In 1971, Phyllis Schlafly was too busy saving America from SALT agreements to be very concerned about the Equal Rights Amendment. "I don't even know what side I'm on," she told a friend who had asked her to debate against a feminist. "I figured ERA was something between innocuous and mildly helpful," she recalled later. The friend sent her some background material; she did some homework on the isue, and in October 1972, as her biographer puts it, "Schlafly founded and appointed herself national chairman of STOP ERA."

It seemed late in the game. Three months after its passage by Congress (March 22, 1972), ERA had been approved by 20 states, and the number rose to 30 (only eight short of what was needed to make it part of the Constitution) within a year. But by then Schlafly was organized, and the proposed 27th Amendment was in trouble. In 1979, the seven-year limit for ratification was extended three years -- a historic first -- but it seems unlikely that the nation which elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980 will approve the ERA by 1982.

For the foreseeable future, any biographer's chief problem will be to treat Schlafly objectively, and Carol Felsenthal has managed against considerable odds to do so. Her understanding of Schlafly is incomplete, her style sometimes awkward, but she is a good reporter; the essential facts are there, to be interpreted as the reader chooses, and for a biography of someone like Schlafly, engulfed in the turmoil and controversy of recent years, that is no small achievement.

The protrait is thorough, beginning with Schlafly's parents and including the rest of her family -- notably her almost legendary six children. It takes her from her political debut -- a campaign for Congress in 1952 in which she was a victim of blatant sexism in the press -- to the current Schlafly for President movement which she is trying to discourage. It quotes liberally from allies and enemies as well as Schlafly herself, and does it with a balance that is likely to leave admirers and detractors alike somewhat unhappy.

Interpretation is more difficult than straight reporting. Felsenthal offers a variety of views on her subject, which seem to fit rather loosely when compared to the book's precise tabulation of hard data. She is called, for example, "The Howard Jarvis of ERA," a description that does her an injustice. Jarvis, the driving force behind Proposition 13, is a one-issue personality of no particular distinction who happened to come up with political dynamite. His issue was tax reduction, the most saleable of political commodities. Schlafly is a skilled advocate of a wide variety of ideas that have lost popularity among opinion leaders in America during the last generation; she has been active in one way or another since the beginning of the Eisenhower administration, and if she were not fighting the ERA battle, she would be busy with something else. She seems enormously more itelligent than Jarvis, and this is vital because underestimation of her intelligence and skill is the most serious and consistent mistake her opponents have made.

Her own perspective can also be misleading. Her work, she says, is "designed to make things happen, to make people act." This is true only on the most elementary level. Her true significance lies in the things she has tried to keep from happening, which range from legalized abortion and ERA to the Panama Canal treaty, arms reduction and the policy of limited warfare in Korea and Vietnam. In the larger context, she is a stopper, not a starter; if she sometimes looks like a motor rather than a brake in American political life, it is because she applies the brakes with such energy and concentration. But when she has tried to "make things happen" on a level beyond grass-roots agitation, she has failed: in her two congressional campaigns in 1952 and 1970, her race for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women (which should have been hers by traditional right of succession) and her effort to make Barry Goldwater president of the United States.

Even in the negative efforts which have built her reputation, she has often taken a passive, "feminine" sort of role -- although, in some senses, she is one of the most liberated women in the United States. All her political activities have been undertaken with the support and encouragement of her husband. When she first ran for Congress, it was as a substitute for him, after he turned down a bid from the Republican organization in his district. She has given her children special attention amid her many activities -- she taught them to read, for example, so successfully that they started school at the second-grade level. Many of her books were originally someone else's idea -- specifically Rear Admiral Chester Ward, who was her instigator and co-author in a series of books on foreign policy and disarmament. She was dragged into the EraY battle by others, although once in it she quickly took leadership.

Schlafly's role in American politics is that of the antithesis in a dialectical process. It is an essential role, and she fills it well. Ultimately, she will not prevent the passage of an ERA, and may even help it -- but it will be an ERA quite different from the one now under consideration: one that secures the principles of equal pay for equal work and outlaws job discrimination but is more explicitly compatible than the present one wih traditional attitudes on abortion, homosexuality, the conscription of women for combat duty and the husband's obligation to support his wife.

Her views on some of these topics are probably outmoded, and will ultimately become a historical curiousity as laws change gradually to accommodate new customs. But for the moment she has the organized agreement of enough voters to slow down the process, and it is likely that she will continue to have this power for most of the rest of this century.