Women politicians owe a debt to … Phyllis Schlafly?

Schlafly and her army of "housewives" demonstrating against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House in 1977. (Library of Congress)

Schlafly and her army of “housewives” demonstrating against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House in 1977. (Library of Congress)

Phyllis Schlafly, the grande dame of the anti-feminist movement, has died. So she won’t be around to watch if and when Hillary Clinton is sworn in as the nation’s 45th president on Jan. 20, 2017.

Schlafly is being remembered in many ways: as a fervent anti-Communist; as the self-published author of A Choice Not an Echo, which got Barry Goldwater nominated in 1964; as a John Bircher; as the founder of her own personal national political organization, the Eagle Forum, which gave her a national platform that spanned decades; as an author of more than 20 books and editor of a monthly conservative newsletter; and as an extreme conservative activist against feminism, abortion, LGBT rights, the United Nations, arms control, etc. Most of all, she is remembered for killing the Equal Rights Amendment. Nothing to like from a liberal perspective.

Yet there’s no denying that Schlafly was a savvy and effective politician, even if we hated what she was effective at. She was wrong on nearly every issue. She did her best to set back the cause of women’s rights; she backed horrible candidates; and she spread paranoid conservative propaganda. But boy, did she do it well. Those who underestimated Schlafly in the 1970s learned that lesson the hard way.

Schlafly would be the last to admit it, but, ironically, her strong voice and presence in politics were made possible because of feminism (Schlafly would be spinning—nay, turning cartwheels—in her grave at the very idea). Schlafly touted traditional family roles for women even as she spurned them for herself. Because of her wealth, she could afford a lifetime of activism in Republican politics and a decades-long career outside the home touting conservative causes. As much as we hated her success, it paved the way for other women, both conservative and liberal, to be taken seriously.

There are certainly women political pioneers on the liberal side who have been active and effective for decades. The growing women’s liberation and women’s rights movements of the 1960s got the ball rolling. But Phyllis Schlafly was a master. Without her enormous success and prominence, there likely wouldn’t be as many women in office as there are today. Women’s voices in politics wouldn’t carry as much weight as they do now. There might not even be a woman as the Democratic nominee for president.

A storified tweet by historian and author Kevin Kruse concluded: “Even if you hate what she did, remember how she did it. Because she gave you a blueprint to do anything. Even to undo her work.”

A story in Slate is titled “Phyllis Schlafly Is Doomed to Represent the Feminism She Railed Against.” The author describes Schlafly’s loss in a 1967 contest for the presidency for the National Federation of Republican Women, in which she was beaten by a moderate candidate and criticized for the possibility of not caring for her six children.

Just over a year later [Schlafly] wrote an essay … about the ways Republicans took conservative women for granted; some of it would fit verbatim in an EMILY’s List appeal. “Women will continue to be ignored in the centers of political power until they hold a substantial percentage of public offices and are elected to party positions,” she wrote.

Schlafly, who died [Sept. 5], was the most influential anti-feminist in American history. She is single-handedly responsible for derailing the Equal Rights Amendment. Much of her life, however, could serve as a feminist parable, as she relentlessly maneuvered for power in a male-dominated world.

Said a story in Politico Magazine:

Perhaps the great irony of the most famous anti-feminist icon in recent history is that Schlafly couldn’t have done it without feminism. As she grew in influence, it was exactly the activist framework pioneered by feminists that she used in her long, and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to stop them.

When the ERA passed in Congress in 1972, everyone assumed that ratification would follow quickly. At first, it did; 30 state legislatures ratified the amendment within a year, leaving only eight more for the necessary constitutional threshold. But Phyllis Schlafly had a different idea. Although she had been active in Republican politics, she hadn’t gained national influence on her pet issues against Communism. So the right-wing ideologue finally found a subject that gave her national prominence. She formed Stop Taking Our Privileges ERA, or STOP ERA, the group that eventually became the Eagle Forum.

It was a national fight, and Schlafly and her “housewife” volunteers mobilized across the country. In between trips to Washington and national media appearances, Schlafly also concentrated on preventing ratification in Illinois. Over several years, the “housewives” made multiple trips to the Legislature in Springfield, armed with signs, huge buttons, and home-baked goods for the lawmakers—sometimes homemade bread, sometimes cookies, sometimes pie. Schlafly and her cohorts would show up early for the cameras, crowding out college students who came to demonstrate in favor of the ERA on buses with hand-drawn signs. In the end, the ERA was three states shy of ratification.

A story in The Atlantic explains why Schlafly was so successful and suggests that other women could learn from her tactics. “It was impossible to look at the work she had done and not recognize the skill, savvy, and frankly, genius it took to build and market the STOP ERA movement.”

Schlafly was a veteran of politics with years of elite education and political experience (though little of it successful) to build on: She was an honors graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s program at Radcliffe. She twice ran unsuccessfully for United States Congress. She authored dozens of political (some might say conspiratorial) books and she was active in national Republican politics for decades before picking up the STOP ERA mantle.

Few that joined her STOP ERA cause could match her resume. … She described her volunteers as “housewives” who “didn’t even know where their state capital was.” She taught them how to give STOP ERA talking points at their local representative’s office and she taught them how to send thank-you notes afterwards. She taught them how to wear the “right colors for television,” and style their hair and makeup so that all STOP ERA representatives looked the same—looked like her. She held seminars where she played videos of herself speaking and would have them mimic her ability to give “20-second sound bites.”  She taught them to stay on message. She taught them how to smile.

I actually interviewed Schlafly in 1976 for my college newspaper, during the height of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment. I traveled to her stately home on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, across the river from St. Louis.

The first thing you need to realize about Schlafly is that she was wealthy—very wealthy. Her husband was a successful lawyer in St. Louis. She liked to say that she never held a paying job after she married, but she didn’t need to. Her home was beautifully furnished, and for our interview, she was dressed conservatively and tastefully in light blue in what was undoubtedly a designer suit. She sat beneath a portrait of herself over the fireplace. Her upswept hair was in the same recognizable style she wore for decades. An African-American maid in a white apron served us coffee and cookies (I swear I am not making this up).

I thought I would be able to trap her into admitting something positive about the ERA. I was totally out of her league—and frustrated.

She repeated many of her talking points: how women need protective labor laws, even if it means they make less money. She said the real heroes for women were inventors such as Thomas Edison, who brought electricity into people’s homes; Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine; and Clarence Birdseye, who perfected methods of freezing food. Her basic belief boiled down to: “Women have babies and men don’t have babies. There’s no way you can get away from that role.”

When it came to the ERA, she brought up her usual arguments: the horrors of unisex bathrooms, the fears that men could abandon wives with impunity; the dangers of women being drafted into the military. I asked if she valued her daughters’ lives more than those of her sons. “For those who feel a moral obligation to serve, I think they should go sign up,” she answered. “Did you see any women demonstrating during the Vietnam War for their rights to be treated just like men?”

Schlafly ran for Congress twice, in 1952 and 1970 (“I came very close in 1970,” she told me). She traveled constantly during the anti-ERA fight, testifying in 30 state legislatures against the ERA, even though the youngest of her six children was only 11. The woman who made her name touting the benefits of the traditional family left her family at home for her political work. But her wealth allowed her to hire household help and a personal assistant.

During the 1970s, Schlafly earned a law degree while sabotaging the ERA and working to elect Ronald Reagan president. Hillary Clinton also earned a law degree, but she was going undercover to expose segregated schools in Alabama. She was joining the board of the Legal Services Corporation and working for the Children’s Defense Fund. She was founding the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, teaching law school, becoming a partner at the Rose Law Firm, and serving as first lady of Arkansas.

There have been 29 Democratic and 17 Republican women senators. Nearly 300 women have served as representatives in the House. The total number of congresswomen was stuck in the single digits and low teens for each session until the 1970s, then it started climbing. There are 84 women serving in the House today, the vast majority of them Democrats.

On the whole, I think our side is winning.

The ERA never was added to the Constitution, but nearly every other policy Schlafly railed against is now ensconced in law. Marriage equality is legal across 50 states. Abortion is still allowed. Women are now eligible for combat. And yes, men and women sometimes use the same bathrooms.

According to Snopes, Schlafly never uttered the line that many are attributing to her right now: “There will be a woman president over my dead body.” She actually endorsed Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann in the 2012 election. Nevertheless, if and when Hillary Clinton takes the oath of office, Schlafly won’t be there to seethe.

And on one level, we can thank the political activist—and unwitting feminist—Phyllis Schlafly.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Sept. 11, 2016.

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