Phyllis Stewart Schlafly, 1924-2016
Phyllis Schlafly, the St. Louis-born American intellectual who grew from a shy and beautiful girl to become one of the most influential political activists of the 20th and 21st century, died today, Monday, September 5, 2016 according to Eagle Forum.
Schlafly has written or co-written more than 20 books, on military policy, education, legal and social issues. Her first book, “A Choice, Not an Echo,” is credited with winning Barry Goldwater the Republican nomination for president and inspiring the conservative movement that eventually led to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Her military work was a major factor in Reagan’s’ decision to proceed with High Frontier technology.
Since 1967, Schlafly has published the Phyllis Schlafly Report and in 1972, Schlafly founded The Eagle Forum, which grew to nearly 100,000 members. Her syndicated column appeared in 100 newspapers, her radio commentaries were broadcast on more than 400 stations, and her radio talk show, “Eagle Forum Live,” was broadcast on 45 stations and the Internet. Throughout her career, Schlafly gave college speeches – including in January 2009, in her still-spry 80’s, when, at a Berkeley speech, she fell and broke a hip.
She was appointed by President Reagan to serve on the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution from 1985-1991. For years, Schlafly was the National Defense Chairman of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Over the years, Schlafly testified before more than 50 congressional and state legislative committees on constitutional, national defense, and family issues. She has been a delegate at every Republican National Convention since 1956. The Ladies’ Home Journal named Schlafly one of the 100 most important women of the 20th century.
Phyllis McAlpin Stewart was born in 1924 in St. Louis to John Bruce Stewart and Odile Dodge.
She was raised Republican and Catholic – though one great grandfather was a Presbyterian. Her father lost his job as a salesman of industrial equipment during the Depression and was unable to find work again for years, during which time he invented and patented the rotary engine. Schlafly’s mother went to work as a schoolteacher and librarian, allowing Schlafly and her younger sister, Odile, to attend a Catholic girls school.
She was valedictorian of her high school class and won a full scholarship to a Catholic women’s college, but decided it was not challenging enough, so she worked her way through Washington University. With no scholarship money, Schlafly earned spare money as a model and also as a machine-gunner at a St. Louis ordnance plant — at that time the world’s largest.
She earned straight A’s from Washington University and graduated a year early, Phi Beta Kappa and Pi Sigma Alpha (the National Political Science Honor Society). Her undergraduate political science professor wrote that her “intellectual capacity is extraordinary and her analytical ability is distinctly remarkable . . . I have no hesitation whatsoever in saying that [Schlafly] is the most capable woman student we have had in this department in ten years.”
Schlafly then attended Harvard graduate school on a scholarship, earning a Masters degree in political science in seven months. She received A’s in constitutional law, international law, and public administration, and an A- in modern political theory. (And this was long before “Everyone-Gets-An-A” grade inflation.)
Though Harvard Law School did not admit women, Schlafly’s professors urged her to stay and attend law school. Alternatively, they proposed that she earn her doctorate. (Imagine the Harvard faculty meetings if she had stayed on and become a professor there!)
Her constitutional law professor at Harvard called her “brilliant” — and consider that this was back when Harvard was a serious place, so it meant something. The professor who intervened on her behalf, Benjamin Wright, was a distinguished constitutional historian — the sort of legitimate scholar who probably wouldn’t have a chance of being hired by today’s Harvard.
Schlafly said “no thanks” to Harvard Law and instead went to Washington, D.C. for a year, where she worked at the precursor institution to the American Enterprise Institute. It was the only time this monumental American political figure lived in the nation’s capitol.
After D.C, she returned to Missouri in 1949, married Republican lawyer Fred Schlafly, and raised six amazingly accomplished children in Alton, Illinois, where she lived until Fred’s death in 1994.
In 1977, when being harangued by Dr. Joyce Brothers on the Merv Griffin Show, Schlafly mistakenly claimed Harvard Law School had been admitting women since at least 1945 and said she knew that because she almost went there. In fact, Harvard Law School did not begin admitting women for another several years. But in 1945, Harvard was prepared to make an exception for Phyllis Schlafly.
Years later, when Schlafly was testifying against the Equal Rights Amendment, the woman who almost became the first woman ever to graduate from Harvard Law School was ridiculed by potty little state legislators for not having a law degree. Senator Birch Bayh (D-IN), for example, called her one of those “women with absolutely no legal training stand there brandishing law books, telling people what ERA ‘really’ means.”
So in 1976, at age 51, while writing her syndicated column, raising six children, defeating the E.R.A. — and in the middle of writing an 800-page book assailing Henry Kissinger — Schlafly went to Washington University Law School in St. Louis. She graduated near the top of her class and won the award in Administrative Law.
Though Schlafly is most famously associated with her stunning, nearly miraculous, defeat of the E.R.A., she has played a pivotal role in a broad range of political controversies for more than half a century.
Schlafly managed her first congressional campaign in 1946, at age 22. The year after she married, she ran for Congress herself, losing to a popular Democratic incumbent. She ran and lost again against another popular Democratic incumbent in 1970. These may be the only quixotic battles she failed to win.
During 1970 congressional race, her opponent ceaselessly sneered that Schlafly should be home raising her children. Schlafly responded: “My opponent says a woman’s place is in the home. But my husband replies, a woman’s place is in the House — the U.S. House of Representatives.” Today, feminists think they invented that line.
In 1964, she wrote “A Choice, Not An Echo,” which sold an astounding three million copies. (The average nonfiction book sells 5,000 copies; the average New York Times bestseller sells 30,000 copies.) This book would change the Republican Party forever. In this respect, it was not unlike many battles Schlafly would wage: First, she would conquer the Republican Party, then she could conquer the nation.
“A Choice, Not An Echo,” is widely credited with handing Barry Goldwater the Republican nomination for president. Goldwater lost badly in the general election — but the Republican Party would never be the same. Goldwater’s nomination began the retreat of sell-out, Northeastern “Rockefeller Republicans” — who wanted to wreck the country with slightly less alacrity than the Democrats.
Without Schlafly, without that book and that candidacy, it is unlikely that Ronald Reagan would ever have been elected president.
Later in 1964, she collaborated with Admiral Chester Ward on another book, “The Gravediggers.” This book accused the elite foreign policy establishment of cheerfully selling out the nation’s military superiority to the Soviet Union. It sold an astounding 2 million copies.
Also with Ward, Schlafly co-authored the extremely influential (and extremely long, at over 800 pages) “Kissinger on the Couch” methodically assailing Kissinger’s foreign policy. As with her crusade against the E.R.A. — being waged simultaneously — “Kissinger on the Couch” would turn conventional wisdom upside down.
Until then, attacking Kissinger’s beloved Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT) was the secular version of challenging the Pope on infallibility — or, I suppose, challenging a proposed constitutional amendment that purported to give women “equal rights.” But she was right, she was persuasive, and she overturned popular opinion.
Indeed, Schlafly has written prolifically about American foreign policy and military affairs, writing extensively about ICBMs and defense treaties. She was an early and vigorous proponent of a missile defense shield.
Meanwhile, feminists engaged in cliffhanger debates about whether it was appropriate for feminists to wear lipstick.
That Phyllis Schlafly is the mortal enemy of a movement that claims to promote women tells you all you need to know about the feminists. That many people alive today are unaware of Schlafly’s achievements tells you all you need to know about the American media.
Almost no one remembers this now, but when Schlafly turned her attention to the E.R.A., no reasonable person would have supposed that the amendment could have been stopped. In 1971, the House passed it by 354 to 24. The next year, the Senate had passed it by a vote of 84 to 8. Thirty states had approved it in the first year after it was sent to the states for ratification. Only eight more states were needed, within the next seven years. There was little question that the E.R.A. was about to become our next constitutional amendment.
But the E.R.A. had not yet faced Phyllis Schlafly. Beginning in 1972 and over the next eight years, thanks to Schlafly and her magnificently patriotic organization, the Eagle Forum, only five more states ratified it. In the same time period, five statesrescinded their earlier ratifications, for a net total of zero ratifications.
Not surprisingly given her background, one of Schlafly’s most devastating arguments against the E.R.A. was that it would end the female exemption from the draft. Though the amendment’s proponents sneered that this was preposterous, she was right. Law professors would soon be making the exact same point in the likes of the Yale Law Journal.
She unflinchingly pressed points that polite people thought it bad taste to talk about. Academics prefer to approve the general sentiment and not think about any messy details or facts. Thus, for example, Schlafly questioned how ERA would affect gays, abortion, adoption, widow’s benefits, divorce law, and the military. She had an instinctive knack for pulling at the string that quickly unravels liberal nonsense.
Schlafly was composed, brilliant and relentless. Among her campaign initiatives against the ERA, Schlafly sent quiches to all the U.S. Senators who voted for the ERA with a friendly note saying, “Real men don’t draft women.” A subscriber to the Phyllis Schlafly Report wrote to her in 1972: “We beat ERA in Oklahoma today and all we had was your report. I just went to the Capitol and passed it around and we beat it.”
Schlafly’s arguments trumped the political platforms of both parties, both Republican and Democratic presidents and their wives, and a slew of Hollywood celebrities including Carol Burnett, Marlo Thomas, Phil Donahue, Alan Alda, and Jean Stapleton. As Schlafly said, “they have the movie star money and we have the voters.”
Or, as George Gilder said, the only person on the other side was Phyllis Schlafly, but that was enough.
Reviewing a history of the sexual revolution in the New Yorker, John Updike wrote: “If the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, legalizing abortion, was . . . ‘the crowning achievement of the sexual revolution,’ the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, which ran out of time in 1982, with only three more states needed for ratification, was the legal triumph of the counter-revolution, led in this instance by Phyllis Schlafly . . .”
It was almost unfair for Schlafly to train her analytical mind on the feminists. But what the feminists lacked in linear thinking, they made up for in their hegemonic control of the mainstream media.
No matter. Throughout her career, Schlafly refused to be intimidated by mediocre opinion makers decreeing what the bien pensant were supposed to think. She would take positions that almost no academic would defend, not because it was wrong, but simply because it was so contrary to acceptable opinion.
The most unfathomable aspect of Schlafly’s success to today’s political activists is that she mobilized a vast army of women — and she did it without the Internet. Not without reason, she has been called the greatest pamphleteer since Thomas Paine. (But unlike Paine, she never went bad.)
The story behind Phyllis Schlafly’s biography provides a good snapshot of Schlafly’s power to inspire. The book’s author, Carol Felsenthal, had written a book review for the Chicago Tribune in 1977 ridiculing Schlafly’s ninth book, “The Power of the Positive Woman” as “irrational, contradictory, and simple-minded.”
And then something extraordinary happened. Felsenthal says: “Two days later, the letters of protest started coming, and they kept coming — from people who were enraged that I had insulted ‘Our Savior,’ as one letter writer called Schlafly, or ‘Our Wonder Woman,’ as another called her.”
Felsenthal noted that her newspaper, The Chicago Tribune did not even run a ‘letters’ column for book reviews, so these weren’t for publication. Though Felsenthal had written hundreds of columns before this, she said she could “count on one hand the number of letters they provoked.” These women, she said, “were writing for one reason only — to convert me, to make me see the light.”
Naturally, Felsenthal became fascinated with the woman who could arouse such passionate support. The end result was Felsenthal’s meticulously researched, definitive biography of Phyllis Schlafly, titled: “Phyllis Schlafly: The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority.” Charmingly, the toughest part of Felsenthal’s project was overcoming Schlafly’s resistance to the very idea of a biography.
There is no major national debate in the past half-century in which Schlafly’s powerful, salubrious influence is not manifest.
She staunchly opposed abortion, gambling and gay marriage and equally strongly supported Ronald Reagan and the strategic defense initiative. One of the rare times she disagreed with Reagan was over the idea of having another Constitutional Convention. She was right and she won. In 1996, Schlafly supported Pat Buchanan for president and in 2008 she supported Duncan Hunter, specifically opposing Mike Huckabee.
On March 11, 2016, Schlafly officially endorsed Donald Trump for president.
Schlafly wrote about a complicated issues with insight and clarity. Time and again she would disembowel a 500-page legalistic monstrosity with a short syndicated column. Like an Olympic athlete, her talent was to make it seem easy.
She was as proficient as any law professor in the seriousness of her arguments. This is all the more impressive because she is writing for busy people — housewives and politicians — people who probably wouldn’t mind a more purely rhetorical effort. But she never condescended to her audience. People who dismiss her as a mere rabble-rouser either haven’t read her work or have no idea what actual “scholarship” would be.
The sheer breadth of the issues Schlafly took on is astonishing. It is impossible to think of anyone alive today who addresses such a range of topics in any depth. Most public figures focus on one or two issues and stick with those. Not Schlafly — and with no detriment to her analysis. (If anyone on the left did this with Schlafly’s skill, there would be monuments, Time magazine “Person of the Year” awards, and hagiographic Hollywood movies.)
Schlafly commented on her boundless energy, saying, “It solves a lot of problems if you’re busy.”
For someone who spent so much time attacking liberal policies – and received so much abuse in return — Schlafly was remarkably free from ad hominem (or ad feminem) rhetoric. She was spat upon, burned in effigy and had a pie thrown in her face. Bomb threats were called in to her speeches. Feminist Betty Friedan once told her, “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” Feminist Midge Costanza said Schlafly and Anita Bryant would make “a fine set of bookends” for Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
But Karen DeCrow, who debated Schlafly more than 50 times as president of the National Organization for Women from 1974-77, said she enjoyed those debates. “Phyllis is smart, so it was fun,” DeCrow said. “I never found Phyllis to be unpleasant, unfriendly or uncooperative.” Felsenthal reports that during an interview, feminists surrounded Schlafly, spat at her and shoved middle fingers in her face. She says Schlafly “didn’t pause, she didn’t even blink.”
Schlafly’s retorts were more subtle, once noting during a debate on the ERA before jeering Brown University coeds that “another sexist difference between men and women, is that women hiss.” But she never got personal or vicious — as they did with her. She was a true lady.
Though conservative women in later generations are often compared to Schlafly, all of us combined could never match the titanic accomplishments of this remarkable woman. Schlafly is unquestionably one of the most important people of in the twentieth century – and a good part of the twenty-first. Among her sex, she is rivaled only by Margaret Thatcher.
Schlafly once said that what she’d most like to be remembered for is “converting this nation to where it’s as normal for parents to teach their kids to read before they get to school as it is to teach them to ride bikes.” Based on her own successful home-schooling of her children, she has written wildly popular phonics instruction guides with tapes and a workbook.
The most fitting epitaph to Phyllis Schlafly is the last line of her profile at the Eagle Forum website, which concludes: “The mother of six children, she was named 1992 Illinois Mother of the Year.” You know she means it, and yet you also suspect she takes devilish pleasure knowing that the prominence given the award must drive feminists crazy.
Schlafly could have rested on her laurels after writing “A Choice, Not an Echo.” She could have rested on her laurels after defeating the E.R.A. Indeed, she could have rested on her laurels on any number of occasions over the past half century. America can be thankful that she did not.
Upon Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Senator Jesse Helms said, “God has given America one more chance.” With Schlafly and her long career, God gave America dozens of chances.
Schlafly is survived by her six children, sons John, Bruce, Roger, and Andrew Schlafly, daughters Liza Foreshaw and Anne Cori, and at least 14 grandchildren.