When Phyllis Schlafly died on September 5 at age 92 at her home in a St. Louis suburb, she left behind two monumental achievements. She had, if not single-handedly, at least pivotally, unleashed a grassroots conservative rebellion against a timid Republican establishment that ultimately led to the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980. Her best-selling 1964 book, A Choice, Not an Echo, pushing the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, resulted in the debacle of Goldwater’s landslide loss, but the long-term result was the mobilization of large numbers of people, mostly in the Midwest and South and many of them women, who were appalled at the moral havoc that the 1960s had wrought and also, as time passed, at what they perceived as America’s growing defense weakness under Jimmy Carter.
Schlafly, again nearly single-handedly, managed to stop the feminist-backed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution dead in its tracks in 1982—a startling feat, given that the ERA had the backing of nearly the entire political and intellectual establishment, Republicans included, and had garnered ratification votes during the 1970s from thirty-five of the necessary thirty-eight states. Schlafly again turned to the grassroots, galvanizing family-oriented, religious women to flood state legislative halls and remind the lawmakers that the ERA threatened to mandate unisex bathrooms, same-sex marriage, no-holds-barred abortion, drafting women into the military, and eliminating alimony for cast-off middle-aged wives who had devoted themselves to their homes instead of building careers. Thanks to Schlafly’s tirelessness, five states rescinded their ratifications and three more declined to endorse the amendment, period.
But it has been more than thirty years since those astounding achievements, and vast cultural changes, coupled with dissension in Schlafly’s own ranks, have conspired to dilute them. In 2005 I wrote a review for First Things of St. Louis University professor Donald T. Critchlow’s fine study of Schlafly’s political career, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism. I noted that many of the evils that Schlafly had warned of as consequences of the ERA had come to pass anyway by legislative, judicial, and other means. Eleven years later, with same-sex marriage now the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court, transgender bathroom use mandatory in schools thanks to the Obama administration, and the drafting of women a serious (and Republican-supported) proposition for Congress, it’s hard not to view Schlafly’s anti-ERA victory as somewhat Pyrrhic. And given the inroads into American family life, including the fact that 40 percent of births these days are to unmarried women, it is doubtful that if the amendment were up for ratification today, a new Phyllis Schlafly would be able to find many of those apple-pie-baking Middle-American housewives to staff her battalions.
Furthermore, Schlafly’s traditional-values organization, the 80,000-member Eagle Forum, has faded as a conservative player, possibly because of its location in Alton, Ill., the St. Louis suburb where Schlafly lived most of her married life (her husband of forty-nine years, Fred Schlafly, died in 1994), far from Washington, D.C. and its corridors of power. In December 2015, Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump as the GOP candidate for president, splitting asunder the Eagle Forum’s eleven-member board, six of whom reportedly supported then-contender and evangelical-Christian favorite Ted Cruz and hoped to throw the Eagle Forum’s weight behind his candidacy. One of the Cruz-supporting directors was Anne Cori, one of Phyllis Schlafly’s two daughters, and in April Cori and the other five filed a lawsuit over the actions of the rest of the board, which included her mother and two of Phyllis Schafly’s four sons, who also serve as directors. The aim was to get rid of Ed Martin, Schlafly’s hand-picked successor as CEO of Eagle Forum, although Schlafly, in court statements and media interviews, characterized the litigation as an attempted coup designed to remove her from control of her own organization because of her support for Trump. On August 22, two weeks before Schlafly’s death, while the first suit was languishing in court, the six pro-Cruz directors filed a second lawsuit alleging misconduct by Martin.
All of this is unfortunate, because Schlafly deserves to be remembered for what she actually was. She was a brilliant student who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University while working full-time at night to pay her tuition, got a master’s degree from Harvard in nine months with a straight-A average, and in her fifties, in 1978, graduated from the Washington University School of Law near the top her class. She was a stay-at-home mother who launched a full-time career as a political activist and public speaker from nearly the day her first child was born, doing a neat end-run around the feminists who claimed to have invented the idea that a married woman could have a professional life. She was a formidable debater and a prolific author to the very end, writing and editing some twenty-seven books. Her last book, The Conservative Case for Trump, co-authored with Martin and Brett M. Decker, was set to launch on September 6, the day after her death, and she filed her last syndicated newspaper column, lauding a federal judge for blocking the Obama administration’s transgender-bathroom rule, on August 31.
Fortunately, even if Phyllis Schlafly’s achievements seem distant and dimmed to some conservatives, we can count on her liberal enemies to keep her memory vividly alive. A September 6 essay in Salon called her a “hater” and a “world-class troll” who “spent an entire public life devoted to thwarting the progress of others.” That’s the kind of obituary that the feisty Phyllis Schlafly would have relished.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.