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How Phyllis Schlafly — grassroots activist, media innovator — remade the Republican Party

Phyllis Schlafly speaks at a Family Research Council briefing, in 2007.
Phyllis Schlafly speaks at a Family Research Council briefing in 2007.
Brendan Smialowski / Getty

There are few figures in recent history more polarizing than Phyllis Schlafly. A pioneering anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ activist, she relished using rhetoric designed to thrill her allies and enrage her opponents. "The claim that American women are downtrodden and unfairly treated is the fraud of the century," she wrote in 1972, rolling her eyes at "aggressive females on television talk shows yapping about how mistreated American women are."

And she didn’t just turn conservatives and liberals against one another — she divided conservatives, too. When she endorsed Donald Trump this spring, she nearly destroyed her own organization, the Eagle Forum, where the rest of the staff backed Ted Cruz.

Always at the center of the most contentious social issues, Schlafly was one of those people who, whether loved or hated, was almost always thought of in emotional terms. As such, most people have overlooked Schlafly’s remarkable skill as both a political operative and a grassroots organizer. Whatever one thinks of the issues for which she fought, her 70 years of activism are an essential model for political activists of every stripe.

For Schlafly, party politics preceded national politics

Long before Schlafly was a household name, she was a Republican operative. An unhappy Republican operative. At the 1952 convention she caucused for the conservative Robert Taft and cried foul when Dwight Eisenhower was nominated instead.

That same year she lost a race for the House in her majority-Democrat district in Illinois. (She ran after her husband, a lawyer from a well-to-do family, had declined Republican appeals.) Although her run had been supported by the heavyweight Republican donors John M. Olin and Spencer Olin, as 1952 drew to a close it wasn’t clear she had a way forward in the GOP.

But unlike many of her fellow conservatives who spent the 1950s and early '60s flirting with long-shot third-party candidates, Schlafly stuck with the Republican Party and focused on remaking it in her image. Through organizations like the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, founded in 1958 by a missionary expelled from China – and overseen (still) by Schlafly’s sister in law Eleanor Schlaflyshe reached out to conservative Catholics across the country, selling them not only on hard-line anticommunism but on the necessity of abandoning the Democratic Party and making their home in the GOP.

To appreciate how radically Schlafly changed the party, though, requires looking not at foreign policy but at feminism. For most of the 20th century, the Republican Party was known as the party of women’s rights. In 1940 it became the first party to endorse the Equal Rights Amendment. In an era when contraceptives could be banned, the GOP fought for greater family planning resources. Barry Goldwater supported Planned Parenthood, Ronald Reagan liberalized California’s abortion laws, and George H.W. Bush was so gung-ho on contraceptives that he earned the nickname "Rubbers."

The party of Rubbers was also the party of Phyllis Schlafly — at least for the moment. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, she wasn’t thinking much about the party’s relationship to women’s rights. But as second-wave feminism emerged and both Republicans and Democrats threw their support behind the ERA, she not only conducted a campaign to stop the amendment — she worked to make the GOP the party of anti-feminism.

By the end of the 1970s, she had succeeded. Rather than rejecting Republicanism, she remade it. By the time George H.W. Bush ran for president, he was also running from his moderate past, and he never won the full trust of the right.

An opponent’s complacency is an outsider’s opportunity

The Equal Rights Amendment, which would have made gender equality a constitutional right, seemed to be a sure thing. It had strong bipartisan support, passing the House 354-24 and the Senate 84-8. Hawaii ratified the ERA the same day the Senate passed it. Thirteen more states ratified it within a month, and a year after its passage, 30 of the required 38 states had approved of the new constitutional amendment.

So inevitable was its passage that the Chicago Tribune wrote with a sigh, "Give the ladies what they want," adding, "Ratification by the required 38 states seems so inevitable that it doesn’t make much difference what Illinois does."

Perhaps it didn’t matter to the Chicago Tribune, but it mattered quite a lot to Illinois activist Phyllis Schlafly, who by the time of the Tribune editorial had already launched her new organization, STOP ERA. (STOP stood for "Stop Taking Our Privileges," by which she meant such things as exemption from the draft and acceptance for stay-at-home mothers.)

After reaching out to the Republican women she had helped organized during the 1960s, Schlafly began to organize white middle-class evangelical, Mormon, and Catholic women, many of whom had never been involved in politics. Having assumed easy passage of the amendment, ERA supporters in the states still up for grabs were caught off guard when their ratifying conventions were overrun by conservative activists voting against ratification.

Strategic alliances trump historic divisions

One reason the STOP ERA coalition was unexpected was because so many of the activists were new to politics. Not just to politics but to the sort of interfaith political coalition Phyllis Schlafly was intent on building. Mormons, evangelicals, Catholics — they each had histories of political activism. But that activism was seldom coordinated. Longstanding suspicions and grievances kept the religious groups divided.

The fight to stop the ERA, however, drew these groups together in common cause. As Neil J. Young shows in We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics, the new spirit of ecumenism was not only a response to a shared commitment to anti-feminist politics. Instead, it sprung from Schlafly’s own experience of exclusion. In the 1950s, she tried to bring her fellow Catholics into an anti-communist alliance with Christian evangelicals and was rebuffed. She didn’t want the same fate for her anti-ERA alliance.

These alliances didn’t always work well. Given a choice, Mormons preferred to work alongside Mormons, Catholics alongside Catholics. But with her focused, single-issue activism, religiously inclusive language, and careful coalition building, Schlafly was able to forge strategic alliances to defeat the ERA while laying the groundwork for the new religious right of the 1980s.

Media matters. Media innovation matters more.

Anyone familiar with the Phyllis Schlafly of the past 10 or 15 years would not consider her a media innovator. Her Eagle Forum website has a distinctly dated design, as though someone tried to photocopy a newsletter onto a website. Which is actually not far from reality: The digital Eagle Forum is essentially a web-based version of the newsletter Schlafly launched in 1967.

But to judge Schlafly’s media savvy by the standards of the 21st century is to miss the way she innovated at the height of her activism. Take her most famous book, A Choice Not an Echo.

Timed to coincide with Goldwater’s final push for the Republican nomination in 1964, A Choice was an unusual book. Self-published by a first-time author, it found its way into mass circulation through promotion in conservative media and bulk distribution. Book buyers treated their purchases as campaign donations, gobbling up thousands of copies to distribute as campaign literature. At the Republican convention that summer, a donor ensured every single delegate received the book. By the fall, millions of copies were in circulation.

Three years later, having just come through a bruising, losing political fight, Schlafly launched her Eagle Forum newsletter to connect to the network of Republican activists she had built over the 1950s and '60s (a network that would be critical to the STOP ERA fight).

And just as she fought to drag the Republican Party to the right by staying engaged with it, she sought to draw the mainstream media to the right by joining it. In 1971, CBS Morning News launched "Spectrum," a segment that served as the show’s op-ed page. Schlafly was one of its first regulars.

Throughout the ERA battle, she went wherever there was a TV camera. Media may have been more liberal than she liked, but she was determined to get conservative voices — her voice — on air, and to be part of the right’s drive to demand ideological balance in news coverage.

Many people have pointed out that in the end, Schlafly lost. Abortion is legal, as is same-sex marriage and no-fault divorce. But to focus on where we are now, rather than where the country was when Schlafly first arrived on the scene, is to miss her impact on American politics. She helped shift the GOP from the party of women’s rights to the party of anti-feminism. She laid the groundwork for the interfaith coalitions of the religious right. And there’s still no Equal Rights Amendment.

Most important, though, she helped redraw the contours of American politics. And her activism serves as a critically important model for anyone hoping to do the same.

Nicole Hemmer is author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.