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Phyllis Schlafly is keeping up the fight

Phyllis Schlafly talks to a caller during her show on KSIV radio.
Phyllis Schlafly was in her element, spending a hot summer day in her hometown railing against the nation's "out-of-control-judiciary."

The occasion was a July 21 luncheon speech at the Missouri Athletic Club, before the St. Louis Rotary Club. Afterward, an appreciative listener came up to show Schlafly an old announcement from an earlier address she'd delivered to the Rotary - 41 years ago.

As she recounted the incident, Schlafly wryly chuckled that most of the folks in that earlier audience likely were now dead.

But what's very much alive is the dream that she espoused back then, for a stronger social-conservative stamp on the nation's politics and policies.

President George W. Bush's nomination of conservative Judge John G. Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court is touted as just one of the latest examples of the conservative movement's success after a long, hard struggle.

There's little dispute, even among critics, that Schlafly - who'll be 81 on Aug. 15 - gets a sizable chunk of the credit.

"Phyllis Schlafly courageously and single-handedly took on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment when no one else in the country was opposing it," said James C. Dobson, chairman and founder of Focus on the Family. "In so doing, she essentially launched the pro-family, pro-life movement."

Lamented former National Organization for Women President Karen DeCrow, who engaged in more than 50 debates with Schlafly over women's rights: "I have a feeling that what Phyllis and her husband had as a vision for America has come to pass, for the most part."

Still, as Schlafly sees it, "the fight goes on."

Schlafly hosts daily and weekly radio broadcasts on about 500 stations, as well as writes a monthly newsletter and a syndicated once-a-week column carried in 100 newspapers. She's written 20 books, including "A Choice, Not an Echo" and "The Power of The Positive Woman."

Her current passions are education, immigration and the courts. She long has pressed for a back-to-basics trend in education, once saying that current policies threaten to turn the nation's young into "illiterate little savages who don't know right from wrong."

She opposes the Central America Free Trade Agreement, and has been among the most vocal critics of the administration's immigration proposals that she believes are too soft on illegal aliens. "I think it's shocking that the government has not closed the borders," Schlafly said, adding that she objects to "the money that we're spending on free health care for illegal aliens."

Such blunt, occasionally brutal, assertions are a hallmark of Phyllis Schlafly, an icon who continues to cultivate a political presence as the head of what she says is the nation's oldest social-conservative political group: Eagle Forum.

She founded the organization in 1972, at the start of the ERA fight. Since 1994, most of its operations have been based in a classically styled brick building in downtown Clayton, near her home in Ladue.

Eagle Forum's political action operation, though, remains across the river in Alton. That's the town where Schlafly launched her political career while also raising six children with her late husband and fellow lawyer, J. Fred Schlafly.

Although best known for her successful battle in the 1970s and '80s to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, Schlafly is attracting renewed attention these days because of her prominent role in the conservative effort to reshape the nation's courts, especially the highest one.

Within 36 hours of Bush nominating Roberts, Schlafly estimated that she'd already been interviewed by at least two dozen media outlets.

The attention stems, in part, from Schlafly's latest book, "The Supremacists," which came out last summer and helped touch off the conservative focus on the courts issue during the final months of last year's presidential campaign.

Among other things, the book calls for Congress to pass laws that bar the Supreme Court from handling cases involving the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Boy Scouts and the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as only between one man and one woman.

"She's gotten a second wind politically," said biographer Donald Critchlow, a history professor at St. Louis University. He has spent four years working on a new book about Schlafly, which is expected to be released this fall - about the same time that the Senate is expected to take up Roberts' nomination.

Critchlow says he'd never met Schlafly before he contacted her as part of his initial plan to write a book on the growth of grass-roots conservatism. His research prompted him to make Schlafly the focal point of the book.

Critchlow said there's no question that it was Schlafly and her early campaign against the ERA that seeded the growth of the social-conservative cause.

"Her triumph was the resuscitation of the conservative movement," Critchlow said. "She tapped into the anger of this constituency."

Schlafly says her legacy boils down to two achievements: "I brought in the social conservatives, and I taught them that we could win."

She also has outlasted many of her best-known contemporaries, pro and con, who have died or retired from politics. Observed U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country and a family friend: "Phyllis is the one who's been there forever, like a glacier."

She does have plenty of critics still around, including former Missouri Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods, who went head-to-head against Schlafly in the various failed state efforts to pass the ERA.

In a sentiment echoed by DeCrow, Woods observed that Schlafly appears to have lived a career-oriented life that largely was nothing like the stay-at-home message that she preached.

"She was able to tap into the discontent and concern" about the changing role
of women in American society, said Woods. "I think it's sad that she had abilities that were turned against women."

Schlafly takes exception to such criticism, saying, "I didn't need feminism to do anything that I did."

She maintains that her message to women, at least now, has little to do with the long-standing debate over whether mothers should work or stay home. Her beef, she added, is those who want government help to subsidize child care and related programs.

"Do what you want," she said. "But don't whine about it."

Political start

Born in 1924 as Phyllis McAlpin Stewart, she recalls, "I was very shy growing up. I could never have imagined my life."

She was driven. During World War II, at age 18, she paid for her Washington University education by taking a night job at a military small-arms plant on Goodfellow Boulevard.

There, she test-fired fixed-mount .30 and .50 caliber ammunition. Phyllis was paid less than the men with a similar job. She adds that she didn't object, because the men had other duties lifting heavy parts and equipment.

Schlafly graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a major in political science. She earned a master's degree in government at Harvard in 1945, then spent a year in Washington working for the American Enterprise Institute, then a fledgling think tank.

She was back home, working as a research assistant at St. Louis Union Trust Co., when she met and married her husband, who already was an Alton lawyer. The couple was married at the St. Louis Cathedral in 1949.

A year later, the first of their six children was born.

As the couple's family grew in the 1950s and 60s, Schlafly got involved in Illinois Republican politics. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1952. From 1960 to 1965, she served as president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women.

But it was 1964 that put Schlafly on the national map. That's when she self-published her first book, "A Choice, Not an Echo," that made the case for Barry Goldwater's selection as the GOP nominee. She sold the book out of her garage. It became a best-seller, although President Lyndon Johnson went on to crush Goldwater.

Schlafly stuck with the cause, and made another failed bid for Congress in 1970. In 1972, she turned to the ERA, when it appeared to be headed easily toward passage. She organized a fall conference that year in St. Louis, assembling 100 women from around the country to fight back.

Schlafly maintained that the ERA would eliminate women's protections and preferences during divorce, force same-sex bathrooms and prisons and subject women to the draft. Her argument swiftly found an audience.

Akin praises Schlafly's political tactics. "She cuts to the chase," he said. "With the ERA, she locked in on 'Do you want your daughter drafted?'"

Woods, who as a state senator was the bill's chief handler, recalls that Schlafly "was a very effective debater of extreme statements. She disregarded accuracy to be effective - and she was."

DeCrow, who headed NOW from 1974-77, offers a bit more benevolence.

Even though they disagreed on virtually everything when it came to women's rights, DeCrow said that she enjoyed their frequent debates and got to know her adversary well. "Phyllis is smart, so it was fun to be on the program with her," DeCrow said. "I never found Phyllis to be unpleasant, unfriendly or uncooperative."

The ERA was officially defeated in 1982. DeCrow and Schlafly participated in their last debate five years ago at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Schlafly still occasionally debates other feminists, as she continues to make the rounds of college campuses.

The cutting edge of feminism now, she says, is the issue of women in combat. Schlafly contends that women could still be in the military, but should be assigned to duties where combat or capture wouldn't be an option.

Larger roles

Even amid the ERA fight, Schlafly managed to attend Washington University Law School, graduating in 1978. She also sided with GOP conservatives in several internal party fights, which helped lead to Ronald Reagan's presidential win in 1980.

Since moving back to Missouri 11 years ago, Schlafly has dabbled in state politics. She's been an outspoken opponent of gambling, and backed Pat Buchanan in his 1996 presidential bid. Eagle Forum was an early, and crucial backer, of Akin during his first, razor-thin victory for Congress in 2000. Last year, Schlafly campaigned hard for Republican Bill Federer in his unsuccessful bid to succeed Democrat Richard A. Gephardt in Congress.

But Eagle Forum's campaign-donation largess is small by political standards. The group's total spending on such contributions is generally under $250,000 every two years. Schlafly says the group's biggest donation is its network of volunteers.

Although she does keep the royalties on her books, she collects no pay from Eagle Forum. "I was fortunate. My husband left me enough to live on."

Her staff is loyal; her radio shows have featured the same announcer and engineer for more than a decade. The same holds for many of the Eagle Forum leaders.

When longtime ally Lois Linton stepped down after heading the Missouri chapter for 12 years, she was replaced by Noreen McCann, a West County homemaker who used to head Schlafly's Washington office.

Meanwhile, Schlafly says she has been preparing for the time when she won't be running Eagle Forum anymore. Although her children are supportive, and several are involved in various aspects of the operation - also at no pay, according to the IRS records - none are interested in taking over Schlafly's role, she said.

The organization's tax returns document her frugal spending, and careful investment practices, to build up "a nest egg" that's now approaching $20 million. Her staff also has sifted through records and documents that filled 43 file cabinets, transferring and categorizing them in 405 archival boxes.

Still, she emphasizes that she has no imminent plans to step down. Referring to the Supreme Court's ailing chief justice, Schlafly said, "Like Rehnquist, I will stay as long as I can."

A reminder of her combative spirit hangs discreetly on her office wall near her desk. It's a framed piece of the now-toppled Berlin Wall.

Schlafly got it by hacking it out of the Wall herself.

Reporter Jo Mannies covers regional and national politics and government for the Post-Dispatch.

Reporter Jo Mannies
E-mail: jmannies@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 314-340-8334
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