Known as the “Iron Lady” of American conservatives by enemies on the left and the “first lady” by the right, she may be the most durable icon of any political movement, with a career that has spanned seven decades dating back to Harry Truman.
Phyllis Schlafly’s career as a grassroots organizer, prolific author, constitutional lawyer and circuit-riding speaker began in 1946.
But as she turns 90 years old today, America’s original activist mom says she isn’t done yet.
If anything, she’s been inspired by Barack Obama’s presidency to keep fighting. In an hour-long exclusive interview with WND on the day before her birthday, Schlafly showed no sign of being weary or wanting to rest – not that it wouldn’t be deserved.
While many women her age have long since retired, Schlafly continues to write and speak. She has her weekly columns on her website, her monthly newsletter still mailed out to thousands, her radio program and her major book projects.
Schlafly recently finished a new book, “Who Killed the American Family?” and she is working on the 50th anniversary edition of her classic “A Choice Not An Echo,” which she self-published in 1964 and ended up selling 3 million copies out of her garage.
“‘A Choice Not An Echo,’ that’s the little book that kind of made me and helped create the conservative movement, describing how the kingmakers were deciding each party’s nominee (for president),” she said. “We’ll reprint it in October and have a whole new section about all the conventions since 1964; and what you will see is the same old game – the kingmakers still trying to run the show and get what they want. It showed the fight between the kingmakers and the grassroots, which is still going on today. I meet people who tell me they read it recently and it sounds so much like today.”
“Who Killed the American Family” is set for release Sept. 26, published by WND Books.
“There’s of course been plenty written about the decline in the number of people living in the traditional nuclear family, as women are having babies without husbands, but nobody is saying what caused this decline,” Schlafly said. “The ones who are talking about causes are really blaming most of it on the gays and deadbeat dads, and I feel like that is a small part of the picture.”
Schlafly has never been reticent to name names.
“I have laid out all the people who have worked against the family and have a chapter on each one, and it starts with the feminists,” she said, reigniting the major battle from the 1970s when she confronted feminists and rolled back what seemed like a certain victory for the controversial Equal Rights Amendment.
Schlafly sees the evolution of family courts run by activist judges as also responsible for undermining the authority of parents. She said these judges took an old legal term codified by 18th century scholar William Blackstone called the “best interest of the child” and twisted it around into something Blackstone never intended.
“That expression always meant the biological parents would decide the best interests of the child, and honestly there is no scientific evidence for any other definition than the biological parents being able to decide what is in the best interests of their own children. But it’s been taken over by judges and all the other busybodies that say a village should raise your child,” Schlafly said. “When liberals say that they mean all the government busybodies, the schools, the so-called experts, the psychologists; and they’re all allowed to basically dictate what is in the best interest of the child. There is no scientific evidence for any of these pronouncements of what they are finding in the best interests of the child. They are just making it up, and it’s the judges’ gut reaction.”
She cites the example of a judge in Chicago who decided what church a child should attend.
“The judge on appeal said he felt like he was reading from a case in Afghanistan and he overturned it,” Schlafly said.
She points to another case in which the judge believed he was entitled to decide what school a child should attend.
“And it’s all done under the rubric of what’s in the best interest of the child, but they make it up. I blame the family court judges for playing a major role in killing the American family, because they have basically taken over the role of the parents,” Schlafly said.
She also talks about the powerful monetary inducements for woman to have babies outside of marriage.
“The book is pitched on the theme of Agatha Christie’s famous book ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ Who committed the murder, and the answer was everybody on the train did. It’s the same with the American family – all these groups have the motive and they wanted to kill it. And then you have the others who sat by and did nothing. I blame the churches for not doing anything.”
Enjoying the fight
Schlafly said she realizes every woman doesn’t have the support she did to pursue activism along with raising a family. While many an activist has seen her flame burn brightly for a time, most will reach a stage at which the flame gets reduced to a flicker, or extinguished altogether.
“I had a very supportive husband (the late Fred Schlafly) and despite his Swiss name, he was Irish like his mother, and the Irish love a fight,” she said. “Bill Bennett would tell a story about the Irish man who saw a street brawl and walked up and asked, ‘Is this a private fight or can anyone get into it?’ Fred taught me how to not let the conflict, the unpleasantness, not let any of that get to me. So I kind of enjoyed it.”
Schlafly said she never really felt the stress of all the flaming arrows flung in her direction from her counterparts on the left.
She said she was at a conference many years ago when one of the feminist women stood up and asked her a rather pointed question.
“She asked me, ‘Well how do you deal with stress?’ I said, ‘What stress? I don’t have any stress.’ And this other woman spoke up and said, ‘She just gives us stress.'”
A role model for younger women in politics
The younger generation of conservative female activists and politicians today use words like “mentor” and “heroine” when asked what Schlafly means to them. When they look at her, they see a woman who worked as an inspector in one of the nation’s largest ammunition plants in St. Louis during World War II and worked on her first congressional campaign, a successful one for Claude Bakewell, in 1946.
“He was a nice guy and he won, and I was everything, the campaign manager, the speechwriter, the press secretary,” she said. “Things were simple in those days. Not only did we win, but it was the biggest number of seats taken over, before or since. That is the Congress Harry Truman campaigned against, calling it the do-nothing Congress.”
Schlafly said it was anything but.
“My new book goes into how that Congress gave us the joint income tax return, so with the husband earning the pay and the wife staying home as a homemaker they would be able to file as one, and it was a great benefit to marriage and to the family unit,” she said. “That was also the Congress that gave us the term limits for president, thank God.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said Schlafly has been her mentor for years, and one of her most prized possessions is a picture of herself with the conservative leader which she keeps on the bookcase in her Washington, D.C. office. She said Schlafly has set the bar high for future women activists, whether in or out of public office.
“Very few of us could ever hope to come anywhere near the level of (her) accomplishments, both as woman of faith, as a wife, as a mother, as a teacher of your children, as a public policy professional extraordinaire, as a lawyer, as a public speaker, as a writer, as an author, as a game changer for our nation,” Bachmann said. “I think if anyone would look at the last 100 years, Phyllis Schlafly would have to be the most accomplished woman in American politics. I am privileged I’ve gotten to know (her), and I call (her) my friend.”
Dr. Gina Loudon, a psychology expert, conservative activist and author of several books, met Schlafly when her husband, John Loudon, was elected to the Missouri state House in 1995. She and John were still in their twenties.
“When you’re that age you don’t have your philosophical underpinning yet, at least we didn’t, and if it were not for Phyllis we would not be in the place we are today,” Loudon said. “The work she has done is something that will pay off for generations for America and the conservative movement. So much of my books and any book I write is chock full of Phyllis Schlafly.”
Loudon said she remembers speaking at Schlafly’s 70th birthday party.
“I gave a long speech about how awesome she was then,” Loudon said. “And she’s just as snappy, just as beautiful, just as committed, just all of those things that real feminine identity should be, and she gives us all the inspiration we need to be what God created us to be rather than the emasculated idea of what modern-day statists would like us to be.”
Loudon tells a story about an incident that occurred when she was working on her Ph.D. “at a very liberal university” in California.
“And Phyllis took me with her to go lobbying at the Capitol in D.C. It was when the protesters for the Million Man March decided they would flash their breasts at all these very decent married men, and so I look and of course I see so many people I know (from the university) who are in the crowd flashing the men. I’m undercover, nobody knows me, so I go into this feminist forum, and there’s only 12 attendees, so they close the door to plan strategy, and they have no idea I’ve been in the Capitol all day lobbying with Phyllis. And they start talking about their plans to destroy Phyllis Schlafly, and their whole plan, their whole agenda, the target in their crosshairs from day one has been to destroy her. And here she is decades later still standing strong, steely strong, and it was so cool to have been in that room and heard them talking about their plan to take her down and take away her political power because, Republican or Democrat, they listen when Phyllis Schlafly walks in the room.”
The plan Loudon said she heard consisted of typical Saul Alinsky tactics.
“Continue to try to discredit her, make fun of her, use artificial personas against her, ridicule her work, isolate her and her followers and intimidate them,” Loudon recalled. “It’s all Alinsky tactics. But for everyone of them she created a tireless legacy in hundreds of conservative activists.”
Loudon said even powerful male politicians “would tremble” when Schlafly walked into the room. “The doors just sprang open for me when I said Phyllis Schlafly sent me,” she said.
Yet, Schlafly’s all-business demeanor could transform in a second at the sight of a baby.
“When John was first elected, and I had each of my five babies, Phyllis would pop into the office, and she transformed into this cuddly, warm, sweetest woman, so to see this powerhouse be absolutely transformed in a matter of minutes I guess is my favorite thing about Phyllis. First and foremost, she is a mother.”
Advice for young activists today
Schlafly said it will take many more powerhouse activists to reverse the damage done by liberal statists in just the last few years, with the full implementation of Common Core national education standards and Obamacare looming.
“I think the country needs everybody now. We need you in the fight. We need you badly in the fight,” she said.
Schlafly has trained thousands of volunteers in grassroots activism through her Eagle Forum, based near her home in Alton, Illinois. She still reports into the office several times a week and never misses a radio show.
She said she has ignored the big-name political strategists, who advise people in politics not to talk about social issues. Like everything in politics, she said, you have to follow the money.
“You’ve got to puncture through that and explain why it’s wrong, because that’s what they’re spending the money on. They’re spending the money on the broken families,” she said. “Obviously that’s not an efficient economic model. I think we need to impress people with the realization that the country is going down the drain so fast that we need everybody, but you’ve got to be smart about it, and be smarter than other side.”
Pat Buchanan recalls ‘astonishing achievement’
Being not just tenacious but smart is something for which Schlafly earned a reputation over the years, said political commentator Pat Buchanan, a senior adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and a former presidential candidate.
“Phyllis Schlafly is the first lady of American conservatism and among the most influential women of the 20th century,” Buchanan told WND. “When the Equal Rights Amendment was three states short of the 38 needed for ratification, and regarded as inevitable, Phyllis stepped in, and stopped it cold. The ERA never added another state – and five rescinded their ratification.”
Buchanan called defeating the ERA an “astonishing achievement,” based on the power and persuasiveness of Schlafly’s arguments. As a result, the Republican Party revised its own platform to oppose the ERA.
“When I was an editorial writer half a century ago in St. Louis, Phyllis Schlafly, living in Alton just up the river, was already a national leader and growing legend in our conservative movement and the author of the runaway bestseller that gave such impetus to the Goldwater campaign for the nomination: ‘A Choice Not an Echo,'” Buchanan said.
“I was honored to have her support in the Republican primaries of 1996 and wish my old and dear friend the happiest of birthdays on her 90th.”
An army of one
Another prominent Republican activist and political strategist, Richard Viguerie, also has stories about Schlafly he likes to tell.
“I have a photograph taken about a year or so ago of Dr. Lee Edwards at Heritage Foundation and myself with Phyllis Schlafly, and I have jokingly referred to myself as 003, because I’ve been active longer than any other person in the conservative movement except two and that’s Lee Edwards who is 002 and Phyllis who is 001,” Viguerie told WND. “She’s the first lady of the conservative movement and she’s the person maybe more than anybody else that has demonstrated to conservatives that an army of one can beat an army of much stronger and more powerful forces. In the fight over ERA she engaged the most powerful people on the planet and she beat them.”
That victory was all the more remarkable given the historic context of the times, Viguerie said, and it lit a fuse under the conservative movement.
“In the 1970s that was a period when there was much darkness in the conservative movement. It was as dark as it could be after the Goldwater loss and Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s selection of the arch-enemy of conservatives, Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president,” Viguerie recalled. “We didn’t have any victories to point to, and there was Phyllis engaging feminists and beating them, and it was very encouraging and exciting. She was our Horatio at the Bridge beating back the enemy.”
In a word, Viguerie said, she was fearless at a time when much of the movement was quaking in fear.
“She has been our role model all these years, and just been that indispensable leader. Without Phyllis we might not have had the courage to stand up and fight the establishment, and without her we might not have seen the election of Ronald Reagan,” Viguerie said. “His campaign was built on the foundation she established. People think of Phyllis and they think of the work she did to stop the ERA, and that was such a significant thing, but that was not all she did. Most people have no knowledge of the depth of the leadership she provided – she was involved in all the judicial fights, in foreign policy, in so many other areas. She was sort of our Renaissance woman engaged in all aspects of the conservative movement.”
Schlafly has never lost touch with the average American, and this was part of the reason she felt it was important to keep doing her radio show all these years. She still learns from the grassroots on many issues. She has seen Common Core galvanize the grassroots against the establishment like no other issue in years.
“The fight is for control of the Republican Party and the establishment’s man is Jeb Bush. I think the one good effect of Common Core is it’s going to kill Jeb Bush,” Schlafly said. “I think we’re going to win that battle because it’s so ridiculous. Look at the math. They’re just openly trying to rebrand and retitle it because there’s so much money behind Common Core. The purpose of what they’re doing is federal control of what children learn.”
Schlafly said Common Core reminds her of China’s policies attempting to exert control over every person living under its rule, starting in kindergarten.
“The New York Times showed a picture of a warehouse in communist China. This was pre-Internet, and they had a manila folder stuck full of files on every kid. Then they turned that file over to their employer after the kid graduates,” Schlafly said. “I fought this federalization of the curriculum for years, and I’ve never been able to rouse the grassroots on it. If you look on my website, there’s just dozens of columns on all these different federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, but they’ve never stirred up the grassroots like Common Core is stirring them.”
She said Common Core requires a dumbing down of students in the name of equality in education.
“I say it’s like Lake Wobegon, where all kids are above average,” she said.
Even in the 1950s and 60s, way before homeschooling became fashionable among conservatives, Schlafly taught her six children to read at home and didn’t send them to school until they were in second grade.
“The whole thing started in 1955, my first child was ready for first grade, and that happened to be the year that Rudolf Flesch’s great book ‘Why Johnny Can’t Read’ came out. They will not read because they were never told to sound out the syllables of the word, just to guess from looking at the pictures. I taught all my children to read at home, and they went into parochial school in second grade. You’ve got to be able to read well to be successful at anything, but they don’t want them to read.”
Schlafly was once an ardent supporter of taxpayer-funded school choice, a policy that was called the “voucher system” in the 1970s and 80s.
“I think I invented that movement but have not supported it in recent years, because it is not going to win because the teachers unions are too powerful. Every time it’s on the ballot it’s defeated because the teachers unions are too powerful,” Schlafly said. “So my advice is to teach them how to read yourself.”
Charters schools are also controversial because most of them are funded by tax dollars but run by unelected boards.
“I’m very much opposed to them being run by even non-American boards. For example the Islamists are funding thousands of charters. And it’s, I think, destroyed the Catholic schools.
“I don’t want to say I’m against school choice. I’m in favor of it. I just don’t think it’s going anywhere. And we need to keep our minds focused on the big issues. I think for example we can defeat Common Core, and we can defeat Jeb Bush.”
So, at age 90, does Phyllis Schlafly, still have unmet goals?
You bet. And they’re anything but small.
“I want to see us undo all the damage that Obama’s done. He’s done so much damage and gotten by with it. But the problem is to get more Republicans who will stand up for what we believe in,” she said. “He’s just gotten by with so much, because, people are standing around waiting for a resurrection of Ronald Reagan.”
She said Reagan was not a real conservative in his early years as a politician.
“When he started out, he wasn’t really a conservative, and 1976, that was the big turning point,” she said. “After he lost that nomination, he went on a train across the country and met with small groups of people, and he did his little radio series exactly like I do, and he met with the public, and he heard what the American people had to say; and that’s when Ronald Reagan became a true conservative.”
And in the end, what would she, Phyllis Schlafly, like to be remembered for?
“If I can help to restore the respect and proper incentives for the American family, that’s what we need most of all, because if you believe in what conservatives say, in principles of limited government and balanced budgets, you can’t have it unless you have strong families. Because otherwise you have these busybody government agencies telling everyone what you can do, what you can spend your money on and what you can’t. And that’s why we had the great American middle class that was unlike any in the world. It was our families. That’s why my organization was built on supporting full-time homemakers. … We’ve got to hang on till we save the country.”