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Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade (23 of 45)

This is excerpt No. 23 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

It was deceptively labeled, so innocuous-sounding that even conservatives like Strom Thurmond had climbed Schlafly ERAon board.  All of the nation’s mass media supported it.  It passed the House 354-23 and the Senate 84-8.  A constitutional amendment, it had already been approved by 30 of the required 38 states by the end of the first year, and the remaining states were rushing to be next.  It was unstoppable.  Inevitable.

Until an Alton, Illinois, housewife got into the picture, that is.  The indomitable Phyllis Schlafly exposed the real nature of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Using alternative media, she created a coalition of women in opposition that spanned all faiths, colors, and backgrounds.  It took an army of mostly women to stop the ERA, but she was the commander in chief.

We interviewed Phyllis Schlafly to see how she did it.  Phyllis died in 2016 at the age of 92, but there are lessons here that remain critically important for conservatives today.  Nothing is inevitable.  We can do it! 

Conservative Success Story: Phyllis Schlafly Stops ERA

On October 12, 1971, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution by the lopsided vote of 354 to 23.  The Senate then shouted its approval in an 84 to 8 vote on March 22, 1972.  Explaining the lack of meaningful opposition was the seemingly innocuous language of the proposed amendment:

1.  Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

2.  The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

That was it.  Sweet and simple – it seemed.  All the usual liberal suspects were for it, but so were prominent conservative politicians like Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Spiro Agnew.  Conservatives had opposed most of the civil rights legislation of the ’60s on constitutional grounds, only to find themselves smeared as racists even as they lost the battle.  The conservative politicians, at least, weren’t going to make that mistake again – especially when the supposed beneficiaries of this wonderful gesture constituted half their electorate (women) and the feminist movement was at the height of its power.

Having passed in Congress, the amendment now needed the approval of three-fourths (38) of the states.  And the states were rushing to see which could ratify the fastest.  Fourteen states ratified the ERA in the first month after Congress’s approval, and by the end of the first year 30 states had done so.  Only eight more states were needed, and the ERA would be part of the United States Constitution.

The Equal Rights Amendment clearly was unstoppable.

Until an Alton, Illinois, housewife got into the picture, that is.

Granted, Phyllis Schlafly was not your ordinary housewife.  As we’ve seen, her first book, A Choice Not an Echo, had sold more than 3 million copies in 1964 and probably was instrumental in securing Goldwater’s victory in the California GOP primary – and, with that, the party’s presidential nomination a few months later.  Since 1964 she had become an expert on national defense, writing books such as The Gravediggers and Kissinger on the Couch.  But she had little interest in ERA until a friend convinced her to look into its ramifications.  She did that, and was horrified by what she found.

In February 1972, Phyllis Schlafly spelled out the hidden dangers in the Equal Rights Amendment in her monthly newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report.  In this and nearly 100 subsequent issues, she noted that ERA wouldn’t give women any real new rights – the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination against women, and ERA pertains only to government actions, not private actions, so it wouldn’t (for example) guarantee equal pay for equal work.  On the other hand, ERA would take away rights and privileges women already had – first and foremost, by requiring drafted women to serve in combat on an equal basis with men.  ERA would also transfer vast powers to the federal government and make taxpayer funding of abortion and same-sex marriages constitutional rights.  Clearly it wasn’t exactly the innocuous proposal it seemed.

It is doubtful that the feminists even noticed that first anti-ERA issue of the Phyllis Schlafly Report.  They had all – all – the nation’s mass media on their side.  Why should they care about the opposition of some obscure letter with a circulation of around 3,000!  They would quickly learn to care a great deal about Phyllis Schlafly’s new crusade.

How Phyllis beat Ms. Goliath

“In regard to alternative media,” Mrs. Schlafly told us, “when we got into the ERA fight all we had was the telephone and the Phyllis Schlafly Report.” 

In 1972, her four-page, two-column newsletter had about 3,000 subscribers.  They were Republican activists – “the women who went to Washington to support me for president of the National Federation of Republican Women, an election I lost because they stole it from me.” 

Those 3,000 subscribers took her anti-ERA issues to their state legislators.  The first tangible result was in Oklahoma.  “I got a call at 8 o’clock in the morning from my friend in Oklahoma.  ‘So, Phyllis,’ she said, ‘I took your newsletter to the state legislature and they rejected ERA!’  Then I realized I had something.”

In September 1972, Phyllis called around a hundred women from 30 states to meet in St. Louis to form a one-issue movement – Stop ERA.  She told us in an interview:

I appointed a Stop ERA chairman in a lot of states, but we didn’t go for any organizational structure beyond that.  It was all without pay, so the ones who worked the hardest got to the top.  I laid down the party line on how to argue ERA, and how to debate it.  And then everybody who wanted to defeat it pretty soon saw that my arguments were reliable and effective, as opposed to other arguments that other people would think of, like “God wants you” or “the UN plot,” or something like that.

Over the next three years, five more states ratified ERA but three states that had already ratified it had second thoughts after Phyllis’s female warriors went into combat and they rescinded their support (states can do that).  The ERA movement, once thought unbeatable, was stalled.

Phyllis didn’t stop working, however.  “By 1975,” she related, “we realized we wanted a real organization.  That’s when we morphed into Eagle Forum.  People were interested in a lot of other issues as well, and there were plenty of states where ERA was no longer an issue.” 

But she also led the troops in yet another significant battle, in her home state of Illinois – which had scheduled an ERA ratification hearing for April 27, 1976.  In that battle, she broke the spirit of the ERA movement and showed conservatives how to wage a one-issue fight.  In the process, she opened up a new front for the conservative movement that would be a key factor in the movement’s future growth – the pro-family religious coalition.

When the Illinois legislature convened in Springfield on April 27, 1976, they were confronted with a thousand women waving placards outside the legislative building and urging them to turn down ERA.  And this wasn’t your tiny band of Republican activists by now.  “Nobody in Springfield had seen anything like that,” she recalled.  “And they came out of the churches.  Many of these people had never been to Springfield before – they didn’t know what the capitol looked like.  We were bringing people out of the churches into the political process.”

In the early days of Stop ERA, Phyllis explained, “the only respectable organization that had taken a position against ERA was the National Council of Catholic Women.  The national office was a bunch of liberal Democrats, and they were no help, but the organization had – before I got into the picture – published a nice flyer on what was wrong with ERA, how it was an attack on the family and so forth.”

The liberals in the national office, Phyllis continued, “tried to make people believe they didn’t have that flyer, but I had a copy of that flyer and I reprinted it to look exactly like the original – I think it was a pale green color or something – and distributed it widely.  I also was able to get the local members – you know, the ones in the states – to come and testify at the ERA hearings.  But they were the only other respectable organization we had.”

Phyllis was a Catholic herself, but she knew that one religious group wasn’t enough.  When she organized the Eagle Forum, which would continue the Stop ERA fight, she invited Evangelical Protestants onto her board:  “Particularly prominent among the Protestants was the conservative branch of the Church of Christ.  Members of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod were also very helpful.”

Today, after the growth of the Christian Right, we take interdenominational action for granted.  In the early to mid-seventies, however, Phyllis was opening new territory.  Leftist church groups had long worked together for their statist causes, but rarely before had churches on the Right collaborated.

“It was very funny at our Eagle Councils [the annual meetings of Eagle Forum],” Phyllis recalled.  “These people had never been in the same room before, and I’d say, ‘Now, the person sitting next to you might not be saved but we’re all going to work together to stop ERA.’  Getting the Baptists and the Catholics to work together, and getting them all to work with the Mormons – this was something!  I made them do it!”

“It was very tolerant of the newcomers to accept me as their leader,” she laughed.  “I think a lot of them didn’t know I was a Catholic back then, but when they found out they didn’t feel threatened by me.  They accepted me.  Some of them tried to convert me, but they finally gave up on that!  They worked together, and that was a real achievement.”

And they weren’t all Christians.  “Orthodox Jews were with me from the start,” she told us.  “From the very beginning there was a Chicago rabbi who testified at our first hearing.  And then there was a leading rabbi, Rabbi Hermann Neuberger – people called him ‘Phyllis’s rabbi’ – and he was extremely supportive.”

Phyllis’s coalition reached out in other directions as well:  “In Illinois, a very strong black contingent – headed by the Rev. Hiram Crawford, who is now deceased – supported us.  When we were having our rallies, they sent busloads of blacks to join us.  People who had to take a day off from work. 

“We also had good support from blue-collar union women.  A woman from Ohio was our leader in adding that contingent.  We had all kinds.”

We noted to Phyllis that it seems that one element of her success is that she concentrates on the issue, rather than making it a party or even an ideological fight.

“It was never about party or ideology,” she responded.  “I always say I’m very tolerant.  I let a person support my issue for the reason of his choice.”

“In Illinois,” she continued, “our opposition misread us as a subsection of the conservative movement.  It was not that.  After I won, the conservative movement was glad to take credit, but it wasn’t, and in Illinois we always had a complete mix of conservative and liberal Republicans, conservative and liberal Democrats, the downstate rural guys as well as the Chicago machine Democrats.”

We asked, “Supporters from the Daley machine?”

Phyllis responded, “A lot of these machine Democrats were God-home-and-country people.  Although the scale of values for some of them was that the machine comes first, then the party, and then god and country are after that.  These are people who thought they’d die and go to hell if they voted Republican.  A lot of these people knew that ERA was wrong, but they’d play a certain game of musical chairs, voting yes one time and no another time.”

“And then we had the chief AFL-CIO representative in the Illinois legislature,” she recalled, breaking into a smile.  “He was a flashy Irishman known as ‘Terrible Tommy Hanahan,’ and he’s the one who called the ERA crowd ‘a bunch of brainless, braless broads’!  George Meany personally called him to tell him to switch to yes, but he wouldn’t do it.  I mean that’s the kind of people we had!”

Lessons from the Stop ERA fight

Phyllis Schlafly has been one of the most successful activists in the conservative movement, and her success lies in her ability to motivate both the hard-core conservatives – the cadre of the movement – and the masses, including those who have never thought of themselves as conservative or Republican.  But she needed the alternative print media, made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press, in order to achieve her full impact.

A Choice Not an Echo was a tract with amazing “pull” – with perhaps the closest example in our day to the repercussive effect of Tom Paine’s Common Sense.  A Choice Not an Echo appealed to two cadres – the Goldwater precinct captains who passed them out to all voters in their precinct, and the delegates to the 1964 Republican convention.  But it also appealed to the grassroots masses – selling over 3 million copies, convincing political couch potatoes to become activists, and converting many Rockefeller and LBJ supporters.

With the Stop ERA movement, Phyllis’s first task was to motivate the cadre – those 3,000 activist Republican women – into battling the feminists at the height of their power, on an issue that was sweeping the nation with virtually no opposition.  She admits they didn’t start out really expecting to win.

She explained: 

In the post-Goldwater decade or two, conservatives fought battles without any real expectation of winning.  I mean, we had to do what was right.  Conservatives had a very defeatist mentality – I’m going to pass out my literature, but we’re just waging a holding action.

If I had known it was going to be 10 years and all that money and all those people, I don’t know if I would have started it.  But, initially we picked it up because it was the right thing to do.

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Later, after Stop ERA’s initial successes, Phyllis demonstrated how to broaden the appeal, as we’ve relayed in detail.  She was successful by keeping on message – focusing on the issue, not partisan politics or ideology.  We could all profitably adopt her standard of tolerance: “I let a person support my issue for the reason of his choice.”

The irony is, once you’ve opened up the channels of communication between disparate groups, you are likely to find that you all agree on other issues as well.  Phyllis didn’t start out by trying to convert those Evangelicals, blacks, Orthodox Jews, and blue-collar Democrats to the conservative movement or the Republican Party – all she wanted them to do was to defeat ERA.  But countless numbers of them went on to become conservatives and Republicans.  Their eyes were opened politically by the ERA fight.

Those are pretty amazing results considering that she started out, as she says, with just two alternative media at her disposal – the telephone and her newsletter.  It’s worth noting, though, that today she has become a master of all the other media that now are open to her – countless TV and print interviews with the mass media (now that conservatives can no longer be marginalized), her own radio commentaries six days a week, and an Internet site with a massive amount of information and interactive content.

The ERA movement has never simply disappeared – it is formally introduced in each new session of Congress, and there continue to be fights on the state level.  But there is no realistic hope of it getting anywhere in today’s political climate, and probably its main purpose today is as a fundraising issue among its hard-core cadre.  The Equal Rights Amendment has effectively been taken off the political agenda.  That is the highest level of political success, and for that we can thank Phyllis Schlafly.


America’s Right Turn serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  20. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  21. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  22. Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media
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