Phyllis Schlafly, who died yesterday at the age of 92, will long be remembered as one of the most politically consequential figures of her time. A tireless critic of feminism, she is best known for her successful campaign to block passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Through her many books, speaking engagements, newspaper columns, and near constant public writing for her monthly newsletter published by the organization she founded (the Eagle Forum), her impact was far wider than the ERA, as she helped shape vast numbers of conservative Americans’ views on everything from abortion and school prayer to racial inequality (she opposed civil rights reforms), the purported cause of sex scandals on college campuses (too many female students), and the evils, as she saw them, of Islam. She also persuaded countless numbers to reject the political “kingmakers” in the Republican Party—those northeastern elites who, she argued in her 1964 book A Choice Not an Echo and forever afterward, had unfairly picked Republican nominees for generations, rather than letting the grassroots choose their candidate. Most recently, she was vocal in her fervent support of one such grassroots contender, Donald Trump.
Schlafly was also one of St. Louis’s most famous residents—born here in 1924, a two-time graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, and the recipient of a 2008 honorary degree from the same institution, she died at her suburban home in St. Louis County. Long before moving to St. Louis myself, I had been fascinated by Schlafly, since hearing about her in childhood from my pro-ERA feminist mother, and I have written sporadically about her in my scholarly work. When I took my current job at Washington University five years ago, I sought out Schlafly for an interview, which she eagerly gave me in the headquarters of the Eagle Forum, minutes from my home. The following are excerpts from that interview, conducted on April 6, 2012, which have been edited lightly for length and clarity. Note that a number of her claims are factually incorrect—like her claims that the biggest part of the federal budget goes to welfare, that feminism’s main goal is to get rid of full-time homemakers, that women’s studies courses are programmed against marriage and children, that President Obama is a secret Muslim, and that all Muslim immigrants are put on welfare. Still, we are publishing this piece to illuminate a point of view and ideas that continue to hold sway with large swaths of the American populace. Schlafly’s viewpoints were never dull, always influential, and remained very controversial but steadfast throughout her long life in politics.
On how she built a coalition that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment:
When I took up the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, it was launched with one issue of my newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, now in its 45th year, an article called “What’s Wrong with Equal Rights for Women?” And in a few weeks I got a call from one of my friends who subscribed—the price was then $5 a year—and said “Phyllis, we took your newsletter to our legislature and they voted down the Equal Rights Amendment.” And then I knew we had something, so I invited 100 women from 30 states to come meet me in St. Louis and we started Stop ERA. Now when we got started the ERA had already been ratified in 30 states and they only needed 8 more and nobody thought we had a chance to win. The Equal Rights Amendment was supported by three Presidents: Nixon, Ford and Carter, all the governors, most of Congress, 99 percent of the media, Hollywood. Nobody thought we had a chance. But, at any rate, in those first few years, ‘72, ‘73, ‘74, ’75, we stopped it in the states where it came up, particularly Illinois, which was the frontline of the battle, and with my handful of Republican women friends. And then I realized we had to have reinforcements and that’s when I went to the churches and I asked people to bring 1,000 people to the Springfield, Illinois, state capital. It was on, I think, April 26th, 1976, and I consider that the day we invented the pro-family movement.
On her role in bridging religious differences to shape the pro-family movement and the Religious Right:
They came from all the different denominations. We had a Chicago rabbi who testified for us every year and the Protestants and the Catholics, the Mormons, they all came and I built the first Stop ERA, which morphed into Eagle Forum and we were a true ecumenical organization. We did not discuss theology and my policy was we’re all going to join together to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, which they all wanted to do for their own purposes. And I think it was the first building of the combination of the different denominations to work for a political goal, to come into the political process. And we just have to get along, that’s all, we’ve all got a goal and we’re going to work for it and we’re not going to discuss religion. But having Catholics and Baptists and Mormons and Jews in the same room was a new experience for everybody … After a few years, Jerry Falwell started his Moral Majority and when he brought the Baptists in to help us, we had a rally of 10,000 people in Springfield, Illinois. And we kept winning, although everybody who was anybody thought we couldn’t win. ERA was supported by everybody who was anybody from left to right, from Ted Kennedy to George Wallace, they all signed on to it. And we kept at it and our organization worked together and that was the beginning of what is now often called the Religious Right.
When we started out, the idea of Baptists and Catholics getting along was just not in anybody’s mind that [this] could possibly happen. In fact, one Baptist minister invited me to speak at his conference and he took all kinds of abuse for inviting a Catholic. Of course he invited me to speak on ERA, I wasn’t going to talk on theology, but people were mad about it anyway. And I told him, “Well I don’t have to come,” but no, he insisted that I come, but he took a great deal of abuse about that and people didn’t, they just didn’t like it. And then you can see also in the pro-life fight, Roe v. Wade came down in 1973, and immediately the Catholic bishops jumped in to fight it. Well, with the Catholic bishops leading the effort, the Protestants were not going to join, they just wouldn’t. And finally, about five years later they realized what the unborn baby is so they came along and now they’ve taken over the movement and we’re glad of that.
And then another evidence of how it’s changed in this period: I got a letter from one of the half a dozen top Evangelical leaders in this country, a very short letter, and he said “Thank you, Phyllis, for teaching me that Catholics worship the same Jesus that I do.” And I told this to a number of Protestant leaders and their eyes get big and they say, “Do you really realize how big that is?”
On her disdain for the Republican elite establishment and her support of the grassroots:
At the time of A Choice, Not an Echo and the fight for Barry Goldwater in 1964, the kingmakers were headquartered clearly in New York where Rockefeller had been governor a couple of times, and he was the epitome of everything we were against and it was very much dominated by the Chase Manhattan Bank. Now we still have the establishment but it’s not Chase Manhattan Bank and Rockefeller anymore. … That so-called moderate wing of the Republican Party, they’re very nervous with religious people around. The religious people don’t take orders like they expect people to take orders and they have some of their own ideas. And so you find their people saying things like “Well we don’t want to talk about social issues,” and for example, for years, official instructions would go out from the Republic National Committee to all their senatorial and congressional candidates, “Now don’t talk about abortion, don’t talk about it.” And one of my projects has been to make the Republican Party pro-life, and we have succeeded. Because under Nixon the Republican Party was pro-choice and I can remember going to conservative meetings and even there the prevailing view was pro-choice. But we have made it pro-life with knock-down, drag-out battles at every Republican convention until we’ve succeeded. And in 2010 almost every Republican who was elected, including all the women, is pro-life, and you almost now have to be pro-life to get a Republican nomination. Now that is a significant change and it shows where a lot of the votes are, and yet the establishment is still saying things like, “We don’t want to talk about social issues.” But the social issues are extremely motivating.
On the connections, as she saw them, among religion, marriage, and the welfare system:
We are now in a period where the ACLU and other organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State are out to abolish religion in every public place, whether it’s the Pledge of Allegiance or Ten Commandments or prayers at opening a legislature, or they want to stop the valedictorian from thanking God for helping her through high school and they want to prevent the grade school children from singing Christmas carols. I think they want to treat Christians like smokers: You can do it in your own room (chuckling) but you can’t do it in any public place. That’s really what we’re up against today. And of course in a lot of schools they don’t teach much American history anymore so the people don’t know. Well now we have a whole generation of parents who were so poorly educated that they don’t know what their children aren’t getting.
The biggest part of the federal budget is the money that is going through various types of welfare as a result of marriage absence. We had 71 percent illegitimate children born in this country last year. It’s just appalling. And there are 70 types of cash and benefits that go mostly to the single moms. It stands to reason you don’t have a husband provider, you’re going to look to big brother government. And they have cash and housing and food stamps and child care and all sorts of things, and now they’re even giving them all cell phones. And it’s approaching a trillion dollars a year, so if you care about the fiscal issues you’ve got to address yourself to what is the money being spent on. And this enormous amount of money is being spent because people have, well I guess given up their religion or their sense of morals and they’re not getting married and they’re having babies anyway and they expect the government to support them.
On the perceived hypocrisy, criticized by feminists, that Schlafly had a very active, public career while advocating the homemaker role for other women:
You know people have their different scale of sins, and when I started out it seemed like the biggest sin was wiretapping, and now the biggest sin is hypocrisy, and if they can tag that label on you, they think that you’re really a sinful person. No, it’s ridiculous. I spent 25 years raising my children. I did not have a paid job since I got married, but homemakers are not chained to the stove … I had a very supportive husband who loved everything I did. I’m thinking one of the real assets I had was that all my children were healthy. And as I’ve watched a lot of mothers who’ve had difficult health problems with their children I see how time-consuming that is, and all my children were healthy and smart and doing fine and didn’t give us any problems. But there’s plenty of other time to engage in politics, which was my hobby and I didn’t really do any overnight speaking to speak of until they were all off, basically until they were pretty much all off in college. The first time I ran for Congress in 1952, I never had to be gone overnight. It was just a two-county district; you go out and give a speech and come back. So big deal.
On President Barack Obama:
I think there’s a good chance he’s a Muslim at heart. I don’t know, he says conflicting things, but I think he really wants us to be citizens of the world. He’s not for patriotism, he’s for making us think of ourselves as citizens of the world, which I think is all wrong. … I think Obama is doing all kinds of un-constitutional things.
On what she saw as the greatest current threats to American democracy, Islam and China:
I think our country’s not paying enough attention to the threat of Islam and the threat of China. I think they’re tremendous threats. I just did one of my last articles on how China’s cheating us and I’m going to do another one on how they’re cheating us in cyber warfare and what they can do to us. And Islam, I don’t think they ought to let Muslims come into this country who believe in or practice polygamy. And nobody will answer those questions for me. And I think they are coming in and I think they put them all on welfare and this country has opposed polygamy always. We’ve had laws against it since the middle of the nineteenth century and I don’t think we should tolerate that … So I think Islam is a tremendous danger; they are out to kill us.
On why she believes feminists hate her so much:
Washington University gave me the highest honor a few years ago, an honorary doctor of something and the feminists just protested all over the place. They tried to stop it. And you have to ask yourself why did they hate me so much. And of course this protest was led by the female professors in the law school; it wasn’t even student-led. Why did they hate me so much? And I really don’t think it was because I led the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment. I think it’s because I stood up for the full-time homemaker that they want to eliminate. In fact, if you read the literature of the feminists, which you don’t want to have to do, but Carolyn Graglia who wrote Domestic Tranquility has done a good job of reading all that tiresome stuff and their main goal is to get rid of the full-time homemaker. And you kind of have to ask yourself why do they hate the full-time homemaker. You would think if they were looking for some fancy career in the workforce, they’d be glad not to have the competition of all these women who prefer to stay home. But that isn’t the way they look at it. The way they look at it is when they get to the position of a promotion and second class and partner class and so forth, their competition is a man and he has an asset that she doesn’t have. He has a wife and she doesn’t have that and she can’t have a wife. And they want to take that. The wife is such a big asset to the man and they want to take that away from him. And so you find that all the women’s studies courses are all programmed, designed to program a young woman’s life with no space for marriage and children.
In answer to my question, “Do you think feminism got anything right, looking back over the years?”
No. I think it’s completely destructive because it starts out with the notion that American women are victims of the patriarchy. And if you start out thinking you’re a victim, you’re not going to get very far. But that’s what they teach: victims of the patriarchy, and they’re out to abolish the patriarchy. (chuckles)
Marie Griffith is the editor of Religion & Politics.