Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade
by Donald T. Critchlow
Princeton University Press, 438 pages, $29.95
Phyllis Schlafly never registered much with me. I knew her mostly as the woman who managed to stop the Equal Rights Amendment dead in its tracks in 1982. That was an amazing feat, taking place at a time when the amendment’s feminist and liberal supporters seemed to be in control of every American institution except the White House, but I was living in California at the time, and the key battles of the ERA had taken place in geographically and culturally distant states: Florida, Illinois, North Carolina.
Schlafly herself, her hair swept up into an attractive but out-of-date chignon, had a prim Midwestern air that didn’t resonate much on the West Coast. When she argued against federal sexual-harassment regulation in 1981 by declaring men seldom made passes at virtuous women, even I wondered whether her feminist-ideologue opponents weren’t at least partly correct when they called her “obsolete.” Besides, as time passed, Schlafly’s victory over the ERA began to seem Pyrrhic, for all the evils that she and other opponents had said would ensue were the amendment ratified—no-holds-barred abortion, same-sex marriage, gender quotas, even co-ed bathrooms—ensued anyway, by other legislative, judicial, administrative, and extra-legal means. The last newspaper photograph that I saw of Phyllis Schlafly appeared in the Washington Post during the 1990s. Why, I wondered, is she wearing that frumpy flowered dress? Why is she making conservative women look like housewives from Peoria?
Donald T. Critchlow’s impressively researched Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, a narrative of Schlafly’s political career, explains that it was this unyielding quality of hers—her resolute refusal to cultivate the intellectual and cultural elites of either coast, even the conservative intellectual and cultural elites who were her natural ideological allies—that provided the astonishing power that she managed to wield in American politics for more than three decades.
The story of Phyllis Schlafly, as Critchlow, a professor of history at St. Louis University, tells it, is a story of conservatism operating far from centers of political and cultural power but crucial to the most important domestic political event of the second half of the twentieth century: the ascendancy and triumph of the once-moribund American right. In Critchlow’s view, the quintessentially grassroots Schlafly was perhaps the pivotal figure in this process. Tough, smart, fearlessly outspoken, and possessed of an uncanny gift for strategically mobilizing her Middle American supporters (overwhelmingly women, those housewives from Peoria), she not only beat back the seemingly unstoppable ERA but played a key role in securing the presidential nominations of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, paving the way for today’s Bush presidency and Republican dominance of Congress and statehouses across the country.
Critchlow’s book is a powerful corrective to the belief of many conservatives (and liberals, too) that the phenomenal growth of the right was a top-down phenomenon, in which policy specialists wrote books and position papers whose ideas found their way to politicians and, ultimately, to voters. Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism illustrates the extent to which the conservative revolution percolated up from the bottom: “without grassroots activists to give political substance and energy to conservative ideas, conservatism as a political movement would have remained largely the province of a handful of writers. Schlafly’s talent, in part, was her ability to translate conservative ideas to grassroots activists and motivate them to achieve political goals.”
Phyllis Schlafly was born Phyllis Stewart to a solidly upper-middle-class and fervently Catholic family in St. Louis in 1924. When she was in the fourth grade, the Depression struck. Her father lost his job as a heavy-equipment salesman for Westinghouse and was never to work again. Phyllis’s mother became the family’s sole breadwinner, first as a department-store saleswoman and elementary school teacher, and later as librarian for the city’s art museum. (She paid tuition for Phyllis and her younger sister at the local Academy of the Sacred Heart by cataloguing the convent school’s books.) Despite their economic setbacks, the Stewarts remained staunch Republicans who despised Franklin D. Roosevelt’s government-expanding welfare state and espoused an ethic of self-reliance, family, and moral integrity.
Phyllis Stewart graduated as class valedictorian and won a full scholarship to a Catholic women’s college, but she decided that the place was not academically rigorous enough for her and transferred after her first year to Washington University. There, with no scholarship, she paid her way with a full-time job testing ammunition on the night shift at a St. Louis ordnance plant. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington in three years, won a fellowship to study politics at Radcliffe, and emerged a year later with a straight-A average, a master’s degree, and glowing recommendations from her professors, who urged her to continue to a doctorate at Harvard.
Again, there was no money. She worked for a year in Washington with the predecessor to today’s American Enterprise Institute. The experience—the only extended period of time she spent in Washington—exposed her to anti-liberalism as a philosophical proposition and made her a lifelong exponent of free enterprise and the preservation of American liberty. She also learned the art there of translating complex issues into simplified arguments that could be understood by average readers, an art that she put to use in the twenty polemical books she turned out over the decades, many of them bestsellers (the most famous, A Choice, Not an Echo, introducing Goldwater to her grassroots supporters in 1964, sold 3 million copies and is still in print).
Phyllis Stewart married Fred Schlafly, a likeminded Republican lawyer, in 1949. They moved across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois, in whose environs they lived until Fred Schlafly’s death in 1994. The pair raised four boys and two girls, every one of whom subsequently enjoyed a successful career in academia, medicine, business, or law. Even as a housewife and young mother who breastfed all her children and taught them to read before they started school, Phyllis Schlafly immersed herself in political and civic organizations: the Radcliffe Club, the YWCA, the Community Chest, the Illinois Federation of Republican Women, the Daughters of the American Revolution. She ran for Congress in 1952 and lost to a popular Democratic incumbent (she lost another congressional race under similar circumstances in 1970), but by then she was already a popular public speaker and formidable debater whose passions were unyielding anticommunism and a strong nuclear defense in the Cold War.
Critchlow shrewdly notes what most feminist ideologues have failed to understand: There was nothing paradoxical or incongruous about Schlafly’s pride in her homemaker status and her intense political preoccupations; she was carrying on a decades-old American tradition of women’s involvement in public causes, from the antislavery and temperance movements to various kinds of social and moral reform. For Schlafly, it was perfectly natural, indeed proper, for wives and mothers to have political careers, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s she urged Republican women to think of themselves as more than the envelope-stuffers and luncheon adornments. By the time the feminist movement appeared in the late 1960s, Schlafly had already outflanked it.
By 1960, Schlafly was president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women and a presence on the national Republican scene. At the convention in Chicago that year, she spearheaded a hugely attended pro-Goldwater rally that targeted the “Compact of Fifth Avenue,” a platform agreement between the eventually nominated Richard Nixon and his establishment-Republican antagonist Nelson Rockefeller that Schlafly deemed a sellout on crucial elements of U.S. defense just when the Soviets seemed to be winning the arms race. Rockefeller’s subsequent divorce of his wife and 1963 marriage to the much-younger Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, a mother of four who had recently divorced her husband, cemented in the minds of many family-minded Americans an unpleasant nexus between loose morals and weak support for the military; it marked the forging of a large wedge of voters that now consciously identified itself as conservative and would grow to include Democrats as well as Republicans. Schlafly continued to push Goldwater, self-publishing A Choice, Not an Echo and delivering tens of thousands of copies free to everyone with any interest in becoming or fielding a grassroots delegate to the 1964 convention.
The Goldwater debacle in that year’s general election (a humiliating 52 electoral votes to Lyndon Johnson’s 486) generated a panicked purge by the national Republican establishment of all Goldwater-identified conservatives, including Schlafly, who was pushed out of her expected presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women in a nasty election battle in 1967. The fortunes of conservatives sank even further after Nixon resigned in disgrace from the presidency in 1974. In the congressional race of that year, the Democrats ended up with 290 seats to the Republicans’ 145. But that year also marked, paradoxically, the beginning of the swing back for ideological conservatives. Nixon in office, Critchlow writes, had been able to keep his party’s right wing in check. When he left, the Republican right was “unleashed,” poised to drive the party in its own direction (and that of the Reagan presidency) by capitalizing on widespread hostility toward the cultural changes of the 1970s that many believed had been foisted upon America by ideological liberals.
The rise of ideological feminism, with its disdain for housewives and promotion of abortion, was exactly one of those cultural changes in Schlafly’s eyes. Overnight in 1972, she shifted the focus of her interests from defense to social issues and founded the STOP ERA movement. The ERA at that moment seemed unstoppable, having been passed by overwhelming majorities of both houses of Congress and already approved by thirty of the thirty-eight states needed for ratification. The next ten years proved Schlafly’s strategic genius and boundless energy. She had already learned how to forge a conservative alliance between traditionalist Catholic and evangelical Christian women, and she deftly enlarged the coalition to include Mormon and Orthodox Jewish women in a decade-long battle in which the stakes, as she defined them, were the home, the family, and traditional faith and culture. The promoters of the ERA had the media, celebrities, and national-level politicians on their side, but Schlafly and her grassroots allies knew how to work the state legislatures where the ratification skirmishes were fought. In the middle of all of this—a grueling nonstop regimen of speaking dates and meetings—Schlafly put herself through law school, graduating from Washington University in 1978 at age fifty-four.
The decade-long anti-ERA battle (whose success Critchlow links to the rise of a bipartisan discontent with both economic and cultural liberalism that led millions of Democrats to desert their party and vote for Reagan in 1980), is the climax of Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism. Critchlow gives the next twenty-three years of Schlafly’s career rushed treatment. But, in truth, her political influence does seem to be in decline, although her Eagle Forum, founded in 1972, continues to operate. Schlafly is now eighty-one years old, and she has the undoubted satisfaction of knowing that the conservativism that she pushed without compromising for decades is now the majority (if slim majority) ideology in America. In this riveting, valuable book, Donald Critchlow makes the case for a Great Woman theory of history.
Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus and co-editor of the Independent Women’s Forum’s InkWell weblog.