Wednesday, January 04, 2017
Phyllis Schlafly at press conference at International Women's Year, Houston, Texas, November 1977. Photo by Bettye Lane, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhyllis Schlafly at press conference at International Women's Year, Houston, Texas, November 1977. Photo by Bettye Lane, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Phyllis Schlafly, who died last September at age 92, had a long career as a leader of the cultural right. She was the founder of the conservative advocacy organization Eagle Forum and the public persona of the pro-family movement from 1972 until her death.

Schlafly appears throughout many of the collections at the Schlesinger Library, including in the papers of feminist writers and activists like Betty Friedan and Jane O’Reilly, lawyer and scholar Catherine MacKinnon, and the organizational records as well as officers’ papers of the feminist activist organization, National Organization for Women (NOW). Among the materials related to Schlafly in these collections are debate and press conference transcripts; audio of Schlafly speaking at events and in interviews; and printed materials from Eagle Forum. The content relates primarily to the key legislative issue that brought Schlafly to media prominence: defeating the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

The ERA, which called for equality of rights for all citizens regardless of sex, was introduced into Congress every year from 1923 until 1970, and finally passed in 1972. The requisite thirty-eight states, however, did not ratify the ERA by the 1982 deadline. In the end the amendment failed just three states short of ratification.

Phyllis Schlafly selling bread to legislators to raise money for STOP ERA fund, Springfield, Illinois, Capitol Building, 1980. Photo by Dorothea Jacobson-Wenzel, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPhyllis Schlafly selling bread to legislators to raise money for STOP ERA fund, Springfield, Illinois, Capitol Building, 1980. Photo by Dorothea Jacobson-Wenzel, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Schlafly's efforts were instrumental in the ERA's collapse. In 1972 Schlafly organized STOP ERA, which she renamed Eagle Forum in 1975. “STOP” was an acronym for Stop Taking Our Privileges. The privileges that Schlafly and the pro-family movement feared they would lose included women’s exemption from the draft and military combat and the rights of women to be supported by their husbands. They also feared the prospect of legalized gay marriage and unisex bathrooms. In essence, they saw the ERA as a tool of the feminist agenda that would trigger a breakdown of society’s norms.

Schlafly had multiple debates about the ERA with leading feminists throughout the 1970s and 1980s and some of the transcripts and recordings of these forums, as well as publicity about these events, are found within the Library’s collections. Each debate reveals the ideological impasse between the two sides.

In 1982, only a few months before the ratification deadline, Schlafly debated scholar, lawyer, and women’s rights activist Catharine MacKinnon. MacKinnon’s opening statement presented the groundwork for what women in the audience needed to consider regarding the question of the ERA: “What we bring you is two views on what woman’s situation is. The differences between us requires asking one of the most important and neglected questions of history: what is it to speak as a woman? Who speaks for women?”

Schlafly argued in the debate that the ERA would have given the government authority to enforce a “gender free society” and would move the country away from more “traditional rights” such as “the right to be supported by one’s husband.”

MacKinnon responded that feminism and the ERA do not advocate “gender sameness, but an end to gender hierarchy . . . We do not seek dominance over men. We seek a transformation of the definition of power.”

In June 1981, Schlafly appeared on the Phil Donahue show with the president of NOW Eleanor Smeal debating the value of the ERA and the constitutionality of the extension of the ratification vote. The NOW records contain a transcript of the show as well as multiple folders of letters written by viewers. Many of these letters express support for the ERA and NOW. As one 22-year-old political science student wrote in response to Smeal’s appearance on the program: “I wish everyone in this nation could have heard you speak up in defense of the housewife because that alone would contradict many of these silly ideas that NOW has the intentions to undermine the family and marriage institutions.”

The collection also includes some letters criticizing Smeal and supporting Schlafly’s anti-ERA argument. One writer, signed “A Concerned American Woman,” accused Smeal of dishonesty. “I think you only tell just what you want people to hear to change their opinion to your way of thinking.”

These and other examples help illustrate the disagreements between feminists and anti-feminists, as well as the key role Schlafly played in shaping and promoting the arguments against the ERA.

Through Schlafly’s presence in the Library’s collections we get insight into the impact she and the pro-family movement had on the women’s movement and our cultural discourse. Recognition of her importance continues today. Feminist, writer, and social critic Jane O’Reilly, who had spent her career reporting on the activities of the conservative movement, recently published an article on Schlafly and her celebration after the ERA defeat in the online journal The Baffler: http://thebaffler.com/blog/night-phyllis-schlafly-went-rainbow

For information on collections of republican and/or conservative women at the Schlesinger Library, see the Library’s research guide: http://guides.library.harvard.edu/schlesinger_republican

The Phyllis Schlafly Report, July 1984. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryThe Phyllis Schlafly Report, July 1984. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

Author: 
Laura Peimer, Archivist