SEPTEMBER 7, 2016
ON LABOR DAY, the conservative activist and anti-feminist gadfly Phyllis Schlafly died at the age of 92 at her home in St. Louis. Obituaries have rightly commemorated Schlafly’s pioneering work as a leading figure in the Republican Party’s rightward shift since the 1970s, her critical role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, and her place as the forerunner of today’s brash conservative female commentators, like Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin.
Yet Schlafly’s most lasting contribution to American politics may be the most underappreciated aspect of her biography. As a committed Catholic who found her greatest political success by tapping into cultural and social grievances about loosening sexual mores and changing attitudes about women and the family, Schlafly envisioned and articulated the “family values” politics that would come to dominate the Republican Party in the Reagan years and after. Schlafly’s moralized politics, her strident, even self-righteous sermonizing on moral decay, national sin, and God’s righteousness — accompanied by her prim dresses, pearls, and overly-styled hair — all fit squarely within the cultural worlds of the religious conservatives she courted, particularly conservative evangelicals.
Schlafly’s political genius owed to her prescient certitude that religious conservatives — Catholics, evangelicals, Mormons, and even Orthodox Jews — could abandon their longstanding separatist ways and unite on behalf of shared political goals. In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell would take (and receive) credit for being the mastermind of this ecumenical conservative movement. Falwell’s self-promotion and Moral Majority’s organizing myth rested on his continual touting that, in bringing evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons together, he had done the impossible. But Schlafly had imagined that unthinkable prospect as early as the 1950s, long before Farwell, and begun translating it into reality with her STOP ERA organization in the 1970s.
Schlafly, then, should be understood as one of the Religious Right’s founding architects. Her biography reveals the much longer history of the Religious Right, but also highlights the challenges built into that fragile coalition. As a darling among a wide swath of religious conservatives, Schlafly built bridges between evangelicals, Mormons, and her own Catholic community, navigating the hurdles posed by lingering anti-Catholicism, especially among some evangelicals.
From her earliest days, Schlafly’s life was shaped by the two biggest institutions in her family: the Catholic Church and the Republican Party. Born Phyllis Stewart in 1924, Schlafly’s parents raised her and her sister to be deeply Catholic and thoroughly Republican in Democratic-heavy St. Louis. Even as the Great Depression took its toll on her family — Schlafly’s father lost his job as a salesmen for Westinghouse — the Stewarts remained staunchly Republican, refusing to accept government help and voting, as few Roman Catholics in St. Louis at the time did, for Wendell Willkie in 1940 and Thomas Dewey in 1944. All the while, the Stewarts impressed on their two daughters that they were to trust in God, family, and their own individual abilities, rather than the promises of liberalism or the provisions of the state, to support them in life.
A precocious student with a fierce drive, Schlafly graduated from Washington University in St. Louis and then did graduate work at Radcliffe before a short stint working at the new American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Returning to St. Louis to work on local Republican campaigns, she met her husband, Fred Schlafly, a wealthy lawyer who shared her deep commitments to the Catholic Church and the GOP.
Although she would make a name for herself defending traditional housewives who felt attacked by feminism and threatened by the ERA, Schlafly never confined herself to the home to care for her six children. Instead, she threw herself into political work, volunteering for the Illinois Federation of Republican Women and even running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1952. Schlafly’s first brush with fame came when she authored the 1964 campaign book for Barry Goldwater, A Choice Not an Echo. In it, Schlafly blasted the moderate and liberal Eastern wing of the GOP — “a small group of secret kingmakers,” as she described them — who, she argued, controlled the party and silenced its conservative base. The book sold 3.5 million copies in its first six months.
That success made Schlafly a hero to grassroots conservatives, but persona non grata among the party’s leadership, especially after Goldwater’s humiliating loss. Schlafly’s defeat in her run for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women — an especially crushing blow, since she was the sitting vice president — signaled her negative reputation among the Republican establishment. Another unsuccessful run for Congress in 1970 might have made any other activist retreat from the frontlines. But Schlafly was just getting started.
In 1971, Schlafly answered a phone call from a conservative group in Connecticut asking her to participate in a debate about the Equal Rights Amendment under consideration by the Senate. Schlafly hadn’t yet heard of the ERA, but as she prepared for the debate she became enraged at the prospect of the amendment being added to the Constitution. She also smelled opportunity. Schlafly’s true passion had been national security issues, but she’d had a hard time cracking that male-dominated field in her prior Republican Party work. Sensing a burgeoning conservative backlash to the social and cultural changes of the 1960s, Schlafly rightly recognized that the rumbling discontentment of religious conservatives could grow into a powerful political movement. Schlafly intended to lead the charge.
Although thirty states had approved the ERA within the first year of its passage in Congress, Schlafly knew she only needed thirteen states to defeat the amendment in order to prevent its ratification. She quickly organized STOP ERA in September 1972. By February of the next year, STOP ERA operated in twenty-six battleground states — both the states that hadn’t yet passed the amendment and states she believed might rescind their prior support.
Schlafly warned her followers that the ERA threatened women’s special status as homemakers protected by their husbands, and that it would decimate the traditional heterosexual family by legalizing everything from abortion to female military conscription to homosexual marriage. Conservative Catholic, evangelical, and Mormon women who believed that sex and gender roles were God-given were all drawn to Schlafly’s call to protect the American family.
At the time, such women represented a largely untapped potential for conservative causes. Almost a decade before Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right leaders would look to mobilize politically uninvolved conservative churchgoers, Schlafly was inspiring tens of thousands of conservative Catholic, Mormon, and evangelical women to their first political efforts.
All the while, Schlafly delicately navigated the challenges of building a nascent political movement among disparate religious groups. Schlafly’s sensitivity to the challenges inherent in building her religious conservative coalition grew out of not only her deep understanding of the divisive history of America’s different religious faiths, but also the anti-Catholic responses she had endured in some of her early political organizing. In the 1950s, for example, Schlafly and her husband had wanted to draw their fellow Catholics into the anticommunist movement. The Schlaflys contacted Dr. Fred Schwarz, founder of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, proposing they create a Protestant-Catholic anticommunist organization, but they were quickly rebuffed. An evangelical Christian from a Jewish background, Schwarz saw no possibility of an interfaith political effort and knew, as he explained to the Schlaflys, that the conservative evangelicals who made up his organization would not welcome Catholic members.
Turned back by Schwarz, the Schlaflys had launched an exclusively Catholic anticommunist organization, the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, in 1958, but Schlafly retained her belief that religious conservatives might come together for a political cause. Still, the experience with Schwarz and a lingering, if diminished, anti-Catholicism shaped Schlafly’s strategies in building STOP ERA as an ecumenical organization.
Unlike her church’s contemporaneous anti-abortion efforts, which used historic Catholic teachings and texts to articulate the pro-life cause, Schlafly spoke in public from a broad Christian perspective. Schlafly downplayed her own Catholic identity, advancing her anti-ERA arguments instead by talking about the divine origins of life, sexual difference, and the nation’s Judeo-Christian tradition. Rather than the rosary and Virgin Mary imagery that adorned most anti-abortion literature of the time, Schlafly filled her anti-ERA newsletters and pamphlets with well-known Bible verses about righteousness and morality, which any evangelical, Catholic, or Mormon reader could recognize and appreciate.
Yet Schlafly also acknowledged the religious differences among her followers; her newsletter routinely highlighted Catholic, Mormon, and evangelical denominations working against the amendment. She also created materials tailored to certain religious groups, such as different fliers made for Catholic or evangelical audiences. At her organization’s annual meeting, Schlafly set aside different hotel conference rooms to provide religious services for each of the faith groups in attendance. But in her speeches and her newsletter, Schlafly brought these women back to their common identity as those who “support the Holy Scriptures as providing the best code of moral conduct yet devised” and are committed to defending the holy trinity of “God, Home, and Country.”
In this way, Schlafly modeled the ecumenical potential of the Religious Right — a movement that could be respectful of its religious differences when needed, but also united by a broad “Christian” commitment to shared principles of faith, country, traditional gender roles, and sexual conservatism. When building the supposedly ecumenical Moral Majority and Christian Coalition organizations, Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed would both claim the same goals, but neither would achieve the level of interfaith success that Schlafly had — nor would they credit Schlafly as the originator of this vision.
Still, Schlafly’s efforts also encountered the limits of the Religious Right’s ecumenical possibilities, a persistent challenge for the movement. Fundamentalist Protestant women, especially in the South, resisted joining STOP ERA because of Schlafly’s Catholicism. Although she might have been offended, Schlafly instead worked with two Church of Christ women, Lottie Beth Hobbs and Becky Tilton, who created an anti-ERA organization for fundamentalist women, Women Who Want to Be Women (later renamed Pro Family Forum). Schlafly coordinated political efforts behind the scenes with Hobbs and Tilton and kept their organization stocked with anti-ERA materials, but she was more than happy to let her involvement remain unknown for the sake of the cause. Fundamentalist women could then work for a “Christian” organization unsullied by Catholic influence, and Schlafly could ensure the expansion of her movement.
Yet the public embrace of the Catholic Schlafly by evangelicals and Mormons alike proved more monumental, symbolizing the growing rapprochement among the faiths that enabled the rise of the Religious Right. When Schlafly addressed Jerry Falwell’s church about the dangers of the ERA, it marked the first time a Catholic had ever spoken from the pulpit of Thomas Road Baptist Church. Schlafly delivered a similar speech to students at Brigham Young University, in just as rare a Catholic appearance at the Mormon institution. In that talk, Schlafly ignored the religious differences between her and her audience in favor of their shared moral framework. “Under the system you and I have known,” she told the crowd, “I think God has imposed an equal amount of rights and responsibilities on men and women.” The ERA, however, would destroy that divinely-constructed balance by codifying sex neutrality. Christians from all denominations had to unite to promote God’s laws and defend the family or the nation would collapse as liberalism destroyed its Judeo-Christian foundation.
That logic and language would animate the Religious Right in the 1980s and 1990s, the movement’s highpoint. While Schlafly remained a power-player in conservative politics throughout those decades, her star was often eclipsed by publicity-hungry evangelical politicos like Falwell and Reed, whom the press came to regard as the voices of a newly powerful evangelical bloc. Falwell also would insist he had singlehandedly orchestrated the union of formerly antagonistic religious groups to form the Religious Right. But Schlafly had broken that ground when Falwell and his ilk were still busy preaching anti-Catholic screeds. And she built an interfaith political movement of Catholic, Mormon, and evangelical women that turned back the Equal Rights Amendment while many of the male leaders of those faiths were still wondering if they wanted to step into the world of politics in the first place.
As Catholics, evangelicals, and Mormons built interfaith movements against abortion, pornography, and gay rights in the following years, they replicated the work Schlafly had overseen years before, although not always with her success. Indeed, among the major political goals of the Religious Right, the defeat of the ERA represents its only significant national victory. Maybe the men who crowded Schlafly out of the spotlight should have left it to her.
Neil J. Young is author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics and a host of the history podcast Past Present.