Tuesday 25 October 2016

Obituary: Phyllis Schlafly

A firebrand critic of feminism who opposed equality laws in America and was a fervent supporter of Trump

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

RALLYING THE RIGHT: Phyllis Schlafly united conservatives of all religions. Photo: AP
RALLYING THE RIGHT: Phyllis Schlafly united conservatives of all religions. Photo: AP

Phyllis Schlafly, who has died aged 92, was an American conservative activist, lawyer, author and strident anti-feminist who in the 1970s was instrumental in halting the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and helped push the Republican Party further to the right on such issues as the family, religion and abortion.

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The Equal Rights Amendment ("Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex") was a guarantee of equal rights for women and had already been passed by Congress in 1972 when Phyllis Schlafly began her campaign to stop its ratification, which at the time seemed very likely.

Thirty of the 38 state legislatures required to pass the amendment had already ratified it. It was widely supported by women's groups and by both major political parties.

But Phyllis Schlafly, already an experienced Republican Party activist with her own monthly newsletter, the Phyllis Schlafly Report, was undaunted. American women, she said, were already "extremely well treated" by society.

The amendment, she argued, would pave the way for same-sex marriage, abortion, mothers being drafted into the army and unisex toilets in public places.

By the spring of 1972 she had set up Stop-ERA, with chapters across the United States, and this later became Eagle Forum (which continues to operate as a conservative interest group).

Initially many dismissed Phyllis Schlafly, but by the middle of 1973 observers were beginning to acknowledge the effect of her campaign.

"Sophisticates are advised not to laugh at Mrs Schlafly, or her views," wrote one commentator in the New York Times magazine.

Indeed, after the US Supreme Court had issued its decision on Roe v Wade, effectively legalising abortion in January 1973, Phyllis Schlafly found growing support among conservative churchgoers.

Focusing her campaign on the threat the amendment would pose to traditional family values, she travelled across the country, speaking to clubs and religious groups, and many state legislatures.

She drew support from evangelicals, Catholics (she retained a strong Catholic faith throughout her life), Mormons and Orthodox Jews.

By the late 1970s the amendment was stalled and, despite an extension to its seven-year deadline, by 1982 15 states had rejected it and five others had withdrawn their ratification.

It fell three states short of passage and in celebration Phyllis Schlafly held a "burial" party in Washington. The ERA, she told journalists, "is dead for now and forever in this century".

Ironically, Phyllis Schlafly herself had benefited hugely from women's rights; she was highly educated and taken seriously both as an author and political activist. She was, commented The Washington Post in 1974, "a walking contradiction".

"Her outward demeanour and dress is one of a feminine, bridge-playing, affluent housewife. She smiles a lot, giggles, worries about her appearance and makes polite conversation… Yet on the podium she comes on like a female George Wallace. She is tough and aggressive, totally unlike the role she espouses for most women."

Shortly before her death Phyllis Schlafly expressed her allegiance to Donald Trump. She saw him as representing "everything the grassroots want". "We've been following the losers for so long," she said, "now we've got a guy who's going to lead us to victory."

Phyllis Stewart was born on August 15, 1924, in St Louis, Missouri, the daughter of John Odile Stewart, an and engineer from whom she inherited her conservative views.

Phyllis and her sister Odile were educated at the Academy of the Sacred Heart and Maryville College of the Sacred Heart, St Louis, after which Phyllis moved to Washington University, St Louis.

She funded her student years by working night shifts in a factory supplying small arms for the war, and spent some of her time test-firing rifles and machine guns.

After graduating she attended Radcliffe College, where she was awarded an MA in political science.

Having worked as a researcher for several congressmen, in 1946 she joined the First National Bank of St Louis, where she met her husband, John Schlafly, a lawyer.

They married in 1949, after which she gave up her job and devoted herself to political causes and to her family. "As a nursing mother," she recalled, "I took each of my six children to political meetings across the state."

She also worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s and established with her husband, in 1958, the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation "to combat Communism with knowledge and facts".

Aside from her anti-ERA efforts, Phyllis Schlafly was involved in numerous other campaigns, occasionally incurring even Republican wrath. When the Reagan administration tried to introduce Aids education into American schools in the 1980s, she described it as "the teaching of safe sodomy".

In 2010, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, she announced that no woman, including the former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, was yet ready to be president.

She published numerous books including A Choice not an Echo (1964), which championed the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Strike from Space (1965), which "revealed" plans for a nuclear attack by the Russians, and The Power of the Positive Woman (1977), on the reasons for her opposition to the "femlib fanatics". Shortly before her death she published The Conservative Case for Trump (2016).

John Schlafly predeceased Phyllis who died on September 5. She is survived by their four sons and two daughters.

© Telegraph


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