The Right Woman
Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade
by Donald T. Critchlow.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005, 422 pp., $29.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Marie Shear
Hearing that I would be reviewing a new political biography of Phyllis Schlafly, a friend e-mailed me to say that she hoped I would skewer it. I retorted sharply that the review would be fair, offering only criticisms I considered justifiable. In fact, far from setting out to “skewer” Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, I read it intently, wanting to learn why conservative women think liberals, especially feminists, are a menace to everything that decent Americans cherish. But Donald T. Critchlow doesn’t explain that. I wish he did.
Critchlow wants his book to provide insight into the “remarkable” upheaval in which the Right captured the Republican Party. For him, Phyllis Schlafly personifies that transformation, having motivated thousands of women—many of them political novices—to become activists and spearheaded the antifeminist crusade.
Right-wing intellectuals, alone, could not have taken over the GOP, says Critchlow. But as a tireless, fierce speaker, writer, and organizer, Schlafly has linked the intellectuals to the conservative grass-roots activists whom historians of the Right often ignore, translating ideas into terms that millions of people can understand. Critchlow credits her with helping Barry Goldwater win the presidential nomination and helping elect Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan president. Politically long-lived, she was honored by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2003 as the “conservative movement’s founding mother” and the founder of what it calls the “profamily movement.” She continues writing books, columns, and newsletters, distributing videos and instruction manuals, speaking, and appearing regularly on TV and radio to talk about national security, education, immigration, and cultural issues like same-sex marriage.
She also personifies the importance of women to the rise of the Right and what Critchlow calls their “unique sensibility.” Right-wing Christian wives and mothers see themselves as the nation’s moral guardians, bulwarks against anarchy and hedonism, obligated to restore virtue to politics by repelling the forces of evil, darkness, and paganism. Herself a Catholic driven by “moral passion,” Schlafly eventually drew people from other conservative religious movements into an uneasy alliance of women who regarded themselves as morally superior—not equal—to men.
Prizing education, Schlafly earned a Phi Beta Kappa key, a Radcliffe master’s degree in 1945, and a Washington University law degree in 1978. Indefatigable and zealous, she has for more than fifty years warred successively upon communism, the United Nations, arms control, New Deal liberalism, and the Republican Party’s “Eastern clique.” A hawk on military and foreign policy, Schlafly said, “Nuclear weapons are the best friends we’ve got—perhaps our only friends.” By the early sixties, she and other conservatives were stressing national security and national defense, rather than the communist threat.
The Goldwater campaign of 1964, says Critchlow, “marked the beginning of a coherent conservative movement” and made Schlafly, age 40, a national hero to the GOP Right. Schlafly developed nationwide contacts and a loyal political base, especially among young women inspired by what they saw as her fearless candor. She led their training as public speakers, debaters, and activists, and they began seeking more power within the GOP, the better to promote public virtue.
By the seventies, despite some conservative political disappointments, new right-wing organizations were being founded. The Right was revivified by the enemy within—domestic social issues, especially, says Critchlow, feminism and its proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution.
Even before Congress sent the ERA to the states for ratification in 1972, Schlafly denounced it as radical, unnecessary, and a menace to Christian chivalry, the legal rights of women, and the American family. She organized STOP ERA and mobilized thousands of women against the “women libbers [sic],” who were “anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion.” The religious and political backlash against feminism was “ferocious,” says Critchlow. The ERA “became the epicenter of a political earthquake,” politicizing many Christian women.
During the sizable part of Phyllis Schlafly devoted to that threat to hearth and home, you notice a dead cat on the line. You can credit the author for his generally reasonable tone and even overlook echolalia such as his reference to “the feminist and homosexual agenda” (though I’m miffed that the coven didn’t give me my copy at Tuesday’s midnight meeting). But why is the ERA’s history “strange”? Why was its death “ugly and comical at the same time”? Critchlow labels some supporters’ behavior “bizarre,” as if we are bigots and loons; but a NOW member’s offering to lend a Schlafly voodoo doll, complete with pins, “to any interested person” sounds merely satiric to me. He does not make it clear whether Schlafly’s fervent fight against the amendment stemmed chiefly from religious conviction, political opportunism, or a combination. (The burial of the ERA may be premature, anyway. Certain advocates now say that only three more state ratifications will put it into the Constitution. See www.ERACampaign.net.)
Critchlow reports that a Florida state legislator who voted against the ERA was therefore bombarded by dozens of “shocking letters” containing “used sanitary napkins and obscene clippings from homosexual pornography magazines.” Here Critchlow seems either naïve or biased: he never asks whether this disgusting tactic was actually employed by ERA backers or originated instead with private extremists or government provocateurs bent on discrediting feminists. Critchlow has written, co-authored, or edited a dozen books and is a professor of history, so naïveté seems an improbable explanation. Less skewed accounts of the anti-ERA smear campaign can be found elsewhere, as in Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA, edited by Joan Hoff-Wilson. For professional fear-mongers, feminism seems to have bridged the gap between communism in the fifties and terrorism today, like a political Moby Dick that embodies all evil and drowns all thoughts of justice.
Critchlow uncritically reports other material that, as a historian, he might have taken more care to corroborate. His book is based chiefly on his extensive research in Schlafly’s archives, to which the author says she granted him unfettered access, and on other archival and library research, documented in nearly one hundred pages of endnotes. But when Schlafly campaigns against International Women’s Year (IWY) in the seventies as “a front for radicals and lesbians,” the only sources Critchlow cites for his statistics about the extent of public opposition to IWY are Schlafly’s own. Schlafly did not grant Critchlow access to her financial records; without it, he can provide only scanty information about where her money has come from during the past half century.
Some of Critchlow’s emphases and omissions are disappointing. Schlafly’s perennial preoccupation with military matters is surpassed by Critchlow’s. Bogged down in minutiae such as the “ceiling of 2,400 aggregate strategic nuclear launch vehicles and a subceiling of 1,200 intercontinental ballistic missiles,” he lets Schlafly and grass-roots conservatism recede from view, as if he’s lost interest. Except for the ERA, the domestic issues that still engage Schlafly don’t seem to engage him—yet he tells us how many US senators voted to confirm a director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The book is “front-loaded,” too: it details Schlafly’s work and links to like-minded activists during the fifties and sixties, then rushes through the past ten to fifteen years in about ten pages. The coverage of her recent work and her relationship with both Presidents Bush feels perfunctory.
eaders who want to understand why many conservative women see feminists as perverted and sinister will find that an exploration of such views, or a comparison of them with those of conservative men, lies outside the book’s scope. That’s too bad. Nixon called women “the real haters,” and I suspect he meant it as a compliment. Critchlow says that critics consider Schlafly “doctrinaire, intolerant, and self-righteous” and that she has labeled Democratic Party leaders “traitors.” According to People for the American Way, Schlafly has said that feminists “will slit your throat.” Few ripples of this meanness ruffle the surface of this biography.
The book implicitly raises unanswered questions:
- Given Schlafly’s outrage at “activist” judges, has she condemned the five Supreme Court justices who appointed a president of the United States in 2000?
- Given women’s duty to bring morality to politics, has Schlafly assailed the Bush Administration for granting White House press privileges to a gay male prostitute?
- If feminism threatens a society in which men are required to support their families, does Schlafly oppose congressional moves to cut child-support enforcement?
- Do conservative women thrive today, or is their apparent influence inflated by timidity on the Left?
Critchlow doesn’t reveal whether, as conservatism’s “grand dame,” Schlafly now disdains the Right’s most publicized women as usurpers or embraces them as heirs. Looking ahead, he writes, “Whether her organization sustains itself in the future remains uncertain, although she has established an endowment and a team of state leaders to continue the organization after she steps down as its leader.”
Right now, Schlafly’s example offers lessons for liberals. First, we should reject the cliché, repeated by Critchlow, that Democrats have no ideas; old liberal ideas—like believing that people are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, jobs at a living wage, and a bit of justice—remain wise moral imperatives. Second, in journalist Edward R. Murrow’s words, we must marshal the English language and send it into battle; we can write and speak with quotable conviction without being slimy enough to call Schlafly “pro-wife beating” for opposing the VAWA or malignant enough to declare that hurricanes devastated the Gulf Coast during 2005 because God is angry at Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida for not ratifying the ERA. Third, we must organize at the grass roots by nurturing and training nascent activists and arming them with reference materials—starting forty years ago.
In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Barry Goldwater said, “Let’s grow up, conservatives. If we want to take this party back—and I think we can some day—let’s get to work.” They did. We should.
A note on accessibility: Publishers should quit using itsy-bitsy type for endnote superscripts in the text. And endnote numbers should be consecutive, not start anew with each chapter.
Copyright © 2006 Marie Shear
Marie Shear, whose work has appeared in more than forty publications, says she is a widely unheralded writer and editor. This is her twentieth contribution to Women’s Review of Books.