American Eagle: An interview with Phyllis Schlafly
“Have you ever debated some of the more prominent feminists on the abortion issue?” I ask.
“All of them with the exception of Gloria Steinem, who never dared to debate me,” Phyllis Schlafly replies with a gravelly chuckle.
And indeed she has. The 89-year-old Phyllis Schlafly has been involved in the pro-life and pro-family movement so long that many people credit her with actually inventing it.
Born in 1924, Schlafly is an American constitutional lawyer, conservative activist, author, and founder of The Eagle Forum. She received her BA from Washington University in St. Louis in 1944, working her way through college on the night shift at the St. Louis Ordinance Plant, testing thirty and fifty caliber ammunition by firing rifles and machine guns. She received her Master’s degree in government from Harvard in 1945, and her J.D from Washington University Law School in 1978. Schlafly is most renowned for putting that education to work for the conservative cause, fighting the Equal Rights Amendment against all political odds, making the Republican Party a pro-life party by fighting to insert an anti-abortion plank in every Republican Party platform, which was successfully adopted by every Republican national convention beginning in 1976. She played a major role in building the anti-Communist movement in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, has written twenty books, and was cited in Ronald Reagan’s recently published diaries as an impressive and competent political activist. Considering her record, I would go so far as to say she is one of the most successful political activists in recent American history. Indeed, she ranks number 18 on The Atlantic’s list of 100 Top Living Influential Americans.
And now, she has plenty to say about how university culture has changed since she attended Washington U and Harvard so many years ago. I reach her by phone, camped out with my laptop in an empty classroom on the second floor of Florida State University, overlooking a huge anti-abortion display being manned by my friends and colleagues. It’s surprisingly quiet—last time we were at Florida State we were faced by hundreds of chanting protestors.
“They’ve abolished all rules of propriety and decorum and it’s been a tremendous change,” Schlafly says, “[Campuses] are tremendously different. Of course, when I went to college it was in the 1940’s and I worked my way through. I don’t believe in these college loans. I don’t think anybody owes anybody a college education. And these college loans have left students with so much debt that it’s incredible. I worked a 48-hour-a-week shift. I worked on the night shift, the evening shift, and went to college in the morning. So I didn’t do anything but go to class. And I didn’t allow any time for getting into trouble or partying.”
I was curious, though. Has it changed all that much? Haven’t university campuses always been somewhat edgy?
"I went to a very co-ed university, Washington University, and we didn’t have any of that,” Schlafly responds, “We did have fraternities and sororities, and I didn’t join one. But all this making college a party time, which a lot of them do now, is I think, you know, they talk about having an alcohol problem and a party problem and a sex problem and a hook-up problem and all that. That is because students have too much time on their hands. The courses really take a minority of your daytime hours and they just get into trouble the rest of the time."
Phyllis Schlafly knows something about not wasting time, too. It was Schlafly and her organization, The Eagle Forum, which worked tirelessly to ensure that the Republican Party became a solidly pro-life party. “How tough was it?” I ask her, “How toxic was the abortion issue for conservatives at the time you were fighting for it?”
“It was a knock-down, drag-out fight at many of the conventions, particularly the one in Houston, the one in San Diego, the one in Philadelphia, the one in New York,” Schlafly remembers, “And at the one in the beginning, the first one after Roe v. Wade was in Kansas City in 1976 and that wasn’t such a fight because we were really working to try nominate Reagan, which we were not successful at in that convention. But those other ones that I mentioned were tremendous battles that took all my political skill and know-how and contacts and mobilization and media interviews, but we put in a good plank and we have kept it in ever since 1976.”
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Thirty-eight years later, the fight against abortion continues—but the battlefields have changed. “What is the biggest obstacle, do you think, in today’s 21st century culture, to the pro-life and pro-family movement succeeding?” I ask.
“Well, I think the greatest obstacle is the media,” Schlafly responds after a pause. “The media has bought into the whole social revolution, the Kinsey ideas, and has been completely taken over by the feminists. And the feminists, I think, are the most destructive elements in our society. They are absolutely anti-marriage, [which we can see from the fact that] they pick the word ‘liberation.’ When these women use the word liberation, they’re talking about liberation from a home, husband, family, and children. And they’re talking about destroying the patriarchy because they think the patriarchy oppresses women. And the fact is American women are the most fortunate women who ever lived on the face of the earth because they can do anything they want. What’s their problem? My college degree is from a great university in 1944. I got my master’s at Harvard graduate school, completely co-ed, in 1945. My mother got her college degree in 1920. What’s the problem? Those opportunities were always there for women. They didn’t take advantage of them, but that’s their problem.”
I’m starting to see why a lot of feminists really, really don’t like Phyllis Schlafly. “I understand that you’ve had a lot of public tiffs with the feminists over the years, and even Gloria Steinem has written about you,” I comment.
“Well, they don’t like what I said,” Schlafly chuckles, “but they’re lost and of course they’re mad at the world when they wake up in the morning.”
Perhaps true, but a lot of pro-life activists wake up in the morning needing a boost, too, especially as we see what we’re up against. A new generation of activists needs some encouragement. What sort of advice and encouragement does a veteran like Phyllis Schlafly have for us?
“Nothing’s hopeless,” Schlafly says firmly, “That’s why I do like to mention the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. When you realize we had against us three presidents, three First Ladies, about 95% of Congress, (there was only one senator and one House member who were willing to say a kind word for us), 99% of the media, every governor—some of them picketed against us, Hollywood, which showed up every chance they could, and they had the momentum and the psychology of inevitable victory, which is a tremendous factor in any campaign. And we beat them all. So it is simply a tremendous example of what a small group can do when you stick to the facts, have good leadership, and use the system that the Founding Fathers gave us.”
The evidence? It’s working already.
"It’s amazing, I think, that the country is turning pro-life,” Schlafly notes. “I think all the polls now show that the majority of Americans think that abortion is wrong, except in extraordinary circumstances. And this is in spite of the establishment forces and the court decisions all trying to teach us some other way. And I think that’s a tremendous victory for the social conservatives.”
Encouragement indeed. I thank Mrs. Schlafly for the interview, turn off my recorder, and head downstairs to the campus lawn to debate university students on abortion.
Reprinted with permission from Unmasking Choice