Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime Religious Right activist who successfully led the effort to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s and who advocated “traditional” roles for women in American society, died Sept. 5 at age 92.
Although best known for her role in blocking the ERA, Schlafly had a long career in the far right and over the years took on a range of “culture war” issues. Through her group the Eagle Forum, she was especially active in recent years opposing the expansion of rights for LGBTQ Americans.
An anti-Communist crusader during the Cold War, Schlafly rose to prominence thanks to her 1964 book A Choice, Not an Echo, which attacked the then-liberal wing of the Republican Party. But she gained most of her power and influence through the Eagle Forum, which Schlafly founded in 1972 and ran until recently.
She reached her zenith during the debate over the ERA, which Schlafly helped defeat by arguing that it would hurt women. She claimed the amendment would cost women Social Security benefits, end their exemption from registering for the Selective Service and lead to unisex bathrooms – claims ERA supporters said were bogus. The ERA was narrowly defeated in 1977.
Schlafly was active throughout the 1980s on a variety of fronts. In 1981, for example, she told a U.S. Senate committee that women who are sexually harassed have only themselves to blame. Lecherous bosses, said Schlafly, “hardly ever ask sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is ‘No.’ Virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities, obscene talk or profane language.”
During the early years of the AIDS crisis, Schlafly opposed HIV education for young people, and she fought sex education in public schools as well. Schlafly argued, without evidence, that sex education increases teen pregnancy.
In recent years, Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, based in Alton, Ill., turned its ire on the LGBTQ community, unleashing a flood of hysterical op-eds and articles. At one point, Schlafly went so far as to propose impeaching judges who upheld marriage equality and called on Congress to cut off all federal aid to any state that permitted the practice.
As Schlafly advanced in age, she named an ally, Ed Martin, as president of the Eagle Forum. But some of the group’s board members opposed the move, and a struggle for control ensued. The organization remains riven by internal division, and recently a dissident faction – including some of Schlafly’s own children – sought to oust her from the group, apparently motivated in part by her controversial decision to endorse Donald J. Trump for president. That matter is still in court. (See “The Eagle Has Crash Landed,” June 2016 Church & State.)