Phyllis Schlafly: wife, politician who 'does it all without the ERA'

Phyllis Schlafly moves efficiently around her blue-carpeted Washington office suite. Exuding self-confidence and cheer, she works on a press release and answers the powder-blue telephone that, along with an American flag, stands atop her undersize, feminine desk.

Between tasks, she fields questions. Did she personally defeat the Equal Rights Amendment?

The founder of Stop ERA, who for the last decade criss-crossed the country to fight the amendment, smiles broadly. ''We had quite a team,'' she says. ''I'm not going to say I did it all by myself.''

While the debate over why the ERA lost will rage for years, no one personifies the opposition more than Mrs. Schlafly of Alton, Ill., a mother of six.

When the ERA passed by an overwhelming margin in Congress in 1972, she already had the perfect launch pad for the opposition. A political activist since the '50s, Mrs. Schlafly commanded a national network of conservative women who received her monthly newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report.

Her privately published book, ''A Choice Not an Echo,'' helped propel Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, and she was a leader of the party's right wing.

At first, Mrs. Schlafly hardly noticed the ERA because of her preoccupation with other issues such as Soviet weaponry. But when a friend suggested she read up on the proposed amendment, a campaign was born that has made Phyllis Schlafly a household name.

She sounded the call to arms in her November 1972 newsletter headlined ''The Right To Be A Woman.'' The news media had been flooded with ''strident'' calls for women's rights, she wrote. ''But what about the rights of the woman who doesn't want to compete on an equal basis with men?''

The ERA, she warned, ''will take away the right to be a woman.''

Her feminist opponents have had reactions ranging from scoffing (Some argue that business interests and not Mrs. Schlafly defeated the ERA) to open hostility (She once had a pie thrown in her face). But feminists also like to point to the irony that Mrs. Schlafly, the picture of the 20th-century independent woman, opposes the ERA.

''I can do it all without the ERA,'' she responds. ''The ERA is not going to do anything but draft my daughter.''

Pointedly using terms such as ''women's lib'' that ERA proponents dislike, she says, ''I think the women's lib movement teaches women to put their own self-fulfillment over every other value, and that is incompatible with a marriage.''

''The key element is career priority,'' says Mrs. Schlafly. ''Home, husband, family, and children have come first in my life. Everything else came afterward. My whole approach to life is contrary to women's lib.''

Does she subscribe to the opinions of those who argue that the wife should always submit to her husband?

''That is not part of my rhetoric,'' she says.

In fact, Mrs. Schlafly's life has only the faintest resemblance to submission. When the telephone of her Alton home rings, an assistant answers ''Phyllis Schlafly's home,'' with no mention of her husband, Fred, a successful lawyer.

Although frequently identified as a housewife, she fits the description in only the broadest sense. When her first child, John, was only a year and a half in 1952, she plunged into the first of two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress. And she continued her political speech-giving, even when it meant taking along her nursing children.

In the 1970s Mrs. Schlafly, who already held a master's degree from Harvard University, attended law school in her ''spare time,'' she says, ''because I thought that if I was going to be the country's expert on the Constitution, it would be helpful to have my union card.''

She says she remains unimpressed with her law degree, however. ''I would rather be the wife of a lawyer than a lawyer,'' she says. ''It's a nicer life. I enjoy being a wife, being the wife of a lawyer who will protect and defend and support his family.''

Law practice is often drudgery, she maintains.

But her daughter Liza apparently has a different view. ''My daughter has just gotten a law degree and is with one of the best Chicago firms,'' says her mother. ''I think having children is more fun. She thinks practicing law is more fun.''

Mrs. Schlafly, who will host an ''Over the Rainbow'' celebration in Washington during the last few hours of the ERA lifetime, says she will close up her Stop ERA shop, but her organization, the Eagle Forum, will continue.

One of its aims will be working for the ''election of candidates who are pro-family, the kind of people who voted against the ERA,'' she says.

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