Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly has passed on at the age of 92. In this post, I will share my interactions with her thought throughout the course of my life, as well as some links.
When did I first hear of Phyllis Schlafly? Well, her name was mentioned in David Stockman’s The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, and I read that book in the sixth grade. Stockman was saying that he wanted to distance the Reagan Revolution from the religious right so it would focus instead on economic issues, and Schlafly was one of the names that he mentioned. But her name did not mean anything to me at the time, so it did not stand out to me.
It may have been in sixth grade or in junior high school that her name came to mean more to me. I liked to read right-wing conspiracy literature at the time, John Birch Society sort of stuff. A relative of mine had a few of Schlafly’s books. I borrowed and read her 1964 classic, A Choice Not an Echo. The book endorsed conservative Senator Barry Goldwater for President, while criticizing the role of one-worlder wealthy “kingmakers” in selecting Republican Presidential candidates.
I came across her name after that. Opposing Viewpoints was a series of books that featured “both sides” of controversial questions, and excerpts from Schlafly’s writings were often used as a representative of the “conservative” side. Schlafly weighed in on military issues, advocating American military superiority over the Soviet Union, as well as social and cultural issues, such as sex education.
In high school, I wrote to her Eagle Forum organization a couple of times, requesting information on such topics as sex education and Global Education, and her group sent me information packets on these issues. It also sent me a catalog, which advertised her books, back issues of The Phyllis Schlafly Report, and a biography of her by Carol Felsenthal, a feminist critic of Schlafly who decided to spend time with her and write a biography. I ordered some of these things; nowadays, I’d use Amazon for that, but I don’t think Amazon existed back then! I took my ring-bound issues of the Phyllis Schlafly Report with me to the beach, and I really enjoyed Carol Felsenthal’s biography.
I was on Eagle Forum’s mailing list, and I got a letter saying that Phyllis Schlafly would be speaking at Indiana State University on a particular date. ISU was in the town next over, and my Dad and I went to hear her speak. She did a good job answering hostile questions from the liberal professors and students. I wish I had asked her a question, though: How would conservatives reconcile their support for work requirements for mothers receiving welfare, with their belief that women should, if possible, stay at home and take care of their children? I’ve learned since then that different conservatives believe different things about this, but I was unaware of that at the time.
Her name came up more than once in college. A professor told me that she moderated a debate on the Equal Rights Amendment on the campus a while back, and that Schlafly spoke at that. She said that Schlafly was a respectful person, even though they disagreed on the ERA. In 1996, someone forwarded me an article by Schlafly that was critical of free trade. I was supporting the protectionist Pat Buchanan at the time, and, with all of the conservatives who supported NAFTA and GATT, I was happy that my conservative heroine agreed with Pat on this.
Years later, in the 2000s, I listened to her on C-Span, taking calls, and those two-or-so hours went by quickly!
In 2010, I was questioning my conservatism. I think it was that year that I started voting for more Democrats! But I decided to read a book of hers that I had long wanted to read but never could find. And, now that Amazon existed, I could do that! It was Schlafly’s The Power of the Positive Woman. I read and blogged about that book, and also Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. One question that I had in reading Schlafly’s book is whether she truly believed that women should stay at home rather than going to work. I learned that her position was much more complex than that.
After that, I followed her sporadically, but her views did not interest me as much, anymore. I was in a different place. I read her very last column this morning, and it just did not resonate with me! There are areas in which her version of conservatism has impacted me, even until today, when I am more of a progressive. Her support for national sovereignty and her criticism of free trade are such areas. Plus, maybe she was right that phonics was the best way to teach kids to read: it worked for me when I was a kid! And, while A Choice Not An Echo may have been simplistic, its insight that wealthy people have a lot of influence over the political process remains a valid insight, though I would take it beyond saying that there is a liberal conspiracy. But social conservatism and building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico are alien from where I currently am ideologically.
In terms of why I liked her, part of it was her conservatism, but there were other reasons as well. She was tough. She was unafraid to question what was considered to be conventional wisdom. She was intelligent. She could take on the intelligentsia in debates and do well. When she was criticized by a politician for speaking about the ERA without a law degree, she went on to get a law degree! She had a rebel attitude, and that resonated with me in high school and in college.
Now for the links:
Schlafly’s last column, which was in my Townhall list of articles this morning. I do have to give her credit for staying active until her death!
Ann Coulter’s tribute. This is longer than Ann Coulter’s columns usually are, and it was a rather comprehensive account of Schlafly’s life and accomplishments. I actually have that 800-or-so page book on Kissinger that Coulter mentions, but I have not yet read it! Coutler also says that Schlafly had the opportunity to go to Harvard Law School, before it even admitted women, but Schlafly did not go.
The New York Times obituary. Overall, I found this to be a balanced piece. What particularly intrigued me was some of Schlafly’s ideological shifts. She was more of a moderate when she was in college, and she initially thought that the ERA was harmless.
Ian Millhiser’s article on ThinkProgress comparing Schlafly with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Both had similar backgrounds, but they went in opposite directions on legal issues involving gender. According to Millhiser, Schlafly may have been instrumental in defeating the ERA, but her contribution was not lasting.
Here are links to the posts that I wrote when blogging through Schlafly Power of a Positive Woman. I have grown since then, so please do not be too hard on me! But these posts do reflect a sincere wrestling with Schlafly’s thought: