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Founding Mother

When Phyllis Schlafly rallied grassroots Americans against the Equal Rights Amendment, the measure had bipartisan support. Ten years later, the ERA was dead. How did she stop it?

By Karla Dial

All Phyllis Schlafly wants to do is vote.

For the moment, though, she is being prevented from doing so, thanks to a little redistricting in Ladue, the St. Louis suburb she’s called home for the last nine years. The elementary school where she usually would cast a ballot in the state primary sends her to the local high school, which in turn sends her to the local junior high.

“Can I vote here?” Schlafly asks as she walks into the dimly lit gymnasium. “I’ve been to two other places, and they wouldn’t have me.”

These precinct workers, who greet her like a long-lost friend, are more than happy to accept her ballot on this muggy Missouri Tuesday, when only 24 percent of the Show Me State’s registered voters are expected to show up. Thanks to the redistricting confusion, many who did try to vote already have given up on finding the right polling place and will content themselves with watching the results on the evening news.

Not Schlafly. She won’t rest until she’s done her part to make a difference. So she quietly punches her ballot card, then sweeps both sides carefully to remove any hanging, swinging or dimpled chads before dropping it in the box.

“See?” she says, a mischievous glint lighting her sapphire eyes.

“It’s not that hard.”

Phyllis Schlafly has spent most of her life making the seemingly impossible look not that hard. In the 1970s, she took on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which pundits assumed was a foregone conclusion before she enlisted an army of social conservatives to oppose it. It died 20 years ago — June 30, 1982.

That success earned Schlafly a spot in the history books — but it’s hardly her only achievement. A Choice Not an Echo, the book she self-published in 1964, helped change the face of the conservative movement; within two decades, she would bring people of all Christian denominations together to begin the pro-family drive that put Ronald Reagan in the White House.

And she did it while cooking, cleaning and caring for a husband and six children — cloth diapers, homework, three squares a day and all.

“I think my life is a good example of what one person can do,” says Schlafly, as feisty at 78 as she was in ’78. “As I look back, I really think the Lord was preparing me in many ways to take the challenges that came upon me. I could not have accomplished what I have without the Lord’s help.”

Politics and Diapers

Phyllis McAlpine Stewart, born into a devout Catholic family in 1924, learned early on she would need to be resourceful to be successful. At 17, without the money to pay for college, she took a decidedly masculine job test-firing guns at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant.

Although she earned $20 less than her male colleagues, she worked 48-hour weeks on the night shift, then headed off each morning to a full load of classes at Washington University. Along the way, she listened to the morning news for eight minutes, then took 15 to pray. She would graduate Phi Beta Kappa in only three years.

She went on to earn her master’s degree in political science from Radcliffe in just nine months. A few years later, through her job as a librarian, speechwriter and newsletter editor for the St. Louis Union Trust, she met J. Fred Schlafly, a 39-year-old corporate lawyer from Alton, Ill. Her flashing eyes, regal bearing and piercing intellect would keep him riveted for the next four decades.

Children followed quickly — as did the beginning of Schlafly’s activism. When their first son, John, was just 18 months old, some of Alton’s leading Republicans proposed that Fred Schlafly run for Congress. No sooner had he turned them down in January 1952 than 27-year-old Phyllis volunteered to run for the seat in the heavily Democratic district.

“It was like a postgraduate course in politics, and also in dealing with people, which were not my strong suits. I’m kind of shy,” Schlafly recalls. “I went to county fairs and just walked up to people, stuck out my hand, and said, ‘Hi. I’m Phyllis Schlafly, and I’m running for Congress. Will you vote for me?’ Ten thousand times.”

Schlafly won the April primary but lost in November. Her interest in politics, though, would only grow stronger. In 1964, she gave birth for the last time and published a book for the first: A Choice Not an Echo was a 121-page pamphlet that exposed the growing forces of liberalism within the Republican Party. A select group of East Coast Republicans, she wrote, rigged nominations and adopted phony platforms, producing election defeats to further their own interests.

By the time the Republican National Convention rolled around, it had sold 3 million copies — straight from her garage.

“That was the way we did it,” Schlafly says. “And that’s what gave me a national following.”

Fighting the Feminists

It was 1967 when Schlafly realized the interest in moral as well as fiscal conservatism spread beyond her circle of friends. She started a newsletter, the Phyllis Schlafly Report, writing think pieces about a different political issue each month, and charged the original 3,000 subscribers $5 a year. But despite her growing profile, Schlafly maintained that politics was only her hobby; family was her life.

“I just thought all moms were this way,” her oldest child, John, tells Citizen. “But as I got older, I realized she got a lot more out of every day than most people do. Although she was writing and speaking and doing some traveling, she was managing the household and supervising the kids as much or more than other mothers were.”

How did this mother manage so much? Schlafly said her career rose and fell depending on the number of diapers she had to change in any given year — but it remained fairly steady through the 1950s. She nursed all her children to 6 months, only traveled around Illinois while they were small — and as they grew, Republican National Conventions got to be like family vacations for the clan. Today’s mothers have more options, Schlafly says.

“There’s so much you can do with e-mail and telephoning that you can do it right out of your home,” she says.

In 1972, feminist leader Eleanor Smeal and the backers of the ERA found out just how gifted a multi-tasker Schlafly could be. In February of that year, Schlafly titled her report, “What’s Wrong with the Equal Rights Amendment?”

“They wanted to be liberated from home, husband, family and children,” Schlafly recalls of the ERA forces. “I just wanted to be liberated from cleaning up diapers. My idea of heaven on earth was to have a dryer, but it certainly wasn’t getting rid of home, husband, family and children. They see the role of the wife as the role of the servant — and think it’s degrading.”

The women’s libbers argued that a constitutional amendment eliminating all “sexual discrimination” would make life better for women — equal pay for equal work, for instance. Schlafly saw through the smokescreen and realized it would take away more rights than it would give: The ERA would subject women to the military draft; abolish divorced women’s automatic rights to custody, child support and alimony; erase laws protecting them from sex crimes; and make prisons, reform schools and public restrooms completely co-ed.

By the time it appeared on Schlafly’s radar, the ERA had been written into the Democratic and Republican party platforms, passed by the House and the Senate, rubber-stamped by President Nixon and ratified by 13 states. Within a year, it would have 30 of the 38 ratifications it needed by 1979 to be added to the Constitution.

So Schlafly gave her readers the tools they needed to make a difference — outlining the case against the ERA in her plainspoken, Midwestern way, then telling them how to contact and lobby their legislators.

In September 1972, 100 women from 30 states came to a conference Schlafly called in St. Louis. The resulting group’s name was the same as its sole purpose — Stop ERA. By 1973, members were asking their state legislators for hearings on the amendment so they could present their side. Schlafly was often invited to speak, with supporters paying her plane fare.

“You can sell a pretty package in the short term, but over the long term, [feminists] could not offer any benefit that women were going to get out of it,” Schlafly says. “Meanwhile, I was showing all the detriments.”

Delegation was key. Schlafly might have called the plays, but the volunteers in her network ran the routes. She taught them in seminars how to argue, how to demand a voice and how to defeat the feminists on their own turf — on local point/counterpoint television and radio talk shows.

The ERA gained five more states over the next few years — but Nebraska, Tennessee, South Dakota and Idaho, which already had ratified it, rescinded their support after Schlafly’s grassroots army went to work. The ERA went into a holding pattern.

Allies of Faith

To keep it there, Schlafly turned to the church. Denominations that had never shared a room put their theological differences aside to stop the ERA.

“There was a lot of antagonism early on when I would get them together at my meetings,” Schlafly says. “I would say, ‘You can go to your own church on Sunday, but we can work together on political goals we share.’ They didn’t feel theologically threatened by me.”

The strategy worked. Before the April 27, 1976, Illinois ratification hearing, Schlafly prayed that God would send 1,000 protesters to demonstrate outside the Legislature.

And He did.

“Springfield, Ill., had never seen anything like it,” Schlafly remembers. “It was all the various Christian churches, all of them. They came on buses that said, ‘Joy’ and ‘Jesus Saves.’ The legislators came out of their offices and were just stunned. The feminists had convinced them that they represented all women, but we showed we were lots of people and we had the votes.”

Schlafly could have gone looking for votes again herself in 1977, when Republicans asked her to run for the U.S. Senate. Since it appeared the ERA was running out of steam — partially as a result of homosexual advocacy being added to its platform — the offer was a tempting one. She asked her husband if he would consider moving to Washington for a few years.

Fred told her to forget it; Schlafly told her supporters they could, too.

“You have a career and it becomes very compelling. Then maybe you have a baby and that consumes a good bit of your life,” Schlafly says now. “A man needs to feel needed. I didn’t want Fred to feel I didn’t need him.”

Had it not been for her submission, the ERA might be law today. That’s because, as the 1979 deadline for approval approached, President Carter extended it three years, leaving Schlafly with 36 more months of battle that would have proved impossible to fight from a Senate office.

As it turned out, when feminists redoubled their efforts over the ERA, so did Schlafly. In March 1979, she threw a party in Washington, D.C., to declare the amendment dead — and sent a ripple through the conservative movement that continued to yield results through the 1980 presidential election to the ERA’s official defeat in 1982, when it ran out of time three states shy of ratification.

“The press was in total shock at the nerve of me proclaiming it dead when they knew it had three more years,” she recalls. “What that did was tell the conservative movement it was possible to win. Up until then, the prevailing view was, ‘Well, we’re going to do what God tells us to do. We’ll pass out fliers, but of course we’re not going to win.’

“So the good effects of the fight were not only that we saved the Constitution from the radical feminists, but that we invented the pro-family movement.”

‘We’ve All Benefited’

Those who have stepped into conservative leadership alongside Schlafly, whether in politics or media, understand the debt they owe her.

“Phyllis dressed the conservative movement for success at a time when absolutely no one thought we could win. She taught us that sheer dogged determination can reverse the odds,” Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich says. “The movement, indeed the nation, shall always be in debt for that.”

Sean Hannity, host of radio’s nationally syndicated Sean Hannity Show and the Fox News Channel’s Hannity and Colmes, agrees.

“I shudder to think what the movement would look like [without her influence],” Hannity tells Citizen. “Phyllis was really way out there ahead of the curve. We’ve all benefited from the hard work she engaged in all these years.”

Key among those beneficiaries are the preborn. Had it not been for Schlafly’s strong pro-life presence through 12 Republican National Conventions, the GOP might have caved to Bob Dole in 1996, when he demanded the party soften its 16-year-old stance against abortion to attract more female voters. But Schlafly spent the year leading up to the convention recruiting Christians to run as delegates, specifically to defend the pro-life position.

“Phyllis Schlafly is responsible for the pro-life plank being in the platform — period,” says former Schlafly aide Caia Hoskins. “It was the Phyllis Schlafly women on the platform committee that kept it [pro-life]. When it all came down, the pro-abortion side didn’t even have enough people to start a floor fight. All they had was the media. Phyllis Schlafly had the grassroots.”

Schlafly is still hard at work, 17 hours a day — a full-time volunteer at the helm of the Eagle Forum, the pro-family activist organization she founded in 1975. She continues to produce the Phyllis Schlafly Report, as well as a weekly newspaper column and daily three-minute radio spots heard on 460 stations nationwide. She also hosts a Saturday radio talk show and is writing a book on election fraud.

Feminists remain a favorite target. ERA or no ERA, they haven’t stopped pushing their radical agenda — the recent campaign to pass a United Nations treaty eliminating “all forms of discrimination against women” is just the latest wrinkle. But Schlafly also has grave concerns about the state of public education and literacy. She taught her own children to read and published a book on phonics, TURBO Reader, earlier this year.

“I think the biggest influence on our culture is the public school system, where 89 percent of the children are being educated,” Schlafly says. “They are illiterate, have no knowledge of history and are told that they have to be tolerant of every kooky thing.”

When the National Education Association released a set of lesson plans in August with guidelines on how teachers should discuss Sept. 11 with students — including not assigning blame even to the terrorists who slaughtered 3,000 people — Schlafly spoke forcefully against it and took hits from liberals on primetime TV for doing so.

But the hits don’t faze her. Rather than respond to personal attacks, she simply soars gracefully above them.

“She is not emotionally influenced by setbacks and has that determination to follow through with what she believes is right,” says her youngest daughter, Anne. “Many people subject to the trials she had would not be as relaxed and happy as she is. Her faith is unquestionably the core.”

It’s a faith that, 50 years after she first stepped on the national stage, tells Schlafly that the causes she’s always fought for are the causes still worth fighting for.

“I look around at all the women I debated in the ’70s, and they don’t have any grandchildren,” she says. “And having grandchildren is like starting life all over again. They just gave all that up. I’m happy with what I did. I’m happy I spent all those years washing diapers.

“I don’t see that the people who oppose us have anything to offer that’s as good as what we’ve got.”

For more information on Schlafly’s books, newsletters and radio programs, log on to www.eagleforum.org. Her most recent book, Feminist Fantasies, a collection of 90 essays from the last 30 years, is available through Spence Publishing.

This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Citizen magazine. Copyright © 2002 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.