Phyllis Schlafly, who died Monday at the age of 92, was revered by social conservatives and reviled by liberals. She was a staunch anti-feminist and believer in the “traditional family” who helped shape the culture wars about family, community, identity, and equality we’re still having today. And she’s more responsible than anyone for the fact that the Constitution doesn’t have an Equal Rights Amendment in it today.
After she died, she was, predictably, revered and reviled in most of the expected places. But historian Kevin M. Kruse, who’s written about Schlafly’s era of conservative politics, found a way to illustrate Schlafly’s impact on American history while condemning her work: calling attention to the lessons her career held for political activists of every ideology.
Even if you hated Phyllis Schlafly's politics, you should still look to her life for an impressive model of effective political activism. /1— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 5, 2016
To take her most famous work, the Equal Rights Amendment seemed a sure thing when Congress sent it to the states in 1972. /2— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 5, 2016
The first state ratified the ERA within an hour, five more in the next day. By the end of the year, it had been ratified by 22 states. /3— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 5, 2016
With both national parties effectively aligned behind the ERA, fighting it seemed a lost cause. But Schlafly decided to do so. /4— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 5, 2016
Against the odds, she worked to unite housewives of different faiths in different regions in an amazing coalition at the grassroots. /5— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 5, 2016
Her group STOP ERA ("Stop Taking Our Privileges") shifted talk from simple equality under the law to a messier debate about gender roles. /6— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
Their tactics, such as bringing male state legislators homemade baked goods with notes, might have seemed corny. But they worked. /7— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
Schlafly and her supporters did the hard work of organizing at the grassroots, forming coalitions, lobbying statehouses & winning votes. /8— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
And because they worked hard, and focused on the drudgery of state and local level politics, Schafly's forces stopped the ERA dead. /9— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
To be sure, the courts and the public ultimately embraced the spirit of the ERA and even Schalfly lived to see it was a Pyrrhic victory. /10— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
But nevertheless, STOP ERA amounted to a major victory at the time & notably set the course of the culture wars over the next decades. /11— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
Other conservative activists followed her lead with similar activism on abortion, feminism, gay rights, and a host of other issues. /12— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
And importantly, politicians at state and national levels were primed to receive their message, largely due to what Schlafly had done. /13— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
Again, even if you hate what she did, remember how she did it. Because she gave you a blueprint to do anything. Even to undo her work. /14x— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) September 6, 2016
Progressives can sometimes comfort themselves (and conservatives torment themselves) with the belief that any setbacks (or victories) are temporary, and social progress (or decline) is inevitable. But even if “the arc of the universe really does bend toward justice” on a cosmic scale — and it might not — it certainly doesn’t mean that progressives will win every moral battle, or even that society will inevitably get more progressive from one generation to the next.
Phyllis Schlafly stepped in, after it looked like the arc of the universe had already bent, and showed that there is no such thing as an inevitable political victory. Who wins a battle depends on who shows up to fight.
The fact that Schlafly, by showing up — by pursuing a professional career in the public sphere — broke with the traditional gender roles she herself advocated for didn’t escape commentary when she died. But the point was that more women lived the traditional life she didn’t, because of her efforts to preserve it.
Her tactics — with the possible exception of the cookies (which might have been a little trickier to message if, say, the National Organization for Women had baked them) — weren’t specific to her conservative goals.
Any effective activist has learned that winning the fight isn’t just about dominating the airwaves or winning the debate. It’s about building coalition power. It’s about framing the debate advantageously. And it’s about relentless, individual lobbying at every level of government.
This is an especially important reminder for progressives in 2016. The major American political party that tends to be more susceptible to activist pressure from the left has a serious advantage in presidential politics. The major party less susceptible to that sort of pressure, meanwhile, has consolidated its dominance of state and local politics through most of the US.
That — and the fact that social media conversations happen on a national scale — makes it tempting to focus on fights and victories in the federal government. But sometimes it’s the state battles that actually affect more people. And as Schlafly showed, they can be won — even against long odds.