Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist, lawyer and author who is credited with almost single-handedly stopping the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and who helped move the Republican Party toward the right on family and religious issues, died Monday at her home in St. Louis. She was 92.
Her daughter, Anne Cori, said Schlafly had been ill with cancer for some time.
A champion of traditional, stay-at-home roles for women, Schlafly opposed the ERA because she believed it would open the door to gay marriage, abortion, the military draft for women, co-ed bathrooms and the end of labor laws that barred women from dangerous workplaces.
The brief amendment (“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex”) was anti-family and anti-American, she said. Equality, she added, would be a step down for most women who are “extremely well-treated” by society and laws.
She was almost too late to stop its passage: By early 1972, when she first published her objections, the proposed constitutional amendment had just passed Congress, and 30 of the needed 38 state legislatures had ratified it.
Schlafly, an experienced anti-communist Republican Party activist, quickly organized the opposition. The effort began operating under the name “Stop ERA” and later became a national organization called the Eagle Forum, which Schlafly dubbed an alternative to women’s liberation. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision on Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion. Suddenly, a huge constituency of conservative, family-oriented churchgoers were energized to engage in politics.
Binding together fundamentalists, evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews, Schlafly realized that she could direct a movement of people who believed the family and traditional values were under attack. A best-selling author, radio commentator and an excellent debater, she barnstormed the country, speaking before clubs, church organizations and 30 state legislatures.
By the time the deadline for passage of the ERA arrived in 1982, 15 states rejected it and five other states rescinded their ratifications. It fell three states short of passage.
Schlafly staged a festive burial party at Washington’s Shoreham Hotel and told a crowded news conference that the ERA “is dead for now and forever in this century” and said the nation could now enter “a new era of harmony between women and men.”
Just as her public life didn’t begin with the ERA, it didn’t end with its defeat. The battle over the ERA helped launch the family values, anti-abortion movement in the United States, and Schlafly continued to be one of its standard-bearers, as well as supporting causes such as opposition to illegal immigrants, federal judicial activism, ballots in languages other than English, the Title IX rules that required equal treatment of girls and boys in sports, and “privacy-invading questions” on the census. Secretaries, stewardesses and other women fighting for wages of comparable worth were simply “envious,” Schlafly said, of the wages paid to janitors and truck drivers.
Always quotable, her opinions could outrage and provoke members of the establishment from her own political party as well. When President Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, tried to introduce AIDS education to public school curricula in the 1980s, Schlafly likened it to “the teaching of safe sodomy.” She called sex education “a principal cause of teenage pregnancy.”
Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy also ran afoul of Schlafly in 2005, when his opinion questioning capital punishment for juveniles seemed to her to be grounds for impeachment. She said during the 2010 Conservative Political Action Committee convention in Washington, D.C., that no woman, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, was yet ready to be president.
Schlafly was an attorney who built her own media empire, writing or editing 20 books. She published a monthly newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, wrote a syndicated newspaper column, produced radio commentaries and anchored a radio talk show. She also was a regular lecturer on the college circuit. Schlafly was the subject of two biographies, Carol Felsenthal’s “The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” (1981) and Donald Critchlow’s “Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism” (2006).
Reagan appointed her to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and Ladies Home Journal named her one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century.
In 2008, as an indication of her continuing relevance and her ability to stir up emotions, hundreds of students protested when her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, granted her an honorary diploma. She also cheered Palin’s selection as a vice-presidential candidate on the 2008 Republican ticket, describing her as “an exemplar of all that is good and true.”
Well-spoken, self-assured, dressed like an affluent homemaker, “with a hairdo like a treble clef,” as Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times said in 2006, Schlafly drove feminists nuts.
A woman’s most important job is to be a wife and mother, Schlafly repeatedly said, even as she employed a full-time housekeeper to care for her six children. She said she was never away from home overnight and often took her infants with her on speaking engagements. Decades later, in 1992, her home state of Illinois named her its Mother of the Year.
“I’d like to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me be here today,” she told a crowd of 11,000 at a pro-family gathering in 1977. “I like to say that because it irritates the women’s libbers more than anything.”
In 1981, speaking at a Senate Labor Committee hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace, Schlafly said that “men hardly ever ask sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is ‘No.’ Virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities, obscene talk or profane language.”
She never shrank from battle, agreeing countless times to debate well-known feminists such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal. In one such face-off, at Illinois State University in 1973, the often-volatile Friedan called Schlafly a traitor to her sex and said she’d like to burn her at the stake. Four years later, after Schlafly implied that all the women at the 1977 women’s conference in Houston were gay, Steinem, one of the few feminists who could match her quotes, retorted, “If we’re all lesbians, where are we getting all these unborn babies to kill?”
Born Phyllis McAlpin Stewart on Aug. 15, 1924, in St. Louis, she was the daughter of a librarian who supported the family of four when her father could not find work during the Depression.
She attended two years of college at Maryville College of the Sacred Heart, but the school was not rigorous enough for her, she later said, so she paid her way through Washington University by working 48 hours a week in a World War II ordnance plant, firing machine guns to test the ammunition.
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and then earned a master’s degree in political science in 1945 from Radcliffe College, Harvard University’s sister school for women. She headed to Washington for a year to do research for several members of Congress for what is now the American Enterprise Institute, then went back to St. Louis to work on a congressman’s re-election campaign and to be a research director at two local banks.
She said she was “saved from the life as a working girl” by marrying wealthy lawyer Fred Schlafly in 1949. She quit her job and became a community volunteer and Republican Party activist. In the early 1950s, she did research for Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who railed against Communist infiltration into the U.S. government.
She won the Republican nomination for Congress from Alton, Illinois, on her first try in 1952, presenting herself as a housewife, but lost in the general election to the incumbent. She was a delegate to the 1956 Republican National Convention, and in 1960 she tried again for Congress, this time as a write-in candidate. At the 1960 Republican National Convention, she helped lead a revolt of conservatives against an anti-segregation and anti-discrimination plank of the party’s platform.
She and her husband also founded the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation to alert the world to the dangers of communism. She published pamphlets that compiled right-wing essays and in 1962 became a radio commentator on a program carried by 18 stations. The atom bomb, she said, was “a marvelous gift given to our country by a wise God.”
An enthusiastic supporter of Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, Schlafly wrote her first book, “A Choice Not an Echo,” attacking the elite, East Coast kingmakers of the party who ignored the grass-roots conservatives who were Goldwater’s base. She published it herself as a mail-order paperback, and it sold more than 3 million copies before Election Day.
The success inspired her to write a series of books about national defense, in partnership with retired Navy Adm. Chester Ward. One accused Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara and presidential advisers McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow of deliberately weakening the U.S. military so that Russians could overwhelm the United States. Another, written by herself, contends that communists instigated the urban riots in 1967.
She also rose in the ranks of the National Federation of Republican Women, becoming first vice president. She was in line to rise to president, but Goldwater’s loss to Lyndon B. Johnson in the presidential race brought a resurgence in the party’s liberal wing, and Schlafly was outmaneuvered for leadership of the group.
She founded The Eagles Are Flying, a separate group for her supporters in the National Federation of Republican Women, as well as a trust fund for conservative candidates and her own newsletter. In 1970, she tried a third time to win election to Congress but lost again to an incumbent.
Her decision to enter law school in the early 1970s was temporarily halted by the objections of her husband, although he had encouraged all their children to go to law school. Her husband changed his mind two weeks later, and she graduated from Washington University’s law school in 1978.
After the death of her husband of 44 years, in 1993, she moved from their longtime home near Alton to Ladue, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb.
Survivors include six children: Cori, of St. Louis; John Schlafly, who came out as gay in 1992, and lives in Alton, Illinois; Bruce Schlafly of St. Louis; Roger Schlafly of Santa Cruz, California; Liza Forshaw, of St. Louis; and Andrew Schlafly, of Far Hills, New Jersey, who started Conservapedia in 2006 as a reaction against perceived liberal bias in Wikipedia; 16 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Her opposition to the ERA developed only after a friend invited her to speak about the proposed constitutional amendment to a Darien, Connecticut, book club in early 1972. Until them she said later, she was unaware of the then-50-year-old proposal.
At first, she recalled, “I don’t even know what side I’m on . . . I figured ERA was something between innocuous and mildly helpful.”