Phyllis Schlafly, who died on September 5, was the bane of feminists: a one-woman powerhouse of articulate conservative political positions who relentlessly defended faith-and-family issues from liberal onslaughts. Her political activism covered a period of great change, from the 1960s culture war and the move to undermine major American institutions, through the Reagan and Clinton years, to the new century and Bush and Obama. Throughout her seventy years of dedicated service, Schlafly used her intellectual and political skills to strengthen the conservative movement—writing twenty-seven books, attending every Republican convention, speaking at rallies, and giving radio and TV interviews. She gave younger women a model of gracious and intelligent political activism. But perhaps her most important contribution was to promote grassroots organization as a strategy for conservative political action.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she seemed to be a step ahead of the men in the conservative movement—seeing not just what needed to be done, but how to get it done. During the Republican primary in 1964, she drew attention with her self-published book A Choice, Not an Echo in support of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy and against the liberal Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller. An army of volunteers distributed over three million copies to Republican primary voters. A Choice, Not an Echo was a clear statement of the conservative vision, which many believe paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan. The conservative movement at the time had a cadre of intellectuals, such as William F. Buckley and William Rusher, who sharpened its influence and expanded its appeal. But Schlafly’s efforts, aimed at grassroots mobilization, were decisive in getting out the vote for Goldwater. It’s not a stretch to say that there would have been no Goldwater nomination, and hence no Reagan presidency, without Phyllis Schlafly.
During the 1970s, Schlafly turned her attention to the Equal Rights Amendment, which proposed to guarantee that “Equality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex.” She argued that the ERA was not a proposal for equality, but rather a thinly veiled attack on the family and stay-at-home mothers, which would take rights and protections away from women. Logically, if men and women were treated absolutely equally, then divorce would become easier for men to obtain and harder for women to cope with; the military draft would be extended to women; and sex-segregated restrooms would be abolished. Schlafly made these arguments at a time when most Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, were prepared to support the ERA. It would be a tough sell, even to her own side. In 1972, she founded the Eagle Forum, and the result was the ERA’s almost-miraculous defeat in 1982.
How did she accomplish this feat? Schlafly developed expertise on every issue she engaged, with a rigor and relentlessness that made her a formidable debater no matter the venue. And she rooted her arguments in a moral vision of traditional values, which she was convinced had to guide our political choices. But crucially, she understood grassroots action. Schlafly knew the value of educating those whose support you want, and then mobilizing that support. The Eagle Forum was—and is—not just a debating club. Its members, mostly middle-class housewives, were educated about the ERA by Schlafly’s Eagle Forum Newsletter. Schlafly explained not just what the ERA would mean for American women—“Government-funded abortions, homosexual schoolteachers, women forced into military combat and men refusing to support their wives”—but also how women could take action against it. Eagle Forum members were educated about the issues, then went forth to lobby their representatives and cast their votes accordingly. The Eagle Forum now has 80,000 members—the kind of numbers that, if put to use, can influence major public debates.
As the conservative movement goes through a challenging time, buffeted by a relativistic culture that seems ruled by ideology rather than principle, perhaps it can learn from this brave woman the importance of organizational skills as well as arguments. In a dominant liberal culture, conservatives need stronger alliances to guard and protect a positive outlook while strategizing against an aggressive foe, one that tries to inject a dispiriting sense of fear into its opponents. It is a worthy task to spell out the dangers of a political culture that decries discrimination while seeking to oppress anyone with traditional values.
Many of the expanded rights that Phyllis Schlafly fought against—such as same-sex marriage and women in combat—are now being mandated, either by the Supreme Court or by presidential declarations. This unlawful situation should be a major topic during the next weeks of the presidential campaign. Eagle Forum members will know how to organize, discuss, and get people out to the polls. This model of promoting self-education and action on issues may be Schlafly’s greatest gift to the conservative movement. Grassroots activism can launch presidents and new leaders. It is essential to rebuilding a strong conservative presence in secular America.
Mary Ellen Bork is a freelance writer in McLean, Virginia.