The big eagle

Posted: Jan 30, 2003 12:00 AM
Phyllis Schlafly is not a young woman—but you’d never know it based on the schedule she keeps or the way she carries herself. The conservative icon’s organization, Eagle Forum, is populated with many bright-eyed twenty-somethings—none of whom can keep up with the 78-year-old president. Schlafly eschews the use of ghostwriters, leaving her with the task of writing multiple newsletters and a syndicated column, not to mention all the other work she does running Eagle Forum. Her typical day starts at 7am, and the work doesn’t stop until well into the evening. And it is this inexhaustible energy that has helped make her the scourge of liberals everywhere. But as much as liberals hate the woman best known for vanquishing the Equal Rights Amendment, conservatives embrace her just as warmly. At the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists, known as the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), Schlafly tonight is receiving a lifetime achievement award. And what a lifetime it has been. Thirty-one years ago, Schlafly fired the opening salvo in her quest to defeat the ERA with the inaugural Phyllis Schlafly Report titled, “What’s wrong with equal rights for women?” Opposing the ERA seemed like a quixotic mission, destined to fail if for no other reason than because it was backed by everyone: the political establishment, society’s elites, and the media. The Congressional votes passing ERA onto the states were so lopsided that only 23 House members and 8 Senators opposed the would-be Amendment. And the political momentum only got stronger from there, as 30 states ratified ERA in that first year alone. Without talk radio or Fox News at her disposal and no conservative “movement” to speak of, Schlafly had to create a political force from scratch. She turned to the churches. Schlafly explains, “We got people out of the churches and into the pro-family groups. People of the different faiths had not even met each other before that, let alone worked together.” A Catholic, Schlafly realized the power that could result by unifying Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews. After the initial success of ERA, Schlafly’s David defeated the feminists’ Goliath. In the nine years after 30 states rallied behind the feminist cause, only five states ratified ERA—and five others actually rescinded their ratifications. In fact, January, 1977 was the last time any state ratified ERA, leaving feminists without the victory they believed they had all-but-won. To understand the impact of Schlafly, there is perhaps no better example than Schlafly’s then-home state of Illinois, a state far-removed—geographically and culturally—from the social conservatism of the Deep South. Every year from 1972 to 1982, the Illinois General Assembly took up ERA—and each year voted it down. If Illinois had voted with the feminists, the rest of the Midwest may have done so as well. But because of Schlafly, that didn’t happen. In the late 1970’s, Schlafly began preparing for the political opportunities that could be realized with a conservative grassroots network. Just in time for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Schlafly’s movement linked with other social conservatives and together joined forces with the Goldwater fiscal conservatives—and the rest, as they say, is history. Remarks her longtime friend, Rep. Henry Hyde, “She has been a tremendous force on behalf of conservative causes. Phyllis has proven that one person with courage is indeed a majority.” But Schlafly is not one to go quietly into that dark night; she has steadfastly remained as the guardian of pro-life and pro-family principles, making sure that the GOP stays, at its core, a conservative party. At the 1992 GOP Convention, when a group called Republicans for Choice wanted to strip out the party’s pro-life plank, Schlafly led the successful opposition to thwart that effort. And when Bob Dole’s forces wanted to do the same four years later, Schlafly again was the immovable obstacle. Just as Schlafly transitioned from the leader of Stop-ERA to a pillar of the pro-family movement, she has also expanded into other areas in recent years, including intellectual property and civil liberties. In this regard, she has proven herself something of a maverick. Several of the issues she has championed recently have found her without many conservative followers, but she is not deterred: “The other conservatives should get in line with me,” she quips. Receiving a lifetime achievement award might inspire some to assume an emeritus position, where small doses of work are supplemented by heaps of praise, but not Schlafly. She relishes her role as a hands-on manager at Eagle Forum, notes the group’s executive director Lori Waters: “No one makes a decision on anything without talking to the ‘Big Eagle’.”