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Loosely united at first, conservative intellectuals and activists were tightly bound together by the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. In the campaign, Schlafly displayed her trademark talent for combining principled idealism with practical political activity. Her book A Choice, Not an Echo made Schlafly a figure of national prominence by selling 3.5 million copies and by helping Goldwater secure the GOP nomination from Establishment “kingmakers.”
While Schlafly’s book made her a heroine to conservatives, reports Critchlow, it also aroused anger from liberal Republicans, who, with the connivance of the RNC, stole the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women from her in 1967. But by then Schlafly had built an army of conservative women activists who would march with her in the battle for which she became most famous.
THE EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT had been endorsed in the Republican and Democratic party platforms since the 1940s. ERA sounded innocuous, stating simply that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In 1972, both houses of Congress passed it, rejecting amendments that would have formally recognized traditional protections women have received from the law. They gave the states seven years to ratify it. Within a year, 30 states had done so, leaving supporters eight more state legislatures to convince.
Schlafly argued that once ERA was the law of the land, feminists would use federal courts to implement their agenda, which included abortion on demand, women in combat, and homosexual marriage. In 1973, Roe v. Wade gave her claim added urgency and credibility.
She organized women at the grassroots to “STOP ERA” and succeeded because the feminists lacked a comparable organization and relied on an expensive media campaign. The feminists got Congress to unconstitutionally extend the deadline to pass ERA until 1982, but desperation made them use increasingly extreme tactics that backfired.
By 1982, the political landscape had changed dramatically. ERA was dead, and the activists opposed to it were going strong. They remained active in the GOP and had found a potent issue in the left’s undemocratic use of the Supreme Court to engineer social change.
Donald Critchlow’s political biography of Phyllis Schlafly is a useful corrective to most other histories of grassroots conservatism and closes the gap between historiography on feminists and their numerous opponents from their own sex. Let us hope that more historians emulate Critchlow, and that more women emerge to emulate Schlafly.
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