Book Review

The Public Eye Magazine - Summer 2006

Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade

Donald T. Critchlow
Princeton University Press
438 pages, $29.95, hardcover, 2005

Reviewed by Abby Scher

If you are under 40, you may never have heard of Phyllis Schlafly. Now in her 80s, she is a woman of relentless energy who ghostwrote Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign book, A Choice Not an Echo, while organizing her deep network of Republican women to support the ultra-conservative for the Republican presidential nomination. She ran for Congress twice, first in 1952 when she was only 27 years old, and again in 1970. And, while deriding the New Deal as incipient socialism that was a threat to the Republic, she championed anti-communism in the McCarthy Era. As the search for internal enemies dried up in the early 1960s, Schlafly cowrote books "proving" that the new threat was the fearsome missile gap with the Soviets (a gap later acknowledged to be wholly false).

Despite her syndicated radio shows and prominent role as national vice president of the National Federation of Republican Women in the 1960s, many Americans first glimpsed her power when she championed the Stop ERA movement in the 1970s and early 80s. She was impossible to ignore as she mobilized conservative ground troops state by state -- seemingly out of nowhere -- to blister the Republican and Democratic establishments and block the enactment of an Equal Rights Amendment for women.

Schlafly drove feminists crazy, both because she out-organized them, and because she should have been one of them. How could a public figure of her accomplishments -- a woman in the limelight, constantly traveling, while her husband and six children stayed at home -- defend the idea that a wife should be subservient to her husband? How could an activist who built women's power to anchor the conservative wing within the Republican Party and who demanded that women be treated equally in that arena ultimately overlook the struggle for equality in other areas of life? To add to the confusion, she once publicly admired suffragists for their "moral obligation to public life."

Although he never quite illuminates the conundrum that is Schlafly, Donald Critchlow, a professor of history at St. Louis University, has written a worthy biography of the woman and her times. While some of his interpretations of the rise of the Right might rile -- he discounts the role of racial divisions, for instance -- the sweep of his book is admirable, and he maintains a respectful dialogue (albeit mainly in his footnotes) with those who would disagree.

By focusing on Schlafly and the grassroots conservative world she helped build, he challenges the knee-jerk idea that conservative foundations and think tanks wholly powered the resurgence of the Right.

"Schlafly's talent, in part, was her ability to translate conservative ideas to grassroots activists and motivate them to achieve political goals," writes Critchlow. She is not an intellectual, he says, but a partisan.

Different moments brought out and energized different parts of her politics, he asserts. Her embrace of divine authority, anti-abortion politics, and a traditional home moved into the foreground in reaction to feminist gains and the Supreme Court's endorsement of secularization and prochoice in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was there when she earlier argued that anti-communism was a battle on behalf of Christianity against the godless and that limited government rested on "God's grace." In the 1960s, she argued that Americans were losing the cold war and were too easily led by their (liberal) leaders due to growing hedonism and materialism, a charge she laid on feminists a decade later.

Her greatest accomplishment may not have been the defeat of the ERA, but her ability to imagine and forge new coalitions. During that struggle, she reached out to conservative evangelicals for the first time, trained them in public speaking and advocacy, and had them work hand in hand with the conservative women of her base. She mobilized new women from outside of the party structure while brokering a peace with the stalwart conservative women loyalists. Throughout these periods, Critchlow observes, she maintained a populist anti-elitism, whether against the moderate East Coast Republicans linked to financiers and free trade who she fought for control of the party, or against the feminists who she successfully portrayed as out-of-touch intellectuals who scoffed at the protection of the home so valued by other women.

She also remained (and remains) a GOP loyalist, even though the party's power brokers kept her out of the inner circle, and even after her suspicious defeat as president of National Federation of Republican Women in 1967. The federation's membership dropped by half after her defeat, as her loyalists left in droves.

More than Critchlow, perhaps, I now see Schlafly an innovator who departed from pre-war conservatism in key ways. A Catholic, she was active in her local chapter of the National Conference of Christian and Jews, and rejected the anti-Semitism that tainted many conservatives after the war. Nor was her ecumenicalism universally popular. She was spurned by Fred Schwarz after approaching him to create a joint Catholic- Protestant anti-communist organization because Schwarz believed it would be suspect among his evangelical base. She was less rabidly anti-New Deal than some, continuing to embrace Social Security, public housing and other social programs in the 1950s.

An attractive, photogenic, and skilled public speaker who kept her cool under fire, she represented a fresh new image of a level-headed conservative.

Schlafly was also creatively multimedia, building on the power of radio, print and eventually video to reach the grassroots. It was in print that she flicked on the incendiary high beams; through her syndicated columns, monthly newsletters, and books, she helped shape the politics of millions who read them. To defeat the Democrats in 1988, instead of writing her usual campaign book, she commissioned a popular video on Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who committed rape while on furlough in Massachusetts, the state governed by Democratic candidate Dukakis.

Schlafly also admirably kept her cool as a tactician. For example, in the ERA battle, she held at bay those who wanted to denounce the amendment as a form of socialism or UN-style consolidation of power at the top; her more reserved strategy ultimately proved effective. This was in contrast to some pro-ERA forces, who linked the issue to abortion rights by insisting that equality under the law meant states had to pay for abortions, a tactic that might have contributed to the defeat of the amendment.

Crafting arguments that focused on family values and the necessarily different roles of men and women, Schlafly managed to enlarge the coalition opposing the ERA. The coalition included Mormons and Orthodox Jews, not just Catholics and Protestants. It included political novices, but she trained her troops to act like her: smile when being attacked, be groomed and poised for TV, and, especially, be a lady. As Critchlow points out, this approach spoke volumes to the male, middle-aged state legislators who controlled the fate of the ERA, in sharp contrast to the message sent by outspoken feminists exuding the counterculture.

Critchlow argues that Schlafly's political training ground was in the Republican Party. But he overlooks the way her tactics emerge directly from the middle class women's club movement with roots early in the century. Like other middle class club women, Schlafly marshaled facts and figures, displaying charts and maps in her talks. Her focus on education -- creating anti-communist reading lists and materials for women to use in selfguided study groups, for example -- is straight out of the women's club playbook with roots early in the century. My own research on women's groups during McCarthyism found such grassroots expertise embraced by conservative women as much as liberal ones. All these women legitimized their claim on a place in public life by developing their expertise, showing a faith in reason that Critchlow overlooks in arguing that Schlafly rejects the Enlightenment.

Nor does Critchlow fully value how Schlafly's rhetorical choices contributed to her eventual power and credibility. By mixing the language of liberty and the early documents of the Republic, rights language and values language, Schlafly spoke in a way that connected with many of those at the grassroots who were struggling to find their own voice. It made her arguments sound reasonable within American discourse.

The separation of church and state is a time-honored pillar of an American Constitution and culture... but it was never meant that religion should be excluded from public life or from our schools and colleges.

Our policy should be to eliminate discrimination against women and to achieve equity for women without sacrificing traditional women's rights.

Liberal policies all require government to take over the functions of the family and reduce family rights.

Looking back, Schlafly has said she had a role in launching the Christian Right -- even though, as Critchlow argues, she is not totally of that movement. While embracing traditional family values against the corrosion of materialism and feminism, Schlafly and her supporters are more leery of big government and encroachment on civil liberties. And the Christian Right has a decidedly Protestant cast, unlike Schlafly's ecumenical, family values campaigns. By 1979, Beverly LeHaye had founded Concerned Women of America (CWA) as an evangelical Protestant organization.

As family values advocates sitting between the wings of the party, her network could potentially have been a bridge between them. Ironically, with the rise of the Right, Schlafly's power seems to have diminished. With 50,000 members at its height (compared to 600,000 in CWA), the Eagle Forum and Schlafly never found a powerful foothold in the party.

White southerners angry that the federal government (eventually) defended the civil rights of blacks arguably played a bigger role in generating disgust at big government than Schlafly. And the fight against the New Deal produced new intellectuals who popularized free market arguments, enlarging the GOP's base. As the Right grew, Schlafly's voice became less important. Yet her leadership in the 1970s ERA battle, building on her experiences in the decades before, was invaluable in helping create a rupture of the status quo and a sense that the liberal juggernaut could be stopped.

Abby Scher is editor of The Public Eye and a sociologist.

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