How Phyllis Schlafly changed the conservative movement

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Phyllis Schlafly speaks at Steve King's Conservative Policies conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 26, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons.

Phyllis Schlafly speaks at Steve King's Conservative Policies conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 26, 2011. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons.

(RNS) Over the past few days Phyllis Schlafly has received more tributes from more different quarters than she ever did in her lifetime.

What has been insufficiently appreciated, however, is the pivotal role of “the founding mother” of the conservative movement in changing the nature of the movement.

In the 1950s, when Schlafly began her activist career, the twin pillars of American conservatism were opposition to Communism (and anything that smacked of it) and to civil rights. But in the wake of the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement, neither cause had the political “oomph” they once had.

Symbol used on signs and buttons of ERA opponents

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Symbol used on signs and buttons of ERA opponents

Schlafly’s contribution was to make the so-called social issues the locus of grass roots conservative politics. Her mobilization of religious conservatives to stop the “feminist” Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s preceded the emergence of abortion and gay rights as rallying causes for her side.

Before Jerry Falwell and the rest of the evangelical big dogs created a religious right within the Republican Party, the Catholic Schlafly was on the case. And as Neil J. Young points out, she did a better job of welding interfaith coalitions than they did.

The irony of Schlafly’s career is that she couldn’t take yes for an answer. Having succeeded in making the GOP the party of social conservatism, she couldn’t give up the fight against whatever constituted in her mind the Republican establishment.

Just as she had once backed Pat Buchanan’s insurgency, so this year she supported Donald Trump for president — dividing her own organization over the opposition of her own daughter.

More than any particular issue, Phyllis Schlafly was about sticking it to the Man. For the most prominent anti-feminist of our age, it was somehow appropriate.