Her syndicated column appears in 100 newspapers.
She has written 21 books that have sold millions of copies, but never once put her children into day care while she pursued her political career.
After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis and then getting a master’s in government from Harvard, she married J. Fred Schlafly and became a full-time mother. She taught her six children to read before they entered school. When they were on their own, she earned a law degree and admittance to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States.
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.”
By 1983, the ERA was defeated. In the process, Mrs. Schlafly says, a powerful new alliance had been formed between churchgoing Americans and those conservatives chiefly concerned about economic and foreign-policy issues.
Over the years, the religious right has “been educated” on such issues by conservative leaders, she says. “At the same time, the pro-family conservative movement has educated economic conservatives about the social issues.”
Mrs. Schlafly’s credentials as a member of the conservative movement’s Old Guard are unimpeachable. Her first book, “A Choice, Not an Echo,” sold an astonishing 3 million copies nationally and helped turn the 1964 Republican presidential nomination away from New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — leader of the liberal “Eastern establishment” wing of the party — and give it to Mr. Goldwater, hero of the GOP’s conservative rank and file.
The Arizona senator stood for free markets, limited government and a military strong enough to defeat Soviet communism. Although he lost in a landslide to President Lyndon Johnson, Mr. Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy has since been viewed as the turning point in the rise of Republican conservatism.
The social and religious conservatives among whom Mrs. Schlafly remains a powerful leader are not, she says, part of the same movement as economic conservatives.
“It’s really a different movement. It was a coalition of those two movements — the economic-national defense conservatives who were still around after Goldwater and then the social conservatives who woke up in the ‘70s — that elected Ronald Reagan.”
And, she says, the family values movement’s message to the economic conservatives has gotten through loud and clear: “You better stick with us or you’re not going to win any elections.”
For all her social conservatism, Mrs. Schlafly remains very much the Goldwater-Reagan conservative when it comes to limited government and the role of the United States in the world.
Her operational definition of conservatism is “lower taxes, limited government, fiscal integrity — and American military superiority, because everybody is safer that way.”
But she says it doesn’t follow that the mightiest nation in the world has an obligation to spread democracy by force of arms.
“No, I do not believe it is the mission of our country to tell other countries how to run their affairs,” she says. “Our public officials have an obligation to obey the Constitution. They don’t have an obligation to reform the world.”
Is that an integral part of the definition of conservatism?
“I think so,” Mrs. Schlafly says. “It would certainly be an integral part of what Bob Taft believed. And what Goldwater believed. And I think what Reagan believed.”