In Memoriam: Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016)

NEWS ANALYSIS: The longtime conservative Catholic activist, who is credited with organizing the grassroots campaign that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, died Sept. 5 at the age of 92.

Phyllis Schlafly died on Sept. 5 at the age of 92.
Phyllis Schlafly died on Sept. 5 at the age of 92. (photo: 2007 photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS — When Andrew Schlafly embraced the conservative movement in adulthood, he asked his mother, Phyllis, to explain what made her own activism so successful.  

Enjoy the political battle was her basic response.

“She said, ‘Be like an Irish cop who gets into the fray, fights the bad guys and enjoys the fight,’” Andrew Schlafly told the Register. “She told me, ‘It isn’t enough to fight for what’s right. You have to enjoy it. Then you will have staying power.’”

Phyllis Schlafly died on Sept. 5 at the age of 92. And if further evidence of her staying power were needed, conservative activists who lauded her tireless campaign to stop a flawed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and to secure pro-life language in a succession of Republic Party platforms could point to her role as a delegate to the 2016 GOP convention in Cleveland. She was on the convention floor just weeks before she succumbed to cancer at her home in St. Louis.

A Catholic wife and mother of six children who published more than 20 books and obtained a law degree while raising a family, Schlafly personified Midwestern values of grit and hard work, leavened by humor and grace under pressure.

Those gifts, say family members and fellow activists, were matched with an intuitive grasp of political tactics and grassroots organizing.

Connie Mackey, the former vice president for government relations at the Family Research Council, remembered the first time she witnessed Schlafly’s political smarts.

It was 1996, and Phyllis was leading a “stealth” battle to secure pro-life language in the Republican Party platform at a time when the voices of abortion rights had gained traction.

“She had a clear understanding of the goal and the means needed to achieve it,” recalled Mackey.

“She understood full well that those of us lobbying on Capitol Hill needed a tool to help remind our representatives what they should be doing.

“Her strategy was to find out who the pro-life delegates would be and to limit the activity to trusted delegates who had been trained in parliamentary procedures. People who wanted a pro-choice platform didn’t know what hit them.”

National Right to Life Committee’s vice president, Tony Lauinger, who has often served as a delegate to Republican national conventions, confirmed Mackey’s assessment of Schlafly’s impact on the party platform.

“Phyllis’ devotion to the unborn child, her exceptional organizing skills and her ability to educate and inspire others have influenced the Republican Party’s principled pledge to defend the sanctity of innocent human life more than has the work of any other individual,” said Lauinger in a statement marking Schlafly’s death.

 

Defeating the ERA

Political conservatives also valued Schlafly’s uncompromising record on other movement issues, like anti-communism and a strong national defense. But it was her brilliant game plan for defeating the Equal Rights Amendment that brought her to the attention of ordinary Americans, as well as feminist activists, who viewed her as a traitor to her sex.

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” stated the ERA, and political leaders on both sides of the aisle had seen little reason to question the consequences of passing the amendment.

In 1972, when Phyllis was first asked to address the issues posed by the ERA — and then quickly raised the alarm — it had already been passed by Congress and only required ratification in a few more state legislatures.

However, she believed the ERA would hurt, not help, women, by sweeping away legal protections that accommodated their unique social contributions as wives and mothers. Women would be drafted into the military and receive no special protections in the event of divorce, she warned.. Futher, she contended that same-sex “marriage” and federal subsidies for legal abortion would be the law of the land.

In 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, a watershed moment for many churchgoing Americans, who began to listen to Schlafly and traveled to their state capitals to lobby against the ERA.

By 1975, she had founded the Eagle Forum, a national political organization that mobilized and trained a generation of conservative volunteers, many of them homemakers, to take on a range of policy issues.

“Her message to women was, ‘You can change the world from your living room,’” said Marjorie Dannenfelster, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political action committee that raises funds for pro-life candidates.

    

Message Remains Relevant

Dannenfelser acknowledged that many more American mothers are in the workforce today than during the time when the ERA was debated and finally defeated in 1982, after failing to secure the required approval of 38 states. And thus, fewer women have time to take up political activism.

But she emphasized that the core of Schlafly’s message had not lost its fundamental appeal to women who are raising families.

“No matter whether you work or are at home, you can still have a home-centered view of the world that gives priority to policies that affect your family,” Dannenfelster told the Register, as she celebrated the power and urgency of Schlafly’s message to the grassroots.

“The ‘consent of the governed’ is real, so you take it personally when you see government going in the wrong direction.”

Catholic pro-life leaders, like Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life, stressed that Schlafly’s opposition to the ERA allowed some breathing room for the pro-life movement.

If the ERA “had been approved as originally written, it would have been used by liberal judges to strike down virtually any pro-life law,” said Father Pavone.

Feminist leaders, however, were incensed by Schlafly’s success.

“I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan, the author of the contemporary feminist handbook The Feminine Mystique, told her nemesis during a debate on the ERA.

Schlafly, unruffled by such vitriol, challenged the need for sexual equality in the workplace. She believed that hard work was more likely to get a woman ahead than complaints about a glass ceiling.

“Don’t call me ‘Ms.,’” she often said, as she showed up for public appearances in pearls and a stylish outfit. “To me, it means misery.”

 

Formative Years

Phyllis McAlpin Stewart was born in 1924 in St. Louis. She honed her gift for humor in the face of adversity, even as she developed a striking habit of hard work, as she watched her mother, the head librarian at the St. Louis Art Museum, struggle as the primary breadwinner for a family of four.

A gifted student, she entered Maryville College of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis, but quickly shifted to Washington University, also in St. Louis. She covered the tuition by working more than 40 hours a week on the night shift at a munitions factory. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa, she earned a scholarship to study political science at Radcliffe, the sister school to Harvard University.

After a stint in Washington, Phyllis married Fred Schlafly, a Catholic lawyer who shared, nurtured and backed her conservative activism until his death in 1993.

In 1964, her self-published best-seller, A Choice Not an Echo, helped Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater win the Republican presidential nomination and burnished Schlafly’s credentials as a grassroots activist who was prepared to take on the GOP establishment.

Kathleen Sullivan, one of Schlafly’s oldest friends and colleagues at the Eagle Forum, said her Catholic faith strongly influenced her activism on life, marriage and religious freedom, issues that would bring Catholics and evangelicals together.

At the same time, Sullivan observed, Schlafly was not shy about challenging Church leaders on economic and national defense issues.

When the U.S. bishops were preparing materials for their controversial 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” conservative Catholics, including Schlafly, were worried that Church leaders would indict the U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence that had defined much of the Cold War era and helped keep the peace between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Then-Auxiliary Bishop John O’Connor, a former chief of chaplains of the U.S. Navy, was on the U.S. bishops’ committee charged with developing the pastoral letter, and conservatives hoped he would convince the majority of committee members to see things their way.

Schlafly had worked with Bishop O’Connor on life issues, and so made a point to ask him whether there were sufficient votes to support a strong moral critique of U.S. defense policy.

“She asked Bishop O’Connor, ‘What’s your head count?’” Sullivan told the Register, with some amusement.

“O’Connor asked, ‘What do you mean by that?’

“She said, ‘What is your vote count?’

“He said, ‘We don’t depend on counting votes’ for a pastoral letter.”

Sullivan said that Schlafly was baffled by her friend’s failure to nail down vital political information. Later, Schlafly published a booklet entitled, “The Pastoral We Wish the Bishops Had Written,” which outlined her view of Church teaching on a nation’s responsibility for self-defense.

 

Family Priorities

As she traveled with Schlafly to attend conventions or testify before Congress or state legislatures, Sullivan recalled that the two women often brought along their children, and sometimes their spouses, as well.

Back home, Phyllis had a staff to help with her six children and interns to assist with a daunting workload, said Sullivan.

Phyllis always credited her husband, Fred, with giving her the help and support she needed to manage all of her responsibilities and prepare for political battle.

“My father was a tough Irish guy, and he was very good at coaching my mother, in terms of style, debate tactics,” Andrew Schlafly recalled.

“But in terms of substance, it all came from my mother,” he said, noting that she was often well ahead of popular opinion on a range of issues.

Schlafly never considered retiring from politics and shifted gears to address a range of policy issues, from immigration issues to Obamacare. More recently, she antagonized some conservatives by endorsing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

But as they look back on their mother’s remarkable trajectory, sons John and Andrew Schlafly treasure the wit, military discipline and powers of endurance that made Phyllis Schlafly a conservative icon.

Today, as angry rhetoric and canned sound bites often serve as placeholders for real political discourse, Phyllis Schlafly points to a different standard, as Andrew suggests with final story about his unflappable mother.

“When she got an honorary degree at Washington University, and faculty and student protested by turning their backs on her as she received the degree, a reporter asked her for a comment, remembered Andrew.

“I am not sure the students are mature enough to graduate,” his mother coolly replied.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.

Phyllis Schlafly Funeral Arrangements

Visitation will be held on Friday, Sept. 9 from 3-8pm at Kriegshauser Mortuary-West Chapel 9450 Olive Blvd., Olivette, Mo.

Funeral Mass will be held on Saturday, Sept. 10 at 2pm,  reception to follow on site, at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (New Cathedral), 4431 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, Mo.

Memorial Celebration of Phyllis Schlafly’s Life at Eagle Council on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 10 am at St. Louis Airport Marriott, 10700 Pear Tree Dr., St. Louis, Mo.

Cate Blanchett portrays Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America

Phyllis Schlafly and Mrs. America (May 2)

Even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the culture wars in the country continue. The late, great Phyllis Schlafly is being portrayed as an enemy of women and social progess in a new series on Hulu. And even as parents are homeschooling their children, Harvard University is calling for and to all teaching at home. This week on Register Radio we look at the latest controversies with Register correspondent Lauretta Brown and Register editor Alyssa Murphy.