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Phyllis Schlafly's ironic feminist legacy

breaking barriers

In parallel with what feminists were doing on the left, Schlafly pushed her way into the male-dominated GOP to become the 'founding mother' of modern social conservatism. 

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    Missouri delegate Phyllis Schlafly watches during the second day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016. A fierce opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, she inspired conservative women to become passionate about politics.
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Phyllis Schlafly was anti-establishment before being anti-establishment was cool.

And though she became the doyenne of family values and a long-time scourge of feminism – trumpeting the “rights of the wife” as she nearly single-handedly killed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) 40 years ago – Mrs. Schlafly was, in her own way, a part of the same feminist revolution she famously battled for decades.

In fact, far from trying to preserve a social status quo, Schlafly constantly sought to disrupt it by drawing upon the power of an untapped political force: conservative women.

She has been called the “founding mother” of modern social conservatism, the firebrand who helped ignite the ongoing culture war battles over issues of sexuality and gender. And she was in many ways the proto-insurgent standing behind the noisy restlessness within the GOP that gave rise to both the tea party and this year’s nomination of Donald Trump.

But after her passing on Monday, many conservative women now active in politics hailed Schlafly as the person who inspired them to become passionate about politics.  

“It was just that she gave a voice to conservative Christian women when nobody was listening to us,” says Chelsen Vicari, the evangelical programs director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C.

“And for a number of young, conservative Christian women today, who, maybe they don’t align with every political platform that she advocated, they admire her demonstration of both strength and a fierce, passionate advocacy in the public square – while also being gracious and kind and a mom, all at the same time,” Ms. Vicari continues.

Dated ideas, but timeless pluck

In more recent years, many of Schlafly’s ideas could seem anachronistic, many admit. She sniffed at political efforts to get equal pay for equal work, saying the man should be the breadwinner in a household. And she didn’t think a woman should be president.

But her commanding presence, tart tongue and sharp wit, and dominating debating style often belied her message of special gender roles, observers point out.

“At a time when feminists were banging on the door demanding equal opportunity, Schlafly was knocking doors down as she pushed her way into the largely male-dominated arena of party politics,” says Carter Turner, professor of religious studies at Radford University in Virginia.

“Of course the irony, as others have pointed out, is that her ascension was built on the message that men and women should remain in their respective lanes,” Professor Carter adds. “Schlafly was beloved by those who found her courageous and inspiring, and loathed by those who saw her traditionalist rhetoric as a major obstacle to the expansion of human rights.”  

Early in her career as a Republican political activist, one that spanned nearly 70 years, Schlafly began to rail against “a small group of secret kingmakers,” elites who essentially rigged the power structures within the GOP.

A fierce anti-communist in the 1950s and early 1960s, Schlafly was part of the Barry Goldwater movement, unanimously elected vice president of the National Federation of Republican Women. But after Goldwater’s crushing loss in the 1964 presidential election, moderate Republicans tried to wrest control from conservatives like Schlafly, who was now running to be president of the organization.

This time she lost badly, enduring attacks on her ability to do the job because she was the mother of six children. Some even whispered neglect.

'A woman with a strong voice'

But Schlafly blamed the loss not on the women against her, but the men who ran the GOP.

“The Republican Party is carried on the shoulders of the women who do the work in the precincts, ringing doorbells, distributing literature, and doing all the tiresome, repetitious campaign tasks,” Schlafly wrote in her 1967 book “Safe – Not Sorry.” “Many men in the party frankly want to keep the women doing the menial work.”

She represented something new in party politics: a woman with a strong voice. That is why men were against her, she believed. “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.

“You can call it ironic, especially with her opposition to the ERA, but Schlafly really was, in her own way, as much of a creature of the feminist movement as she was an opponent of its causes,” says Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Indeed, by the time she turned her attention to the ERA, which had been proposed as far back as 1923, the change to the US Constitution seemed inevitable. Supported by President Nixon, the amendment passed the House with a vote of 354 to 24 in 1971, and the Senate followed with a vote of 84 to 8.  With overwhelming bipartisan support, 35 of the necessary 38 state legislatures had also approved the amendment.

But Schlafly saw it as a threat to housewives, and she had the political skill and acumen to begin to rally those anxious about the social changes of the 1960s, from the rise of feminism to the sexual revolution.

“Understanding the power of personal politics, Schlafly leveraged her identity as an ‘average housewife’ and a mother of six to defend traditional gender roles, even as she emerged as the leader of a national political movement,” wrote Nicole Hemmer in POLITICO Magazine on Tuesday.  

Under the aegis of a movement called STOP ERA, Schlafly warned women that they would have to register for the draft, be forced into the workplace, and be subjected to mixed-sex bathrooms if the amendment passed, among other things.

Her national organization was wildly successful. Women pressured remaining state lawmakers to vote down the amendment. In fact, after intense lobbying, they even got five states to rescind their approval. In 1975, Schlafly renamed STOP ERA as the Eagle Forum, still active today.

“Schlafly had finally won herself a place on the national stage at the precise moment that women’s rights activists were prying open positions of power and authority to women,” Ms. Hemmer wrote.

Inspiration for conservative women

Conservatives don’t necessarily disagree.

“[Schlafly] was groundbreaking in her own way – in a way, I think, feminists didn't like, but was important for conservative women,” said Penny Young Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, to NPR on Tuesday. “She gave us a voice. I stand today on her shoulders in that I have a national platform to speak about the life issue and conservative issues.”

Vicari, of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, says that though younger Christian women continue to take the torch Schlafly lit for conservative women, their issues “continue to move forward, and expand from just issues focused on abortion, to issues such as racial reconciliation, concern for immigrants, or concern for refugees.”  

Schlafly remained a vocal anti-establishment crusader to the end of her life.

“I do believe the grass roots can take back the Republican Party,” Schlafly told a SiriusXM program last year. “These kingmakers ... they’re the people who really want us to be bipartisan and get along with everybody. But that’s not the American way. Americans believe in the adversarial concept.”

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