Phyllis Schlafly, who spent her adult life encouraging the American courts, legislature, and public to oppress women, among others, died tonight, not a moment too soon. She was 92.
The Washington Post writes in its obituary that Schlafly was “credited with almost single-handedly stopping the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.” This ludicrously overstates her power—that the ERA, which in its entirety read “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” even needed to be proposed was the culmination of centuries of work—but still fixes her role accurately. If she wasn’t the prime mover of social reaction in the 1960s and 1970s, she was still perhaps the public figure who most understood how much profit there was in being seen as such. A sort of proto-Ann Coulter—just look at this list of things she actually said, such as “Men should stop treating feminists like ladies, and instead treat them like the men they say they want to be”—she wrote the playbook from which many of today’s most loathsome political and media figures are still making calls.
Ironically, given her insistence that women were best served staying at home cleaning and taking care of the children (she personally employed a housekeeper), Schlafly was a lifelong professional conservative activist, dating back to before a time when there was anything we’d now recognize as a conservative movement. After earning a bachelor’s from Washington University and a master’s from Radcliffe, Schlafly went on to work for the American Enterprise Institute, run for Congress while still in her 20s, and then exert national power, first by opposing an exceedingly moderate Richard Nixon-supported anti-racism plank at the 1960 Republican National Convention and then by prominently supporting Barry Goldwater four years later, with her self-published book A Choice, Not An Echo selling—or at least being distributed in the—millions.
Schlafly’s Goldwater support was marked by what there is no need to pretend was anything other than vaguely polite anti-Semitism. (No less august a source than Conservapedia lauds her for “exposing the group of elite globalists who held secret annual meetings to try to exercise control over multiple countries.”) This conspiracism was in a direct line with modern movement conservatism; so too were her personal hypocrisy, the overt racism she expressed at the 1960 RNC, later repurposed in her anti-ERA activism (“Do you want the sexes fully integrated like the races?” asked a pamphlet her Eagle Forum group distributed in the 1970s), and her canny sense of how to use her audience’s sense that it was besieged to promote her own personal brand.
What Schlafly will be remembered for, though, is her opposition to the then-and-now logically uncontroversial proposition that women should have rights equal to those of men. There being no straightforward objection to make to the ERA, she instead objected to it by pointing to a variety of unobjectionable things it might lead to (gay marriage, women in combat, unisex bathrooms, and so on) and outright praising the God-given patriarchal order of the United States and condemning anyone who might tamper with it. In practice, her objections amounted more or less to trolling—“I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight,” she liked to say at the beginnings of speeches—but she was able to rouse enough support among those who were concerned that the world was changing to make the Stop ERA movement, a sort of counter to the National Organization for Women, a viable force in American politics. When the ERA was finally defeated in 1982, she took her share of the credit, and retains it, as per the obituary pages of important American newspapers.
Schlafly was an evil fraud, but a canny one, whose sense of the currents of American politics anticipated and then supported those that would put Ronald Reagan and his backers in power for a generation. She was against abortion, Communism, homosexuality, irreligiosity, and, when it came to it, equality of any sort; she was in favor of things being as they were; and if none of this made sense, that didn’t need to matter much to those who supported her. That her career directly, personally tied bigotry of various sorts to those that animate today’s Trumpists (“the only hope to defeat the kingmakers,” she called the Republican nominee earlier this year) is an interesting curiosity, as is the way she provides a precedent for today’s violently disingenous trolling, but what matters most, when contemplating her finally-keeled-over corpse and how many people listened to her while she was alive, is just what a rotten piece of shit she was. In her old age, the woman who made piles of money declaring that there was no need for other women to have the right to do so themselves groaned about Latino ballplayers taking jobs from lesser U.S.-born players, declared marital rape a logical impossibility, and backed every war crime you can think of. By the end, few enough even knew who she was; the world would have been better off had that end come a long time before.