The controversial state of the modern Republican Party, and its gradual shift toward far-right conservatism, did not happen overnight. The roots of the Tea Party movement and even Trumpism go back decades, and one of the most significant figures in the party’s recent history is Phyllis Schlafly, who is played by Cate Blanchett in FX’s new miniseries Mrs America.
Set in the 1970s, the series highlights Schlafly’s grassroots campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, a legislative measure to make gender equality part of the constitution. Though the ERA was passed in the House and Senate, it was ultimately defeated at a state-by-state level thanks largely to Schlafly’s opposition. Beyond the ERA, Schlafly also propelled the anti-abortion movement into a defining tenet of the party. “She really changed the course of the American political landscape, and I think she did that by shifting the language,” Blanchett told reporters last week.” She really moved the notion of anti-abortion into being a central plank in the Republican party, and conflated that with being pro-American and pro-family, and characterized the feminist movement as being anti-family. The language, the rhetoric, which she employed during the course of the campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, has had a profound influence in the way the Republican party not only talks to the American populace, but talks to itself about what it stands for.”
As The New York Times put it in her obituary, Schlafly “galvanized conservatives for almost two generations and helped reshape American politics.” Below, a primer on her influence to supplement your binge.
Schlafly has been called “the First Lady of the Conservative Movement.”
That moniker came from Richard Viguerie, a conservative figure who pioneered direct-mail fundraising, and it should give you some indication of just how revered Schlafly is among the right. She was an anti-feminist, pro-life grassroots organizer most widely remembered for her headline-grabbing opposition to the women’s liberation movement, which she viewed as a threat to women and in particular to housewives.
Schlafly was highly educated, attending Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate during World War II and graduating at 19. She went on to study government at Radcliffe College—the female sister school to Harvard University, which was then male-only—and after receiving her masters in political science in 1945, Schlafly became a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. She then went to work on political campaigns and gradually became a major player in the right-wing fight against communism.
Schlafly’s most significant accomplishment was defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.
In the early 1970s, Schlafly made it her mission to block the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which was close to becoming law after being passed in both the House and Senate. “What I am defending,” Schlafly said, “is the real rights of women. A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.” She and her supporters described the ERA as a direct threat to wives and homemakers, and claimed that it would subject women to the draft, prevent them from receiving alimony, and pave the way for LGBTQ rights and wider abortion access–both of which she fiercely opposed.
In 1972, Schlafly formed the “STOP ERA” group–STOP being an acronym for Stop Taking Our Privileges–and led an ultimately successful campaign to block it. The last step for any amendment to the constitution is ratification by a majority of states, so Schlafly fought the ERA at the state level, first in her home state of Illinois, and later in states including Idaho, Kentucky and Tennessee.
One of Schlafly’s most crucial weapons in this fight–her “superpower”, as Blanchett has described it–was her monthly newsletter, The Schlafly Report, through which she was able to reach and recruit thousands of women across state lines. “Prior to the 1970s, politically conservative women were not organized in any way,” Mrs. America creator Dahvi Walker told reporters. “And what Phyllis did was organize not only Catholic women like herself, but she reached out to all other religious denominations who were socially conservative. She organized all of them into a very strong block, and they really became some of the foot soldiers in the Reagan revolution.”
Though Congress extended its deadline, the ERA was unable to secure enough state ratifications to become law. In 1982, a victorious Schlafly celebrated the fact that the ERA was “dead for now and forever in this century.” She was, unfortunately, correct. Though progress has been made this year, the ERA remains in limbo.
Schlafly made a number of powerful enemies on the left.
Unsurprisingly, a number of Democrats and key figures in the women’s liberation movement clashed with Schlafly. In one memorable exchange during a debate, The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan called Schlafly “a traitor to [her] sex” and said she’d like to burn Schlafly “at the stake.”
Schlafly’s detractors often noted the hypocrisy in her opposition to the feminist movement, given how much she had benefited from it as a college graduate and working woman herself. Though her work as an activist took up much of her time and often required her to travel away from home, she insisted that politics was only “a hobby” and that she was able to pursue it only because her husband, Fred, gave his permission. She often began her speaking engagements by thanking Fred for “letting her” attend. In 1978, she stated in an interview, “When I fill out applications, I put down ‘Mother’ as my occupation.” She also once said that marrying Fred in 1959 “saved [her] from the life as a working girl”.
One of Schlafly’s last acts was endorsing Donald Trump for president.
Schlafly died at the age of 92 in September of 2016, two months before Trump won the presidential election. But she had already come out as an early supporter of the future president, endorsing him in March of the same year. “I think he has the courage and the energy…in order to bring some changes,” she said. “We’ve been following the losers for so long—now we’ve got a guy who’s going to lead us to victory.”
After her death, Trump hailed Schlafly as “a conservative hero”, and it was Schlafly’s support of Trump that first brought her to Blanchett’s attention. “When this little old lady was literally wheeled out to endorse Trump, I started to really understand the power of Phyllis Schlafly’s Rolodex,” Blanchett said in January. “That Rolodex is what helped get Reagan elected, [and] changed the whole direction of the Republican Party to put pro-life in there. She was profoundly influential.”