Phyllis Schlafly's Successful Counter-Revolution

Donald Trump is a testament to the lasting influence of one of the 20th century’s most talented and effective political organizers.


Phyllis Schlafly is dead at 92. The conservative activist had many lives in American politics. She got her start as a grassroots anti-communist organizer and rose to fame as a vocal opponent of feminism. She was a devout Roman Catholic and leader in the anti-abortion movement, and up to the last, her blessing was eagerly sought by conservatives. On Tuesday—the day after her death—her co-authored book, The Conservative Case for Trump, came out, which Trump happily promoted on Twitter.

Schlafly made a career out of proving that progressive consensus is a myth. She is perhaps most famous for leading the defeat of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s—“for really singlehandedly stopping what many people at the time felt was destiny,” said Melissa Deckman, a professor at Washington College. “She consistently defied expectations.” Her role in politics in 2016 is no different. Popular opinion has diverged from some of her views—especially LGBT issues—over time. But on other topics, she may well have predicted the groundswell for Trump back in 1964 when Goldwater was running for president. Phyllis Schlafly might be dead, but her America is alive and well, and Trump is proof that Schlafly’s political style and conservative values still resonate with a large portion of the American electorate.

This year, Trump has gotten credit—and derision—for how he’s acted on the campaign trail, supposedly contorting even the cynical game of politics by insulting other candidates, exaggerating and lying, and trying to discredit the media. But the Republican presidential nominee has nothing on Phyllis Schlafly. She was an extraordinary troll—not an insult, but a term for someone who is adept at provoking others to make a point. She could get thousands of women to swarm state capitols in a matter of days, bearing homemade jams and baked goods in protest of a constitutional amendment that would, they argued, threaten the homemaker’s way of life. She once angered Betty Friedan to the point that Friedan called her an “Aunt Tom” and said “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” Schlafly simply replied, “I’m glad you said that, because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of E.R.A.”

Her 1964 self-published book, A Choice Not an Echo, written in support of the Goldwater campaign, sold more than 3 million copies, and it was full of Trump-style intimations about the nefariousness of establishment politics. She wrote about the way political conventions were “stolen” by “secret kingmakers.” One of the greatest enemies of all was the media: The New York Times was allegedly the “chief propaganda organ of the secret kingmakers,” and papers like the Times and the then-Atlanta Constitution deliberately refused to cover important political and diplomatic meetings, according to Schlafly.

These tactics made Schlafly a fabulously successful political operative. Birch Bayh, the Senate co-sponsor of the ’70s-era ERA, told the AP that Schlafly should be credited as “the chief factor in the ERA’s collapse”; she once “went on Indiana television, set her Social Security card on fire, and argued that women would lose constitutional protections if ERA won,” Bayh said. Just as Trump has surprised and angered political elites with his approach to politics in 2016, so Schlafly won their contempt four decades ago—but in many cases, her views won out, laying groundwork for future iterations of the conservative movement.

Her work in the pro-life movement is an important example of this. One of the reasons why Schlafly was so suspicious of feminism was the movement’s support for abortion; she called sex-ed classes “in-home sales parties for abortion.” In his book, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade, Daniel K. Williams wrote that Schlafly was one of the conservative Catholics who “linked opposition to abortion to a more comprehensively ‘pro-family’ campaign that included a defense of private Christian schools and and opposition to gay rights, feminism, and ‘secular humanism.’” The alliance between the conservative and pro-life movements in the late 1970s and ’80s helped give the latter its staying power; while Americans’ opinions on issues of gender and sexuality have shifted radically since Schlafly’s time, their views on abortion have not.

“She was of course prone to making outlandish statements, but she would do it with a sweet face.”

But no matter how views on gender have changed, Schlafly was singularly effective at rallying many Americans around traditional notions of gender. Recent controversies over legislation having to do with public-accommodations protections for transgender people in North Carolina, Houston, and elsewhere has centered on bathrooms: Opponents have argued that men would be able to go into women’s bathrooms, and that women and girls will be threatened. This kind of campaign is not new—four decades ago, Schlafly used similar rhetoric to oppose the ERA. She argued that the new constitutional amendment would prohibit gender-segregated bathrooms, and then, as today, this successfully tapped into deep American anxieties about the nature of gender.

Schlafly was the consummate opponent of feminism, and she based much of her political activism on the notion that she was defending traditional femininity. She “realized the symbolic importance and compelling nature of using motherhood as an organizing tool,” said Deckman. This helped lay the foundation for the Tea Party, she argued—as a head of the Eagle Forum once told her, “Phyllis was Tea Party before there was Tea Party.” While many of the self-declared “mama grizzlies” of the movement had jobs and professional lives—unlike Schlafly, who argued on behalf of homemaking and maintained that her intense political activism wasn’t actually a career—they shared many of Schlafly’s concerns about the political establishment and government overreach. Their ability to make a “call to mothers, of galvanizing and activating them, really benefitted from Schlafly,” Deckman said.

Above all, Schlafly was unyielding in her approach to politics. Especially later in her life, this included staunch opposition to immigration, which is perhaps her greatest direct connection to the Trump campaign. Earlier this year, she told the website Breitbart that she supported a halt on new immigration—“in indelicate words, as Trump said, ‘until we know what the hell we’re doing,’” she added. Like other social conservatives, Schlafly seemed comfortable ignoring Trump’s personal history of adultery and divorce and apparent lack of deep interest in social issues like abortion and maintaining traditional gender roles. She was apparently satisfied with his blustery commitment to maintaining America’s borders.

And perhaps she saw in Trump a similar political soul. She seemed to delight in angering establishment politicians and progressives; “she was of course prone to making outlandish statements,” Deckman said, “but she would do it with a sweet face.” While some progressives may believe their worldview will inevitably dominate American politics, Schlafly’s achievements are a cautionary tale for the self-satisfied: Just when you might have thought you won the political battle, some nice lady from Illinois might set her social-security card on fire on national television, and the outcome might be anyone’s guess.