Phyllis Schlafly, Valiant Woman
COMMENTARY: In her alert, tidy, Midwestern way, she was on to the devil’s game and never, never let loose what she could hold together through her powerful intellect and valiant heart.
Back in 1982, after getting engaged and deciding not to go to law school, I found myself working for Eagle Forum and living in the home of Fred and Phyllis Schlafly for six months.
This was a happy arrangement for me. I would do simple office work and plan my wedding. Their home was a beautiful Tudor mansion near the Mississippi River in Alton, Ill., on a bluff that offered spectacular views of Midwest sunsets. In my time there, I found myself agreeing with Phyllis on almost all topics I cared about and learning from her on many others.
While I was there, Fred Schlafly was recuperating from a failed hip-replacement operation that was causing him great suffering. I know it hurt Phyllis to see him suffer, but she patiently encouraged him in his exercise regimen, and he was humble and docile before all who helped him.
We ate together frequently — always at the now-very-retro kitchen table, unless, nearer the holidays, more children were home. Meals did not vary; we ate healthfully. (Good thing I was not adverse to liver.) Phyllis was one of those who had a food strategy — close to paleo (what else) — long before the Millennials made it an obsession.
Phyllis would be at her desk when I came down at 9am. She would usually quit her desk at 11pm and take a glass of wine upstairs when she and Fred retired.
I slept on the third floor (somewhere). Once, I came across her at a little table wrapping Christmas gifts — this when she had piles of columns to write and texts to evaluate. She was ill, with signs of fever and possible strep throat. But on this winter day, she was still upright in her chair and quick about her business. Her personal gifts would be wrapped by her and ready for her children. What better way to spend a fever.
On the subject of national defense, she had a very simple and clear message: Have one, and make it strong. But she never chimed in gleefully on the wars of the Clinton, Bush and Obama years that have destabilized the Middle East and left the U.S. more vulnerable than ever, at the cost of many American lives and trillions of dollars. For Phyllis, being pro-military did not mean being pro-war.
I was not a confidant, nor did I ever want to waste her time with small talk, but one time I asked her why she had not taken on the homosexual activists. “Because they are so vicious,” she said simply. She would not back down from issues that affected the family, but she would not fight them head-on as a group.
Phyllis was a brilliant woman. Ann Coulter called her something I’ve never heard anyone else call her: an intellectual. With all her degrees, she would certainly qualify. But we are so used to intellectuals tearing things down, not loving what is good — and Phyllis’ love was great. Her scholarship showed breadth and depth, and she understood the political implications and urgency of so many choices along the way.
She was both an intellectual and an activist. Rarely has one person the energy to do both successfully. It is a good thing so many intellectuals of the left are notoriously weighed down by interests of the flesh; I would not like them to rise to the work of the day, fully awake like the lady on the Alton bluffs.
When I worked for her, we were forever assembling booklets on the issues to hand out to senators, bishops and other influential people. I read the arguments, desperately trying to find spelling mistakes to justify my clerical existence, and wondered if sometimes she didn’t go a little too far in her judgments against the Equal Rights Amendment — surely no one wanted same-sex “marriages” or men in the women’s restroom.
But Phyllis not only unraveled the constitutional implications of the Equal Rights Amendment — she grasped the vision of its supporters. I found it fascinating that she could have this awkward way of smiling and saying something Betty Crocker-like, while totally discerning the spirit with which she was battling.
Phyllis understood something fundamental about liberal movements: People would become involved after agitations and prompting, to set straight one thing or another, but, very often, these people had no idea that there was a larger vision, a larger plan of destruction in play.
Many people forget this and let down their guard, reducing authentic feminism to its simple demands (such as equal pay for women). Yet in the wake of this professional feminism has come abortion, depression, poverty for women, loneliness, decomposition of self and a pathological search for sexual identity. She could anticipate the fruits of feminist self-hatred.
Phyllis grasped the vision of the opposition. I think this was her greatest triumph, mostly because I see it so rarely. And yet it came of something clean and clear and uncomplicated in her own intellect and heart. I’ve seen that in a few very smart, very good people.
In her alert, tidy, Midwestern way, she was on to the devil’s game and never, never let loose what she could hold together through her powerful intellect and valiant heart.
Phyllis died on Sept. 5, the first feast day of Mother Teresa — a cosmic symmetry that will forever link the two 20th-century champions of the family.
My, how she has deserved her rest. May God grant her his mercy and the fullness of his peace.
Priscilla McCaffrey writes from Ridgefield, Connecticut.