Phyllis Stewart Schlafly (b. 1924) did not invent the practice we now call “trolling.” (Richard Nixon had been pretty good at it since the 1940s.) She just lowered it to unprecedented depths of perfection. In 1975, in response to complaints from conservatives about the ideological uniformity of Illinois’s Commission on the Status of Women, the governor appointed her to the body, which at that point had unanimously supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly began publicly referring to it as the “SOW Commission.” When others took offense, she affected surprise: that—Status of Women—was its acronym, after all. And besides, “these women who are complaining are the same ones who call men chauvinist pigs.”
She was born to a devout Catholic family in St. Louis. Her father lost his job as a heavy equipment salesman in 1930; he had to send his wife and two daughters to live with relatives. Her mother worked in a department store—a humiliation, for Odile Stewart craved respectability. So did her daughter. By the time Phyllis was 13, she had lived in six different homes, all rented. When Phyllis joined the Girl Scouts, she piled up merit badges. When she was 13, she single-handedly produced her public school’s newspaper. At her Catholic high school, she graduated as valedictorian with honors in classical languages and French, and wrote in her diary: “I’ve been very lucky in being in such a class at such a school, where the girls were not only gifted, and really nice, but who came from the good, long standing St. Louis families, whose homes I was always proud to visit.” Her own family, meanwhile, could not afford store-bought dresses.
Her father finally found steady work as an engineer for the War Production Board, and then with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Even so, he hated FDR for his “war on the free-enterprise system, this planned economy, and the welfare state he was building.” In 1946 he hit it big with a patent for the rotary engine he’d been tinkering with in his spare time. Biography was allegory: conservative values, and capitalism, would provide—no government meddling necessary, thank you very much.
Phyllis won a scholarship to a local Catholic college; not finding it challenging enough, she matriculated at Washington University, working full time on the four-to-midnight or midnight-to-eight shifts testing rifles and machine guns at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant. Then she began morning classes. And attended summer school. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years.
In 1946, a St. Louis alderman running for Congress was called upon by this 22-year-old Washington University political science graduate. “I had to keep looking at her to remind myself I was not talking to a fat old cigar-chomping ward heeler,” he later remembered of Phyllis Stewart, so impressed by her knowledge of St. Louis ward politics and “plain good political sense” that he hired her on the spot as his campaign manager.
She accepted a fellowship to Radcliffe, earning a master’s degree with straight A’s. She also won first prize in a national essay contest sponsored by the Washington Daily News. Her argument opposed postwar America’s version of affirmative action: “The cards are stacked against the enterprising and ambitious person and in favor of the mediocre adults or the unqualified veteran.” That was one of her knacks: harnessing ideological principle to advance her own career.
She moved to Washington, taking a job at the center of the resistance to the New Deal, the American Enterprise Institute, the capital’s most important conservative think tank, where she refined the skill of crafting conservative arguments. When she returned to St. Louis, she hoped to teach at Washington University. A dean refused her application: a girl could never “handle a bunch of tough-minded, battle-scarred GIs.” The alternative, however, proved fortuitous: a job publishing the newsletter of the St. Louis Union Trust Company, under the tutelage of a conservative boss who mentored her in the arts of small-scale publishing. She had found her calling.
Then she found the man of her dreams. John Frederick Schlafly was a 39-year-old lawyer, right-wing activist, and scion of a banking family in the small Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. “Life for Phyllis Schlafly in these years was nearly perfect,” her biographer Donald T. Critchlow wrote: six children in quick succession, a summer home in Michigan; satisfying volunteer work with the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Illinois Federation of Republican Women; board member of the YWCA, president of the St. Louis Radcliffe Club. She had finally reconciled grasping ambition with the cult of ladylike bourgeois respectability she had fetishized since her days of the embarrassing homemade frocks.
Despising feminism would come much later. First she would cut her teeth as a Cold Warrior. In 1952, the angry isolationist conservatives of Illinois’s 25th Congressional district drafted her to take on the internationalist quisling of the district’s Republican machine in a congressional primary. Press reports called her the “powderpuff candidate.” Not quite: one newspaper described how she “offset the distracting influence of her femininity by . . . speaking with conviction as she exhibited various charts and maps”—her integrated strategy for winning the Korean War, unspooling facts and figures all the while, for instance, on China’s mortar canons, which she said outranged America’s by a full mile.
And come to think of it, why did China’s mortars outrange ours by a mile? Maybe it had something to do with what she called, to the biggest ovation any speaker earned at that year’s Republican state convention, the “striped-pants diplomacy of the New Deal, including the vertical stripes worn by Dean Acheson and the horizontal stripes now worn by his good friend Alger Hiss.” She won the primary. A picture of “Mrs. Phyllis Stewart Schlafly . . . preparing the morning-after breakfast at her Callahan Drive home” then ran in newspapers across the region. It intimated what would become Schlafly’s trademark: her insistence that the Biblically ordained role of wifely subservience, and a life of political activity and accomplishment, could be perfectly harmonious—no feminism needed, thank you very much. She caused quite a stir in the 1970s when she began her anti– Equal Rights Amendment speeches, “First of all, I want to thank my husband Fred, for letting me come—I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad!” She also liked to say it because her conservative ladies adored it. The example she set—squaring the circle of Christian duty and worldly ambition—was the greatest gift she provided them.
She would go on to lose the general election by nearly 30 points. But, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said she had “rocked Madison and St. Clair Counties like a minor tremor.” Another editorial declared her “the best twister of facts who has appeared on the local political scene”—Dorothy Parker and Joe McCarthy, all rolled into one; and now Phyllis Schlafly was ready to rock the world.
She had finally reconciled grasping ambition with the cult of ladylike bourgeois respectability she had fetishized since her days of the embarrassing homemade frocks.
She began organizing like-minded women into what she called the “pro-American underground.” God had told Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah would be spared if 10 just men could be found in each city, so she would find just women in groups of 10. “Our Republic can be saved from the fires of Communism which have already destroyed or enslaved many Christian cities, if we can find 10 patriotic women in each community,” she wrote. She got to work churning out pamphlets, study guides, and newsletters, hosted the Illinois DAR’s anticommunist radio show; and in 1964, devoted herself full time to the election of Barry Goldwater.
Her most lasting contribution was writing up her theory of how presidential nominations were stolen from conservatives—in a self-published little paperback, 123 pages long. She persuaded rich angels to buy and distribute cartons in bulk. Then she fired up the underground. Soon, delegates to the 1964 Republican convention were receiving copy after copy in their mailboxes—50 copies in one case. By fall, there were 3.5 million copies in circulation.
A Choice, Not an Echo explained how “a few secret kingmakers based in New York selected every Republican presidential nominee from 1936 through 1960, and successfully forced their choice on a free country where there are more than 34 million Republican voters. . . . The strategy of politics, like an iceberg, is eight-ninths under the surface.”
Her own conspiratorialism, which informed her book, had been redoubled by her husband Fred’s experience as a delegate for conservative candidate Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago: “The Madison Avenue public relations firms, the big national magazines, and four-fifths of the influential newspapers in the country turned themselves into propaganda organs to build the Eisenhower image.” They “brought about a change in the rules under which every previous Convention had functioned. . . . Taft headquarters received reports of Delegates who were bodily put on the train for home, leaving their alternates to vote for Ike. Delegates were threatened with loss of their jobs and calling of their bank loans unless they voted for Eisenhower. Money flowed in great quantities everywhere,” via “the diverse financial contacts of the New York kingmakers.”
She included a passage from Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent to describe the process that would take the nomination from Senator Taft and deliver it to Eisenhower. “All the vast publicity machine that always goes into concerted action for a liberal cause had gone to work . . . an operation so honed and smoothed and refined over the years that none of its proprietors even had to consult with one another. The instinct had been alerted, the bell had rung, the national salivations had come forth on schedule.” That was just what they did.
The penultimate chapter probed below the tip of one of those icebergs, detailing the author’s discovery of “a secret meeting on . . . St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, held at the King and Prince Hotel, February 14-18, 1957 . . . David Rockefeller signed many of the bar checks. . . the U.S. kingmakers were joined on St. Simon’s Island by a similarly select assortment of foreigners.” What we have come to know as the Bilderberger Group was comprised of “not heads of state, but those who give orders to heads of state.”
“Highly placed New York kingmakers,” she wrote, “work toward ‘convergence’ between the Republican and Democratic parties so as to preserve their America Last foreign policy. . .”
Yes, Phyllis Schlafly knew how these things worked. She was, therefore, well prepared when, in 1967, the kingmakers went after her.
By then she was national vice chair of the National Federation of Republican Women—a job that usually led to the national chairmanship. But not this time. Schlafly officially announced her candidacy, with Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen Reagan Stills at her side. The opposition found a Goldwater supporter they could work with to run against her, a famous aviatrix. Schlafly then learned from a phone call from “one of the extreme left-wing newspapers”—she was referring to The Washington Post—that the moderates on the NFRW board had conspired to move the national convention from 1966 to 1967, and from Southern California, a conservative stronghold, to Washington, where the party establishment could keep tabs. She sent out the word to her network: the steal was on.
The opposition spread rumors that Phyllis was a member of an armed underground right-wing militia—and that, raising six children and running a national political organization, she was guilty of “child neglect.” Schlafly’s side charged her opponent had claimed to be for Taft in 1952 while secretly conspiring for Eisenhower. The New York Times described it as “one of the bitterest political fights now under way in the nation.” Barry Goldwater said the split was so weakening the party in Arizona that it was ruining his bid to return to the Senate—women volunteers, after all, being the lifeblood of the Republican Party.
At the convention, Schlafly’s ladies wore eagle pins. (Isaiah 30:31: “They that wait upon the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings as eagles . . .”) Buses from the liberal Northeastern states delivered un-credentialed women to vote against her. (The infiltrators were instructed to say they were “from Rochester.”) For her part, Schlafly deluged delegates with expensive gifts, and during parliamentary proceedings her forces so abused moderate delegates (“Rockefeller whores” was one of their epithets) that a 72-year-old grandmother from Chicago said it reminded her of newsreels of Nazi Germany.
Schlafly lost. Her army of eagles, all 3,000 of them, crowded into a basement convention hall to deliberate upon what to do next. One had already drafted a charter for a breakaway women’s federation. An impassioned speech from Maureen Reagan Stills, the future president’s daughter, begging for Republican unity dissuaded them. Instead, Schlafly collected the names and addresses of her rump group. They were her arsenal. A newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, began publication later that year. It went out every single month for the next 50 years—first with those original 3,000 subscribers, then 10,000, then tens of thousands.
The ladies sporting the eagle pins would become the Eagle Forum, today an advocacy group of 80,000 with an annual budget of more than $2 million, their initial mission defined by Schlafly.
And in 1972, the year she founded the Forum, The Phyllis Schlafly Report announced a new crusade. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to Phyllis-watchers why she turned to fighting feminism with such ferocity. I think the answer to the puzzle might be just this. In those days, the vital center of women’s politicking was still the housewives’ luncheon clubs, “respectable” moderate Republican wives of “respectable” Republican kingmaking husbands were the backbone of the ERA effort. These were the women who had so cruelly unhorsed her. Cutting the ERA off at the knees became a species of revenge.
“What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” asked the headline of the lead article in the February 1972 issue of The Phyllis Schlafly Report. Just about everything, it answered, in an argument that sprung forth fully formed and never changed until victory was won: American women possessed precious gifts, and feminists wanted to take them away.
What exactly did the feminists want to take away? She began with an axiom derived from Catholic doctrine: that the family was “the basic unit of society.” She argued that the way it was enshrined in “the laws and customs of our Judeo-Christian civilization” assured “the greatest single achievement in the history of women’s rights”: the right of a woman “to keep her own baby and be supported and protected in the enjoyment of watching her baby grow and develop.” There was the “Christian tradition of chivalry,” which obliged the support of women by men. The American free enterprise system, which had “stimulated the inventive geniuses” who rendered women’s lives a paradise of labor-saving miracles. Freedom from military conscription—which the ERA would terminate “absolutely and positively.” A “woman’s right to child support and alimony.” And more.
Schlafly would always claim she had no problem with legislation providing women equal access to jobs, education, and fair compensation. She would point to laws already passed, like the 1963 Equal Pay Act, and, later, the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act. She would argue that she would be glad to support more laws like those. But that was not what the feminist movement wanted. As her 1972 ur-text explained, “It is anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion. It is a series of sharp-tongued, high-pitched whining complaints by unmarried women. They view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave.” And since they could never get anywhere admitting any of this in public, because “most women want to be a wife, mother, and homemaker—and are happy in that role”—they doled out lies about ERA as a lulling “sweet syrup, which covers the deadly poison masquerading as ‘women’s lib.’”
Schlafly won the ERA battle. She lost the feminism war.
Then she concluded, as she always did, with a call to action: “But let’s not permit these women’s libbers to get away with pretending to speak for the rest of us. Let’s not permit this tiny minority to degrade the role that most women prefer. Let’s not let these women’s libbers deprive wives and mothers of the rights we now possess. Tell your Senators NOW that you want them to vote NO on the Equal Rights Amendment. Tell your television and radio stations that you want equal time to present the case FOR marriage and motherhood.”
And, with angry immediacy, they did.
Women Who Want to Be Women; Mississippians for God, Family, and Country; North Carolina Against the ERA; Florida’s NEVER (“No Equality Via Equal Rights”); Mississippi’s FIG (“Factually Informed Gals”); Arizona’s HOW (“Happiness of Women”); Utah’s HOTDOG (“Humanitarians Opposed to Degrading Our Girls”); “Operation Wake-Up” in New York and Women for Responsible Legislation in Oklahoma: “Schlafly took scattered ad hoc organizations,” wrote the most incisive scholar on the anti-ERA movement, sociologist Ruth Murray Brown, “folded them into a national one, coordinated their activities, facilitated communication among them, made sure that the members were provided with new suggestions, trained them in lobbying and speaking, and encouraged them to persevere.”
As Phyllis Schlafly had written in 1964, politics, like an iceberg, is eight-ninths under the surface; and so they were. Until, that is, a state legislature put the ERA on the docket. Then, suddenly, Phyllis’s eagles were everywhere. Legislators who were on the fence were deluged. Lawmakers who voted right got thank-you cards. In Oklahoma in 1975, the eagles started hand-delivering loaves of homemade bread to lawmakers on the first day of each legislative session, wrapped in anti-ERA poetry. The idea took off, and the bread-bakers started showing up everywhere.
Annually, she gathered her eagles in St. Louis for workshops from Friday to Sunday afternoon with speakers in between—including during meals. Pastors and priests were brought in for services on Sunday (“so you couldn’t get away from her,” one volunteer laughed). Awards ceremonies recognized local heroes; one token of Phyllis Schlafly’s organizational genius was that “Eagle Award” nominees were chosen by others from the nominee’s home state, the better to cement a sense of autonomy among her far-flung constituency—though actually, everything was run with Phyllis’s approval, every chapter leader personally approved by her.
All worked without pay, no rent was required for offices—the offices were kitchen tables. The cost of postage, phones, and office equipment was subsidized by husbands, pressed into solidarity by pillow-talk pleas that their very patriarchal authority itself hung in the balance.
At Eagle Forum conferences, a hotel suite would be equipped with a TV camera so conferees could practice Phyllis’s methods, for analysis on videotape. In Texas, a sociologist found that 56 percent listed as their primary reason for joining the movement that the ERA was “against God’s plan for the family.” But that’s not what they said in their state legislators’ offices; instead, they deployed Schlafly’s road-tested arguments, like the one that the ERA might place women’s Social Security benefits at risk.
Meanwhile, their leader: merrily she trolled along. When celebrity psychotherapist Dr. Joyce Brothers appeared on the “Merv Griffin Show” with Schlafly, things got heated, as Dr. Brothers, who had had quite enough, exclaimed: “The idea that a woman can go sit home and be supported by her husband, that has long ago died out!” Came back Schlafly, calm as always: “Forty million women are being supported by their husbands today.” The retort stunned Brothers into a glum silence. Her adversaries’ fury at her baiting was her most powerful weapon. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan bellowed during a debate in 1973. And Schlafly coolly responded: “I’m glad you said that, because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of ERA.”
Schlafly’s tone was never intemperate; that would be unladylike. That was the soul of her brilliance. Her 1977 book, The Power of the Positive Woman, was a stunning rhetorical masterpiece. With nary a conspiratorial word, it framed the battle over ERA as a choice between two self-identities: A woman could choose a bitter, shrunken identity as “just another faceless victim of society’s oppression.” Or she could join the ranks of the women whose “positive mental attitude has built her an inner security that the other people can never fracture,” with “a capability for creativity that men can never have.”
She won the ERA battle. She lost the feminism war: Do even conservative women believe becoming some man’s wife is the pinnacle of female accomplishment? And yet, somehow, this astonishing, indefatigable ideological warrior still stayed relevant, until the end, in the last dramatic act of her political life: her avid endorsement of Donald Trump. The final chapter in a strikingly coherent life. It’s still that same old story: what the Republican “establishment” despised, she must affect to love. She’d get back at those kingmakers yet.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.