The death of conservative giant Phyllis Schlafly this week draws our attention back to the central role she played in bringing together the political interests of the Republican Party and the Christian Right. It was a relationship that reshaped American politics, pushing social issues such as abortion and gay rights to the fore, and mounting a formidable challenge to an emboldened women’s movement. The use of increasingly militant rhetoric, and a more ferocious tone in American politics, can be attributed to Schlafly among others. Her fire and brimstone messages urged conservative leaders to view their role in more apocalyptic terms, as combative leaders locked in a bitter conflict of worldviews with their foes on the left.
There were early signs of Schlafly’s ambitions. By all accounts she was an outstanding student at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In 1949, when Schlafly was twenty-five, she married wealthy corporate attorney John Fred Schlafly, fifteen years her senior and at age twenty-six she had her first of six children. Despite the difficulties of balancing motherhood and work outside the home, a combination she routinely condemned, she embraced the challenge.
In many ways Schlafly’s life resembled that of the ideal feminist archetype. After a failed bid for Congress in 1952, she later served as president of the National Federation of Republican Women where she honed her skills as a political organiser. Urging nurturance, domesticity, and wifely submission while demonstrating political power and visibility developed into an inescapable contradiction.
Establishing herself through the years as the right-wing foil to feminism, Schlafly fiercely advocated for a return to traditional values. In her view it was on the home-front, through women’s collective recommitment to subordinate femininity within the patriarchal nuclear family, that the country would reclaim its moral foundation.
While researching the Christian Right’s co-option of feminist antipornography arguments in early 2014, I met Schlafly at the Eagle Forum Education Centre in St. Louis where she stressed the dangers of a culture that permits an “interchangeability of the sexes”.
According to Schlafly, women possess a distinctly different essence to men. By way of example, she suggested that women need “clean, comfortable, air-conditioned offices with congenial co-workers.” Not so men, whose supposedly rugged nature allows them to work under more trying conditions which justified their higher pay.
Child care, abortion, and no-fault divorce all allowed women a greater presence in the workplace, which in Schlafly’s view emasculated male co-workers whose identity had been premised on their ability to provide for their wife and children. It was always Schlafly’s contention that women’s enhanced economic freedom occasioned their growing dissatisfaction with their lives. In taking on paid work, women still retained the responsibilities of caring for dependent family members and the drudgery of housework, adding additional stresses to their lives. What is more, “self-imposed victimhood”, encouraged by feminist consciousness-raising sessions, had overemphasised bad qualities in men.
Her hatred of feminism sometimes went to problematic extremes. A 1984 conference on domestic violence hosted by Schlafly’s group Eagle Forum framed battered women’s shelters as little more than a left-wing ploy, designed to convert vulnerable women to a feminist ideology.
In the 1970s Schlafly mobilised women adherents to join her crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment by cleverly framing the amendment as ultimately disadvantageous to women. It would mean women would have to sign up for the military draft, she argued, and would see them lose out financially in their marriages, as their husbands would no longer be legally obliged to support them. Such claims proved persuasive to the many American women in the ’70s whose identity was affixed to the domestic sphere. By June 1982, the amendment had not been ratified by enough states, thereby laying the issue to rest.
Her Roman Catholic faith was an ever-present theme through her years of activism, featuring most prominently in the early years when she and husband Fred started the anti-communist Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation as a Catholic counterpart to Dr. Fred Schwarz’s evangelical Protestant crusade, both formed with the purpose of combating the spectre of atheistic communism. These denominational divisions would later fade into obscurity, as the advancement of a right-wing social agenda became the focal point of Schlafly’s work.
There might be no better example of the priority Schlafly gave to right-wing political victories at all costs than her endorsement of Donald J. Trump for president during a rally in her hometown of St. Louis in March this year. This was not surprising – Schlafly’s affection for populists dates back to her support for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for president which ended in a humiliating defeat by Lyndon B. Johnson. A hard-line pioneer of the burgeoning extremism in Republican Party politics, Goldwater famously asserted that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Driven by her perception that Goldwater’s opponent Nelson Rockefeller was a latent liberal determined to purge the party of true conservatives, Schlafly threw her support behind Goldwater with the self-publication of A Choice Not an Echo, casting numerous aspersions on moderate Republicans. In nominating Trump, Schlafly once again saw an opportunity to nudge the party even further to the most extreme margins of politics, in which the scapegoating of immigrants, Muslim Americans, and women entered mainstream political discourse.
In the months preceding her death, Schlafly’s endorsement of Trump precipitated a coup within the ranks of the Eagle Forum. Dismayed by her endorsement of a crass, formerly adulterous candidate with dubious religious roots, individuals in the group more enamoured by the promise of ardent family values advocate Ted Cruz dragged Schlafly into court where she was required to defend her control over the group’s legacy. But it was precisely her inclination to adopt positions which made the mainstream of her party uncomfortable and put her more in touch with the grassroots of the party than its establishment figures that define her contribution to American politics. “A new conservative uprising is stirring and no one should be surprised” she wrote in 2006. At least we were warned.
Freda Haylett is a PhD Candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne where she has been researching the Christian Right’s co-option of feminist antiporn rhetoric.
 The Problem of Domestic Violence – Part 1 1984, CD-ROM, Eagle Forum education center, St. Louis.