Schlafly’s victory over the ERA, an innocuous constitutional amendment guaranteeing men and women equal treatment under the law, was highly improbable. Before she joined the fight, it enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support, including from President Richard Nixon. She prevented ratification by launching a culture war in what are now known as the “red states.”
Schlafly specialized in incendiary — and far-fetched — claims that passage of the ERA would eliminate alimony, child support and single-sex bathrooms and force women into combat. “Mrs. America” shows television host Phil Donahue challenging her assertions. The fictional Schlafly replies with a tirade comparing the feminists to the Bolsheviks and predicting that before long we would be “living in a feminist totalitarian nightmare.”
In another scene, an ERA supporter tells Schlafly that her newsletter is “all hysteria and lies” and demands, “Do you understand the first thing about constitutional law?” Schlafly is characteristically unapologetic. “I’m just getting started,” she replies. Later, however, while talking to her husband, Fred (John Slattery), Schlafly displays defensiveness about her lack of legal knowledge. “I was invited to attend Harvard Law School,” she insists. Fred, himself a Harvard Law School graduate, points out that women weren’t allowed to enroll at the law school when Phyllis Schlafly graduated from college in 1944. Some of these conversations might be fictionalized (this is still a drama, not a documentary), but Schlafly’s tendency to play fast and loose with the facts was as real as her beehive hairdo.
“Mrs. America” is hardly complimentary to Schlafly, but it is not as damning as it could have been. It shows that some of her fellow anti-ERA activists had unsavory views (one woman from Louisiana drawls, “We don’t want the same thing happening with uppity libbers as happened with uppity Nigras”), but it doesn’t show how extreme Schlafly’s own views were.
At one point, Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) accuses her of being a member of the John Birch Society — a group that was convinced that fluoridation was a communist plot and that President Dwight Eisenhower a communist agent. Schlafly follows her husband’s advice to “deny and deflect” the accusation. But a Daily Beast article by historian Ronald Radosh provides definitive evidence that Schlafly was in fact a Bircher. She only resigned in 1964 so that her membership would not discredit her preferred presidential candidate — Barry Goldwater.
Schlafly rocketed to fame that year by writing a bestselling, pro-Goldwater tract called “A Choice, Not an Echo.” Its thesis is that from 1936 to 1960 the Republican Party had been controlled “by a small group of secret kingmakers” who deliberately chose candidates who would be likely to lose and thus pose no threat to the creeping spread of socialism. She accuses “kingmakers” such as David Rockefeller, Dean Rusk and Arthur Hays Sulzberger of “perpetuating the Red empire” because they supposedly benefited financially from foreign-aid programs.
Her paranoid jeremiad about the ongoing appeasement of “Communist slavemasters” was particularly jarring, coming just as President Lyndon Johnson was about to send a half million troops to Vietnam. The only thing more absurd was her contention that “Barry Goldwater is the one Republican who can and will win — because he will campaign on the issues of 1964.” Goldwater lost in a historic landslide.
Schlafly pioneered the kind of incendiary, irrational rhetoric that galvanized much of the conservative movement during its early years — and, sadly, continues to excite it today. There was always a big difference, however, between what activists like her said and how Republican officeholders acted. Even the most conservative presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were far more moderate.
Now the wing nuts at last have the president they have always wanted. Before her death on Sept. 5, 2016, Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential run as “the only hope to defeat the kingmakers.” Trump, in turn, spoke at her funeral service, calling her a “hero.”
Defeating Trump is essential to save not just the country but also the Republican Party. But we should be under no illusions about the enormity of the task. A large portion of the right was unhinged long before Trump came along — and will continue to be so long after he is gone. But perhaps in the future we can at least prevent irrational conspiracy-mongers from actually occupying the Oval Office.