Taking my fourteen-year-old daughter to the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer was a thrill. I couldn’t help getting misty-eyed watching her look on as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to accept a major party nomination for President. "It's so historic," declared Wisconsin Assemblyman Peter Barca, who gave my daughter a cheesehead hat and sat on the floor with her. Other parents of daughters in the delegation got emotional about it, too.
But if you ask my daughter what the highlight of her stint as a cub reporter at the conventions was, she’ll tell you that, hands down, it was her interview with Phyllis Schlafly.
Lily studied Schlafly in her history class and developed a perverse fascination with the antifeminist icon—a woman who had dedicated her life to opposing women’s equal rights.
When she heard about a right-to-life luncheon honoring Schlafly at the Republican convention, my daughter insisted that we go.
Lily asked Schlafly about the future of women in the Republican Party.
“Oh, it’s always been bright,” Schlafly said.
“I’ve never had any problem with being a woman in the Republican Party. Everyone has always been very good to me. I don’t know what the feminists are complaining about.”
That’s vintage Schlafly—on-message to the end.
A self-described “housewife,” she ran for Congress twice, got a law degree from Washington University and a master’s degree from Radcliffe, led the charge to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and changed the direction the Republican Party. As The New York Times put it in her obituary, she “galvanized conservatives for almost two generations and helped reshape American politics”—all while raising six kids.
At that right-to-life luncheon, Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed credited Schlafly with changing the Republican Party from one “controlled by opinion elites in the North and the East to a grassroots, conservative party where the support came from the South and the West.”
When Schlafly helped make Barry Goldwater of Arizona the Republican nominee for President in 1964, she shifted the political center of gravity for Republicans. It kept on shifting when Ronald Reagan became President in 1980. The Republicans have managed to hold together their coalition of angry culture warriors and yacht club members pretty well ever since. But this year, as Schlafly exits the stage, the coalition may finally be cracking up.
In 2016, Schlafly, a founding member of the pro-life, anti-feminist Eagle Forum, threw her support behind Trump—whose brand of populism gives many Christian conservatives heartburn. Schlafly estranged herself from her fellow board members, including her own daughter, by backing Trump. Many other “family values” Republicans, including Paul Ryan, are obviously dying inside over the Trump nomination.I asked Reed for his perspective. He and Schlafly both cited Trump’s support for repealing the “Johnson amendment,” so churches and their affiliates can engage in politics without jeopardizing their nonprofit tax status.
Plus, at the end of her life, Trump gave Schlafly a big prize: she and her fellow culture warriors got full control of the Republican Party platform.
When my daughter asked what advice she would give young women, Schlafly said,
“I think politics is where the action is, and for those who are so inclined, politics is a good avocation.”
Take it from a woman who had an enormous impact on politics.
She stopped the Equal Rights Amendment. She did her best to stop marriage equality. She helped stop women from getting access to abortion, birth control, and sex education in many states.
She helped propel the careers of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan and inspired Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party.
As Ralph Reed put it, quoting William F. Buckley, she “stood athwart history yelling, Stop.”
Clinton’s nomination is certainly historic (Schalfly would have liked to stop that, too), but I think my daughter’s instinct is right that Schlafly was a more interesting character than Clinton—not least because of the huge contradictions between her “stay in the kitchen,” antifeminist message and the way she lived her own life—becoming one of the most powerful actors in American politics in the last century.
She was, in truth, less conventional, more imaginative, and more just plain ornery than Clinton. She led a movement that seemed destined for defeat, and, against the odds, turned back the clock and killed the Equal Rights Amendment just as it was on the brink of passing. She set her party on a backward-looking march, which, for better or worse, propelled it to where it is today.
When the news broke that Schlafly had died, Lily and I started getting texts and social media messages from friends. One suggested talking to Schafly was, “kinda like interviewing Voldemort.”
Except Schlafly was a real-life villain, with all the thrill that inspires.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.