Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime feminist antagonist largely credited with defeating the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), died on Monday. She was 92.
It’s difficult to understate what a vexing nemesis Schlafly was to the women’s movement. Once, during a public debate in 1973, feminist leader Betty Friedan growled at Schlafly, “I’d like to burn you at the stake”—yet many Millennials have never heard of her.
Despite its controversy, we should pause and reflect on Schlafly’s legacy because her brand of “family values” spawned the battles modern feminists are still fighting today.
First, it’s important to understand that Schlafly wasn’t a doe-eyed political neophyte twiddling her thumbs at home. She accumulated power in conservative circles long before taking on the ERA, a proposed Constitutional amendment that would’ve guaranteed equal rights for women, throughout the ‘70s. A Choice Not an Echo, Schlafly’s self-published book that supported hard-right Republican Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid, sold millions. Although she never held office herself, Schlafly unsuccessfully ran for Congress three times, and lost a bid for president of the National Federation of Republican Women in 1967.
But Schlafly was no also-ran. With the women’s liberation movement, she found boogeywomen whom she could scapegoat for the changing American family and a place to lay blame for conservative anxieties. When confronting a generation of women demanding power, Schlafly attained power herself by allying with conservatives who felt threatened by those feminists. (Eagle Forum, an interest group that Schlafly founded as an alternative to women’s lib, boasted 60,000 members by 1975.)
James C. Dobson, founder of the Christian conservative organization Focus on the Family, credits Schlafly’s grassroots organization STOP ERA for taking on a cause few others were willing to oppose. She rallied church-going homemakers, armed with cakes and apple pies, who visited state lawmakers to ask them to vote against the ERA. It had already passed both houses of Congress in 1972 and been ratified by 35 of the necessary 38 states by 1977 when the movement bumped up against Schlafly and other women politely asking to be protected from feminism—and lost. No further states ratified; five tried to rescind.
Those cake-baking anti-ERA agitators “saw themselves as upholding the ideal of the two-parent family—a father, a mother working at home, and children—which they feared was being replaced in the 1970s by single-parent families and cohabitating couples, both heterosexual and homosexual,” Donald T. Critchlow wrote in Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade.
For her part, Schlafly argued for male headship at home—a kind of Bible-based, kitchen-table patriarchy—but placed herself at the fore of the conservative movement. She argued for a woman’s right to stay home and rear children, but attended law school while raising her family. She opened speeches by thanking her husband for letting her participate, but it was a thanks she gave mostly to irritate women’s libbers.
Ironically, Schlafly saw herself as an advocate for women’s rights, but defined those rights as an end to what she saw as discrimination against homemakers in the U.S. tax code and as equal opportunity in education and employment (although advocating equal opportunity was a far cry from actual equality). In her book Feminist Fantasies, which includes a foreword by Ann Coulter, Schlafly argues that feminists narrowly define women’s rights to tax-paid abortion on demand, any sexual activity in or out of marriage, easy divorce, government subsidies for daycare, affirmative action and, “comparable worth” (her term for equal pay).
She believed women are protected in a society that respects family as its basic unit—since we have babies and men don’t—and wanted women to enjoy their special status.
“If you don’t like this fundamental difference, you will have to take up your complaint with God because He created us this way,” she wrote in Feminist Fantasies. “Of all the classes of people who ever lived, the American woman is the most privileged.”
(This “privileged” class is one many modern feminists would view as a fantasy since inequality still exists, and special privilege isn’t automatically granted to women thanks to the chivalry of a Christian nation.)
Outspoken and combative, Schlafly worked into her 90s, arguing in 2014 that the pay gap isn’t bad because it helps “promote and sustain marriages” by forcing spouses to contribute to a combined family income. She blamed lower marriage rates among African Americans and Millennials on a vanishing pay gap in those groups, noting, “The best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives, even if that means increasing the so-called pay gap.”
As recently as July, Schlafly was still churning out her daily podcast, The Phyllis Schlafly Report. She was also on the floor of this summer’s Republican National Convention—her twelfth. In fact, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump sought out and won Schlafly’s endorsement, and reportedly spoke to her on the phone just weeks ago.
Schlafly was a major organizing force for the conservative political movements that shaped today’s America, and remains a hero to those who still abhor marriage equality, trans rights, and gender parity. In tackling women’s liberation and picking up the mantle of ERA opposition, Schlafly changed the course of modern gender politics. Focus on the Family founder Dobson has credited her with “essentially launching the pro-family, pro-life movement.”
We should know Schlafly—a complicated figure who fought feminism by asserting her own power—because she, too, is the face of women’s liberation. Having played the game both masterfully and (to some) monstrously, Schlafly’s legacy lives on, and continues to plague this generation’s feminists who are still fighting for reproductive rights, equal pay, and equal power. Even if many of us don’t know her name today, it’s Schlafly’s stagnant portrait of the American family we’re fighting to change.
Sarah Stankorb’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and Salon. She also regularly contributes to CNNMoney and GOOD Magazine. Sarah's beat spans social enterprise, women’s rights, the environment, health, motherhood, religion, and cultural commentary.