“The church needs women like you,” my youth minister told me as he pressed a pair of tickets into my sweaty, seventh-grade palms. The tickets were for a speech that Phyllis Schlafly was going to give later that week at Coral Ridge Presbyterian, the church I had attended since, well, birth. Coral Ridge was mega-church of sorts, one of the large, politically engaged churches that had once formed the Moral Majority, though it lacked some of the hallmarks of “megachurches”; these churches took themselves too seriously, for example, to have coffee shops in their lobbies; were too focused on their spiritual and political missions to use wishy-washy words like “welcoming”; and were, above all, too traditional for women to have any leadership roles.
Schlafly was the exception. She had come to Coral Ridge—a blocky white modernist cathedral that towered over South Florida with its impossibly tall steeple—on the invitation of Dr. James Kennedy, who had founded the church decades before. With his good looks, serious voice, and a long list of degrees, Kennedy was one of the intellectual leaders of the Moral Majority; both church and minister were ready-made for television. On his weekly show, The Coral Ridge Hour, he effortlessly intertwined conservative politics and hard-line religious doctrine.
Schlafly fit right in. A decade before the Moral Majority, she had burnished her conservative credentials with a strong hand in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA was a seemingly non-controversial bill—a Constitutional reassurance that neither Congress nor the States could deny equal protection to citizens based on sex—which was endorsed by Republicans and Democrats alike, including President Richard Nixon. By 1973, 30 states had quickly ratified the Amendment and then ratification stalled.
Standing between the ERA and its ratification was Schlafly. She wasn’t exactly new to the political scene; in the mid-60s, she had started organizing the New Right women that fueled Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign. Her self-published book A Choice Not an Echo was a manifesto of sorts that laid out the growing tensions between establishment Republicans (so-called Rockefeller Republicans) and true conservatives, and helped her rise among the ranks of leadership among Republican women. She argued that the establishment had hijacked the party from real Americans, steering the party toward a course of centrism which might as well been a four letter word.
Schlafly believed that movement conservatives could retake the Republican party from the “elite.” The nomination of Goldwater was proof of the power of evangelicals and true conservatives. (Schlafly’s arguments, now nearly 50 years old, should sound familiar, as her party is, once again, reduced to millionaires throwing “elite” and “establishment” at one another in a series of meaningless insults.)
The ERA was Schlafly’s opportunity to test those ideologies outside of Goldwater’s failed campaign. Schlafly intimately knew the pressure points of nearly evangelical conservatives and hit them all by conjuring up and spreading the idea of a particular dystopia, where women would serve in the military, gays would be allowed to marry, bathrooms would be unisex, taxpayers would fund abortion on demand, and widows would be financially ruined. The ERA was a threat not only to the family, but to a way of life that valued the domestic labor of women. Feminists lurked in dark corners, eager to belittle stay-at-home moms. The ERA, Schlafly argued, “denied our right to make reasonable differences of treatment on gender.”
Schlafly seized on an existing gender divide that would come to a flash point in the 1970s. As Joan Williams writes, Schlafly exploited the difference between “homemakers and career women,” in the process neutralizing working-class women whose career decisions were frequently more economic than idealistic. “The ERA was defeated when Schlafly turned it into a war among women over gender roles,” Williams notes.
It was during the ERA fight that Schlafly also founded Eagle Forum, a political group that today continues Schlafly’s legacy. According to their website, the Eagle Forum continues to oppose “the feminist goals of stereotyping men as a constant danger to women.” It also, like Schlafly, honors “the full-time homemaker.”
In 1996, with the Moral Majority officially disbanded, and against this backdrop, Kennedy founded The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. It was overtly political, guiding Christians to “reclaim their communities for Christ” and lawmakers to “embrace God’s providential purpose for this nation.” Schlafly found an easy home there. Her opposition to abortion, equal pay, evolution, feminism, and, the Equal Rights Amendment had secured her place in the pantheon of evangelical activists. It didn’t hurt that Betty Friedan had once yelled at Schlafly, “I’d like to burn you at the stake!”
Schlafly had built her influence on what outsiders perceived as conflicting points of view. The mother of six was a working mother who denied that she worked, and an anti-feminist organizer whose political advocacy could only exist because of inroads paved by twentieth-century feminists. Schlafly celebrated the art of homemaking while spending decades on the road campaigning, promoting books, and giving speeches.
Her public demeanor was the perfect costuming for the role she played—the primness of her coiffed hair, pressed skirts, and pearls belied her sharp debate style. It also loudly signified the religious femininity that she touted: Public complementarianism in which gender roles and evidence of a divine order were to be maintained and preserved by democracy. “The Positive Woman,” Schlafly wrote in her influential 1977 book, The Power of the Positive Woman, “looks upon her femaleness and her fertility as part of her purpose, her potential, and her power. She rejoices that she has a capability for creativity that men can never have.”
It was a delicate tightrope act, a self-conscious alternative to secular feminism that delivered wifely submission and preserved traditional American femininity while clearly co-opting some of the gestures of feminism. And it worked. Schlafly was an immeasurably effective champion of a familiar evangelical message. By the 1990s, the first time I saw Schlafly speak, her presence alone had become a rejoinder to a certain feminist ethos, a reminder that neither the National Organization for Women nor Planned Parenthood had a monopoly on women’s voices. By this point, Schlafly was on a bit of a hagiography tour. She spoke to an appreciative audience about her signature victory, the defeat of the ERA, and the continued necessity of the Eagle Forum. Secularism still lurked and feminism still threatened.
Schlafly’s activism left feminists with a deeply untenable argument that a large percentage of American women suffered from a severe case of false consciousness or that they were simply puppets reading scripts written by someone else. Plus Schlafly had suffered all of the humiliations of being an opinionated woman—she had had a pie smashed in her face and protestors had thrown pig’s blood on her. The protests against Schlafly, the argument that she hated women, did little more that convince her supporters that she was right. She had become something of both martyr and saint: vilified by the left for expressing her opinions—something ostensibly real feminists should have valued. Criticism from the left was thus conflated with a gendered attack. If that rhetorical repositioning seems familiar now, it’s because Schlafly invented it.
And so Schlafly’s canonization was in the recognition that the model she had built for particular kinds of politically engaged women was a template molded from her image. It was in the simple acknowledgment that most women should stay home and be proud homemakers, but not all women—after all, “the rights of real women,” as Schlafly once said, referring to wives and mothers, needed their champions. It’s a strange thought, really: that Schlafly was offered up as a model of political engagement to young women at churches across America who seemed disinterested in homemaking. That’s why those tickets had been pressed into my hands—Schlafly was a Solomonic compromise in which women could be leaders, but husbands were still powerful and wives still respected that power.
Schlafly’s model is both enduring and contradictory. A quick look at the Kellyanne Conways and Ann Coulters of American politics proves that it’s a model that endures. In her 2002 book Slander, Coulter called Schlafly, “a senior statesman in the Republican Party.”
In 2007, Schlafly said that grassroots campaigning and “self-government” were her greatest legacies, but in truth, she left no more important legacy than herself. She eked out power in and with a community that allowed women virtually none at all. She found the political limitations of that culture by understanding its contours and slowly reworking them.
She mastered a genteel demagoguery that endowed her with the singular, powerful voice to a group who she had simultaneously worked hard to silence. Schlafly’s legacy is in a crop of Republican women who fit the Schlafly mold—maybe a youth minister pressed tickets to one of Schlafly’s speeches into their hands, too. That legacy is Kellyanne Conway touting of “femininity not feminism,” of the specter of “ugly feminists” conjured up by Ann Coulter. It’s the seemingly hundreds of similarly coiffed women who fill up cable news who reap the benefits of feminism while treating it as the enemy.