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The Book on Phyllis Schlafly

A history of grassroots conservatism in postwar America.

By 11.16.05

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Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade
by Donald T. Critchlow
(Princeton University Press, 438 pages, $29.95)

"I'd like to burn you at the stake!" growled Betty Friedan at Phyllis Schlafly during a public debate over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) at Illinois State University in 1973. Friedan and other feminists were unnerved by Schlafly. She was as sophisticated and accomplished as they were, but profoundly antifeminist. They tried everything to pass ERA and defeat Schlafly, from bribing state legislators to using witchcraft, but to no avail.

For decades, academic historians failed to take Schlafly, and other conservative Republican grassroots activists like her, seriously. They preferred to crank out works on their heroes of the grassroots left, whom they considered the vanguard of history. But when the right failed to follow its Communist nemesis onto the ash heap of history, and actually proceeded to elect a lasting congressional majority and another two-term president, liberal academics were compelled to notice.

In Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, Donald T. Critchlow uses the career of the woman feminists love to hate as a lens through which to examine the neglected history of grassroots conservatism in postwar America. Critchlow combines scholarly rigor with fine prose to produce the best book ever written on this subject.

Critchlow's study succeeds in part because he has no obvious antipathy toward his subject and avoids the methodological errors of other historians. He does not attribute the activities of grassroots conservatives to racism, status anxiety, or paranoia. He doesn't conflate conservatism with the KKK or the militia movement. Rather, he takes the political beliefs that motivated Schlafly and her followers seriously, placing them in the tradition of the Midwestern Old Right: religious, suspicious of big government, and wary of entanglements abroad.

She and other conservative GOP activists, explains Critchlow, descend from the tradition of civic republicanism that dates back to the 18th century, a tradition that identifies the health of republican government with the virtue of private individuals and families, of which women are the special guardians.

Critchlow wisely admonishes students of the postwar right not to look at its political ascent as inevitable. There were many points at which the conservative movement could have slipped off its upward path. Critchlow reminds us that conservative intellectuals did not simply plant the seed from which the grassroots grew, as the story usually goes, but watched the grassroots sprout up simultaneously and independently.

The intellectuals and activists then came together. Schlafly was a central figure in uniting these two indispensable components of the movement. By writing, speaking, and organizing seminars, she brought ideas to the activists.

Most historians trace the shifting of the cultural divide in America among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to the '60s revolution from which a new division between secularists and religious believers sprang. But Critchlow discovered that this realignment began much earlier in the grassroots anti-Communist movement. Like conservative intellectuals, grassroots conservatives were willing to look beyond their theological differences because of their shared commitment to fighting Communism. The intellectuals and activists of the right viewed the Cold War as a titanic struggle between good and evil through which all political events were interpreted.

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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About the Author

P. Bracy Bersnak is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College. His views are his own.