Profile: Phyllis Schlafly, Indomitable?Conservative

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:28 PM EDT

( - Since Sept. 11, a new consensus has been gelling over the need for better immigration enforcement and border controls. The trend does not surprise Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum.

The issue takes Schlafly back to her roots. The need for tighter borders and a strong national defense were among the issues that helped define Schlafly's career beginning in the 1950s, long before modern-day terrorism.

Just as her career has seen her cross swords with various elements of the Republican Party from time to time, the current debate on immigration puts her at odds with the Bush administration.

"They're doing fine on the war," Schlafly said, but lamented, "They're not doing fine on closing our borders to potential terrorists, and they're not doing fine on the conservative agenda."

In many ways, her refusal to walk in lock step with the GOP has been a hallmark of Schlafly's half-century in politics and political activism.

The Crucible of Campaign Politics

Born to a non-political St. Louis family in 1924, Schlafly graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in political science in 1945, and worked for a time in Washington, D.C. at the American Enterprise Institute before settling in Alton, Ill.

During the course of an extensive interview with, Schlafly admitted she's never seen herself as a politician, even though she ran for Congress twice - once in 1952 and again in 1970.

Her late husband, Fred Schlafly, was the Republicans' first choice to run for the Illinois seat 50 years ago. When he declined, someone suggested Phyllis.

She accepted.

"Things were much simpler then," said Schlafly, then a young mother caring for the first of six children. She preferred to remain close to the family's Alton home, saying, "I was never gone overnight."

Schlafly ran what she described as "a very intellectual campaign," in 1952, winning the Republican primary but losing the general election in a district with a two-to-one Democratic registration advantage.

Eighteen years later, she ran again. Schlafly called 1970, "a bad year for Republicans," and she lost narrowly in a newly redistricted contest.

But by then, Schlafly had established herself as a leading Republican strategist, a multi-issue candidate and an articulate defender of traditional American family values.

The ERA: A Defining Effort

Six years before her second defeat for elective office, Schlafly self-published a book entitled "A Choice, Not an Echo." It included a history of Republican National Conventions and a declaration of war on eastern, 'Rockefeller Republicans.'

It was 1964, the year of Barry Goldwater. Schlafly's self-published book sold 3 million copies. "That was really the start of the modern conservative movement," she said.

To keep up with a fast-growing national conservative constituency, Schlafly started the "Phyllis Schlafly Report," a monthly newsletter that would address various topics of the day.

Among the many columns written after Goldwater's defeat was a 1972 essay entitled "What's Wrong With the ERA?" It drew an unprecedented response from readers and fueled a Herculean political battle for Schlafly.

Almost overnight, the Equal Rights Amendment had become one of the hottest buttons in national politics and would remain so for the next decade.

"I began getting calls that they'd taken my newsletter to their state capitals and gotten the ERA voted down," Schlafly said.

Later that year, she founded an organization called "Stop ERA," which morphed into today's Eagle Forum, a national organization that currently has a membership of 80,000 people.

But in targeting the ERA for defeat, Schlafly had challenged a political Goliath with formidable power.

Supporters of the ERA included not only liberals and feminists, but all living presidents and their wives, leading mayors and governors, the League of Women Voters, the National and World Council of Churches, the platforms of the Republican and Democratic Parties and virtually all of the establishment news media.

The proposed amendment was nothing if not simple: "Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article."

Opponents, however, found plenty to object to. "First of all, it was a fraud," Schlafly said. "It pretended to put women in the Constitution and give women new benefits, but it's a lie that women are not in the Constitution. Men are not mentioned in the Constitution. That isn't the way the Constitution's written. It's completely gender neutral.

"As we went on, we found all kinds of other defects, such as taking away the right of the wife to be supported by her husband," she noted.

The ERA sailed through both houses of Congress with 90 percent majorities. It was then sent to state legislatures with the stipulation that ratification by three-fourths of the states - a total of 38 - happen within seven years.

In the first year, 30 states passed the ERA, and Schlafly re-doubled her efforts in opposition to the amendment.

Over the next six years, five more states ratified the ERA, but five other states that had earlier approved the amendment rescinded their ratifications.

After more than 2,000 days of lobbying, the net score for supporters of the ERA was zero.

When it became clear the amendment would not win the necessary 38 states by March 1979, Congress passed a three-year extension, a concession that outraged opponents.

"It's like, your ball game isn't tied up, but you're demanding an extra quarter anyway," Schlafly said. "Even people who were not for us realized it was just illegal and unfair, and contrary to our ideals of fair play and sportsmanship and everything else."

The extension didn't engender any more sympathy among state legislatures or voters, who apparently had made up their minds.

Supporters of the amendment never got another state and the ERA campaign came to an end on June 30, 1982. And Schlafly felt good.

Target: Schlafly

Schlafy's work against the Equal Rights Amendment for women earned the activist more than her share of detractors, running the gamut from intellectual opponents to violent adversaries.

Feminist Betty Friedan once alleged that Schlafly had received funds from the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan. The allegation was never substantiated and never stuck.

During a debate with Schlafly in Bloomington, Ill. in 1973, a frustrated Friedan told her, "I'd like to burn you at the stake."

Gloria Steinem once criticized the mother of six for being rich, and in a weirdly vaudevillian episode in 1977, a protester threw an apple pie in Schlafly's face during a reception at the Women's National Republican Club.

She suffered an eye injury in the attack but declined to press charges.

Attacking Schlafly's character, however, proved to be more difficult. In 1979, Schlafly biographer Carol Felsenthal ran an ad in the New York Times Book Review asking readers for "information" on her.

"I received 87 responses, all but two from dyed-in-the-wool Schlafly critics who mostly repeated the same gossip, out of which I could substantiate only one rumor - that neither Phyllis or Fred had attended their daughter's piano recitals," Felsenthal wrote. "And that I already knew."

Barbara Ehrenreich, a political essayist and author of "Nickel and Dimed; On (Not) Getting By in America," praised Schlafly's energy and perseverance, but called her "the anti-me on almost every issue."

With the emergence of the National Organization for Women and other feminist groups, Ehrenreich said Schlafly may have won the battle over the ERA, but lost the war.

"I think the feminist revolution was really unstoppable and I don't think [Schlafly] understood that," she said.

Liberal women's groups to this day haven't abandoned the ERA Schlafly had worked so hard to defeat.

Carol Rosenblatt, executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, said women still are earning only 73 cents for every dollar that men earn, and argued that passing the ERA Schlafly worked to defeat would change that.

Ehrenreich considered Schlafly's approach to women's issues somewhat old-fashioned.

"I think the overwhelming thing is that women wanted independence, did not want to get back into a 50s sort of stand of 'I'm completely dependent, so the big thing is to figure out how to hold on to this man,'" she said.

In Ehrenreich's estimation, Schlafly's pitch was to "the stay-at-home mother, the economically dependent woman, and her pitch was basically, 'we can't let the feminist movement continue because it undercuts our legitimacy of your claim on a man's wages.'"

"I'm putting it a little more crassly than she did," confessed Ehrenreich, a critic who admitted, "It's not an unreasonable argument."

Learning to Win and Rallying Reagan Democrats

Schlafly's contribution to the conservative movement of the 1970s, as she saw it, was two-fold: to bring people of faith together politically and teach them it's possible to win.

"After Goldwater lost in 1964, the mindset of the conservatives was, 'I'm going to do my thing, I'm going to pass out my literature, but of course we're going to lose.' It was a completely defeatist mentality," Schlafly said.

"What I did by beating ERA was to show conservatives can win against enormous odds," she said.

A turning point for Schlafly, a Catholic, came in 1976, when she sent out an appeal to the churches. Protestants and Catholics, she discovered, didn't really work together in politics.

Most Catholics were Democrats, and there wasn't much mixing, least of all for political action.

"They really thought if they pulled the Republican lever, they were going to die and go to hell. That's their mentality," said Schlafly. "It was just a wrench for them to vote Republican."

Then came Ronald Reagan.

After losing the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, Reagan brought in the pro-family movement and brought cultural issues to the fore in 1980. Abortion became a campaign issue that compelled many old-line Catholic Democrats to vote Republican, Schlafly noted.

"In certain parts of the country, all Democrats are liberals. But that's not true in other areas. For example, in Chicago, it was very much an Irish-Catholic Democratic machine, and a lot of these guys voted with me on ERA, because they were 'God, family and country' men," she said.

Schlafly and others began to see a political opportunity in differentiating Reagan from the Republicans. She and others began to distribute campaign buttons with a green shamrock that read "Irish for Reagan," not 'GOP.'

"They looked at Reagan and they probably thought he was a Catholic, anyway he was Irish. I'm a great believer that people vote ethnically, so Reagan got these people," she said.

When Reagan won, Schlafly said, "It was like a big shock to a lot of people."

"But I taught them if you believe you can win, you can win."

Fighting the Republican Establishment

During the 1980s, Schlafly used the Eagle Forum to promote traditional conservative issues, such as lower taxes, the right to bear arms, a strong national defense and the establishment of English as the country's official language, among others.

But in her eyes, the work that she and Reagan had accomplished was being forsaken by Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush.

Schlafly said the elder Bush "spent four years trying to disassociate himself from Reagan and he finally achieved it."

At the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, Schlafly came under attack after her oldest son, John F. Schlafly, said publicly he was homosexual. John, an attorney who currently heads the Eagle Forum in Alton, Ill., declined to comment on the issue for this article.

But Phyllis Schlafly said the attack showed "the political connection between the abortionists and the homosexuals, who have nothing else in common. It was all to attack me because I kept the pro-life plank in the Republican platform."

Her efforts to keep the GOP platform strongly pro-life did not go unnoticed.

Faith Whittlesey, a senior member of Reagan's White House staff, said because of Schlafly's work, "the pro-abortion Republicans got trounced in (the platform) committee and didn't even attempt to bring up their agenda on the convention floor."

But the fiscal conservatives - the traditional conservatives who nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 - were no longer a majority in the Republican Party.

At the 1992 convention, Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were re-nominated, but speeches by Pat Buchanan, who declared a "culture war," and Pat Robertson, who said Bill Clinton had "a radical plan to destroy the traditional family and transfer its functions to the federal government," arguably received as much attention as the nomination.

The final straw, Schlafly said, came when Bush reneged on his famous "read my lips" promise not to raise taxes, which some say cost Bush a second term in the White House.

That November, Clinton won the presidency with a 43 percent plurality, due in part to Ross Perot winning nearly 20 million votes.

Four years later, Schlafly was a delegate for Buchanan, who came from behind in the 1996 New Hampshire primary to beat then Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination.

"The whole establishment went berserk," she said. "It was 'anybody but Buchanan.' The globalist Wall Street Journal crowd was one factor, then you had the Republican establishment led by Bob Dole, then the neo-cons [neo-conservatives] who hate him worse than they hate Yassir Arafat."

Eventually, the Christian Coalition endorsed Dole, who, like Schlafly in her 1952 congressional race, won the primary but lost the election.

Schlafly minced no words in giving her assessment of Dole and those who backed him in his losing bid against Bill Clinton. "I can't forgive the people who endorsed Dole," she said. "He's a nasty, mean, irritable, cross man who spent most of his last years trying to support the Clinton socialized medicine."

By contrast, Schlafly called George W. Bush, "a very likeable man, and genuine, and you're proud of him as president."

But Schlafly's admiration for the president is tempered by her politics. "He's obsessed with this idea of being bi-partisan, which translated means, nothing happens unless Ted Kennedy agrees to it."

Sweetheart of the Silent Majority

At a meeting of Schlafly's Eagle Council in Arlington, Va., in September 1994, a veritable who's who of the conservative movement paid tribute to "The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority," the title of a 1981 biography on Schlafly by Carol Felsenthal.

Publisher Richard Amberg, Jr., said Schlafly was a person "who I believe has had both the most profound and the most beneficial effect on American civilization of anyone outside Washington in my lifetime. She arguably has had a more profound and beneficial effect than anyone, period."

George Gilder, a conservative author who wrote in his book "Men and Marriage" that Schlafly was the greatest American pamphleteer since Tom Paine, described her as a key figure in the founding of the modern conservative movement.

"It wasn't just the Reagan candidacy, as important as that was," Gilder said. "It was also the campaign for High Frontier, the anti-ballistic missile defense of America, which led Reagan to the Strategic Defense Initiative program, which in turn was ultimately decisive in persuading Gorbachev to give up the Cold War. These links are very important."

But Peter Marshall, a Presbyterian minister and author, said Schlafly's most lasting legacy will the membership of the organizations she founded and those who followed Schlafly's leadership over the years.

"These are American women whose names may never appear in our history books," said Marshall. "They are women whose enemy is not men, but the spiritual forces of evil that seek to destroy America."

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