Phyllis Schlafly was one of the most polarizing figures in American public life, a self-described housewife who was called “the first lady of the conservative movement.”
Phyllis Schlafly, the political activist who galvanized grass-roots conservatives in the 1970s to help defeat the Equal Rights Amendment and effectively push the Republican Party to the right for decades, died Monday at 92.
Known as “the first lady of anti-feminism,” Mrs. Schlafly died of natural causes. Ryan Hite, a spokesman for the St. Louis-based Eagle Forum, said family members were with her when she died at her home there.
Donald Trump praised Mrs. Schlafly on Monday as “a patriot, a champion for women and a symbol of strength.”
Mrs. Schlafly endorsed Trump at a rally in St. Louis in March, and she co-authored a book, “The Conservative Case for Trump” that is being released Tuesday.
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She had been a standard-bearer for the conservative branch of the Republican Party for decades, writing the influential book “A Choice Not an Echo” to help Barry Goldwater secure the GOP presidential nomination in 1964.
Beginning in 1972, she led opposition to the ERA — a 52-word constitutional measure that guaranteed equal rights under the law regardless of gender — arguing that it would mark the end of the traditional family.
“She was an important figure who was the first to plug in to the power of the female conservative vote in modern times,” said Donald Critchlow, a history professor at St. Louis University and author of the 2005 political biography, “Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade.”
“Her importance wasn’t fully seen until the ascendancy of the right that began with the election of Ronald Reagan as president,” he said.
The campaign to pass the ERA was led by the National Organization for Women, which made the amendment central to its mission after it formed in 1966. The feminists’ argument was mainly economic: The ERA would require that laws determining child support and job opportunities be designed without regard to gender.
Opponents said the ERA would have granted more power to Congress and the federal courts and cause women to lose privileges and protections, such as exemption from compulsory military service and combat duty, and economic support from husbands for their families.
With Mrs. Schlafly’s entrance, the debate became more about the changing role of women than about equality. Her army of volunteers brimmed with stay-at-home mothers, and she contended the amendment would deprive a woman of the basic right to stay home and care for her children.
“Phyllis Schlafly courageously and single-handedly took on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment when no one else in the country was opposing it,” James C. Dobson, chairman and founder of Focus on the Family, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005. “In so doing, she essentially launched the pro-family, pro-life movement.”
Her calmly expressed, unshakable conviction that the amendment was a threat to a woman’s financial security and traditional motherhood infuriated pro-ERA audiences.
When Mrs. Schlafly and her troops entered the fray, 30 states had already ratified the ERA. Within a year, the amendment — first introduced in Congress in 1923 — started losing steam. It ended up three states short of the 38 needed for ratification and was defeated in 1982.
“Would the ERA have passed without Phyllis? That’s the $64,000 question,” Karen DeCrow, president of NOW in the mid-1970s who debated Mrs. Schlafly at least 50 times, said in 2005.
By the end of the 20th century, some feminists and historians said they felt history had passed Mrs. Schlafly by because many of the changes contained in the ERA happened over time anyway. Her emotionally charged argument against the amendment included warnings that it would force women to serve in combat zones, cause unisex restrooms to proliferate and allow gays to marry.
Mrs. Schlafly saw the ERA as an unnecessary crutch for “a bunch of bitter women seeking a constitutional cure for their personal problems.” Women who blamed sexism for their failures were just looking for excuses, she said.
She self-published her first book, “A Choice Not an Echo,” and 3 million copies were sold, mainly to Goldwater workers.
She told how “from 1936 through 1960 the Republican presidential nominee was selected by a small group of secret kingmakers who dictated the choice of the Republican presidential nominee just as completely as the Paris dressmakers control the lengths of women’s skirts.”
In the book, Mrs. Schlafly claimed that Eastern internationalists — the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the party — had forced their candidates on the party for years.
Phyllis McAlpin Stewart was born Aug. 15, 1924, in St. Louis, where she attended Washington University, paying for her education by testing rifles and machine guns on the night shift at a World War II munitions plant.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in political science in 1944 and received a master’s degree in government from Radcliffe College a year later.
In 1949, she married Fred Schlafly, a fellow Roman Catholic and conservative 15 years her senior; he died in 1993. The couple moved to the industrial city of Alton, Ill., near St. Louis, and she became a self-described homemaker. Between 1950 and 1964, she had six children and kept them out of school until second grade so she could teach them to read.
When her first child was a toddler, she plunged into the first of two unsuccessful campaigns for Congress and became a fixture as a delegate and behind-the-scenes platform player at Republican national conventions beginning in the 1950s.
In “Phyllis Schlafly: The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority,” author Carol Felsenthal argued that Mrs. Schlafly “was obviously ‘liberated’ decades before the word got hackneyed. She never, ever allowed her sex to stand between her and her goal. And that perhaps, is one reason for her unrelenting disdain for ‘libbers.’ ”
At the start of the ERA fight, she founded the Eagle Forum, which became an influential conservative group she ran with a firm hand. She took no salary.
At the 1992 GOP convention, Mrs. Schlafly supported the party’s platform, which condemned same-sex marriage and gay civil rights. Soon after, a New York gay magazine outed her oldest child, John, then a 41-year-old lawyer who helped run the Eagle Forum.
“I love my son,” she told the New York Post in a reaction story at the time.
“I had six children,” she said. “I ran for Congress. An organized mother puts it all together. The time-management mother uses the older ones to help with the younger ones. You should read that old book ‘Cheaper by the Dozen.’ ”