I’m back in encyclopedia entry writing mode this month, and one of the subjects I volunteered to tackle was the life and work of Phyllis Schlafly in 750 words. One of the things I have gathered from Donald Critchlow’s excellent Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, 2005) is that Schlafly herself would likely approve of this creative discipline. She has, after all, built a career out of voraciously consuming and digesting the work of conservative intellectuals — and then translating them into a form easily communicable to the grassroots: speeches, pamphlets, articles, press releases, and runaway bestsellers.
Plus, did you know she comes from a family of lady librarians?
It is a mark of Critchlow’s excellence as a biographer that he is able to humanize his subject and make her interesting and compelling to even this lefty feminist who categorically disagrees with Schlafly on almost every political and social issue she has ever engaged on. Critchlow’s is an intellectual-political biography, touching on Schlafly’s personal details — family background, class status, marriage, children — as background for the larger points he wishes to make regarding her public career. Schlafly, he argues, is both a driving force behind — and emblematic of — the grassroots political organizing that flourished in America’s postwar years of supposedly “liberal consensus.” A voracious autodidact and driven student from a lower-middle-class background (she worked night to put herself through college), Schlafly completed a Master’s degree at Radcliffe in 1945 and took herself to Washington D.C. just as the Second World War was ending, landing a job at the fledgling American Enterprise Association (now Institute). By all accounts she had (and still has) a talent for digesting densely-written works of conservative political theory and translating them into vernacular, politically-motivating works. During the 1950s and ’60s her focus was on anti-communism, fiscal conservatism, and national defense; in the 1970s she discovered (anti)feminism and turned from international concerns to domestic policy and cultural issues — earning the hatred of many a committed feminist through her successful STOP ERA campaign, which killed what many had assumed was a foregone Constitutional amendment explicitly outlawing discrimination on the basis of sex.
I am too young to remember first-hand the bitter disappointment of the ERA’s defeat, or the shocked sense of betrayal I think many American feminist felt when she discovered that not all women believed in feminist goals. Perhaps because of this, I have the emotional distance to appreciate the way Critchlow is not overtly partisan — either for or against — the Schlafly perspective. Instead, he clearly articulates how her work connected, and continues to connect, to the concerns and goals of the resurgent political and cultural right during the latter half of the twentieth century. I cannot say I share those concerns or goals, but perhaps I understand where they came from and how they came to be articulated a bit better than I did before.
My only disappointment with Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is perhaps an unfair one — that Critchlow only glosses events following the defeat of the ERA and Reagan’s rise to the presidency in the early 1980s. Since Schlafly and her Eagle Forum continue at a tireless pace today, a deeper analysis of Schlafly’s enduring influence would have been welcome. Too, I would have been interested in a more substantial tour of her opponents’ (often muddled) rebuttals and (often failed) strategies. One comes away from Critchlow’s examination with the sense that Schlafly was always effectively on-message. Surely even the most charismatic of public figures has an off day.