FP: Donald T. Critchlow welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Critchlow: Thank you for inviting me to spend some time with you today.
FP: What motivated you to write a biography of Phyllis Schlafly?
Critchlow: I was interested in the political transformation that has occurred in my lifetime, as the New Deal regime collapsed and the nation moved to the right politically. Why much attention had been given to the important role intellectuals played in this political change, less attention had been given to the grassroots conservatism. There were some studies on grassroots conservatism in California, but even though I am a native Californian, I know that this state is not the entire nation. Also, I was interested in the role that conservative women played in this grassroots conservative movement. I knew from my own reading of American history that traditional-minded women played important roles in moral reform movements and within the Federalist and Whig parties. I described the ideological motivation in these activities as moral republicanism. Conservative women, motivated by moral republicanism, had been written out of history and I wanted to put them back into the story. In other words, feminist struggle is not the entire story of women in America.
It dawned on me that a political biography of Phyllis Schlafly would be an ideal way of addressing these issues. Her political career spanned fifty years of grassroots activism through anticommunism, nuclear strategy, the Goldwater campaign, the anti-ERA fight, and the revival of the conservative movement in the late 1970s. I did not know Schlafly, but I wrote her a letter proposing a political biography of her. She agreed and gave me complete access to her papers. I did not realize how extensive her papers were. In addition, I supplemented these papers through research at over sixty other archival collections, including those of her opponents. The result is an inside look at conservative politics in the last half-century.
FP: Why do you think Schlafly’s role as a grassroots activist in shaping modern conservatism has gone so unappreciated?
Critchlow: The obvious answer to this question is two-fold: First, the history of grassroots conservatism has not been fully told until the publication of my book. Second, Schlafly defeat of the ERA made her many enemies on the Left. As a result she has been vilified by her opponents. Even as important a figure as Ronald Reagan has been dismissed as “sleep-walking” through history. Schlafly continues to be attacked. In a recent review of my book in the New Republic, Alan Wolfe accuses Schlafly of being a racist and an anti-Semitic, aligned with the KKK and the John Birch Society. He asserts this even though my study, which has over a 150 pages of footnotes, shows this NOT to be the case.
Nonetheless, I do think Schlafly’s importance in recent American history is being recognized. Alan Wolfe ranks Schlafly as one of the three most important women in America in the last half century. Steven Hayward, the author of The Age of Reagan, provided a blurb that I think summarizes her historical importance: “Phyllis Schlafly is the most consequential woman in American politics since Susan B. Anthony, and as such a full-scale biography is long overdue.”
FP: What shaped Schlafly’s anti-communism?
Critchlow: Schlafly’s anti-communism was shaped by her belief that Soviet communism presented a direct threat to Western civilization. She believed that Soviet communism was set on world conquest and the defeat of American capitalism. She feared that the Soviets were outdistancing the United States in an arms race and were exploiting Third World revolutions. Evidence from the Soviet archives confirms these worst fears. Especially revealing in this regard is Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shield and The World Was Going Our Way, as well as William Taubman’s biography of Khrushchev—just for starters.
FP: How was Schlafly “feminism’s” most ardent opponent? It depends what we define as “feminism” of course. Wasn’t she a feminist in her own right? Why does our culture reject the notion that women on the Right can very well be more “feminist” than leftwing “feminists”?
Critchlow: One of the reader’s for the proposal I submitted to Princeton University Press described Schlafly as an “anti-feminist feminist.” I don’t know what this means exactly, but I think this description reflects a misreading of history and female activism on the part of traditional-minded, religious women.
Schlafly represented a long tradition in Anglo-American history that said that it wives and mothers were the cornerstone of a republic. Within this tradition, women acting as wives and mothers within the hierarchical family considered themselves essential to the preservation of the Republic. The cornerstone of society, they believed, was the traditional family in which the wife and mother conveys to her children tradition and morals, manners and civil habits. This moral republicanism created permeable spheres of private and public life.
Phyllis Schlafly and her followers reflected this moral tradition in America. Through their efforts they defeated ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that had been passed by Congress and awaited ratification by the states. When Schlafly arrived on the scene, 30 of the 38 states had ratified ERA. Even though it had the support of both political parties, the support of Ford and Carter (and their wives), the support of the media, and the support of Hollywood, ERA would be defeated. It forever made Schlafly into the enemy of feminists such as Betty Friedan who declared, “I would like to burn you at the stake. You are a traitor to your sex.” The ERA story makes for an exciting story, as does Schlafly’s later opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, women in combat, and judicial activism.
By the way, Schlafly never maintained that women should stay at home and not be involved in civic life. Her own mother worked in the depression of the 1930s to support the family and Phyllis Schlafly worked her way through college by working full-time on the night shift testing ammunition at a local ordinance plant. She did believe that a mother’s first responsibility should be to her children and not her career. She raised six children, while doing most of her writing at home in the evenings. When she ran for Congress twice, she arranged her schedule to try to be home for dinner with her family. All of her children are successful and all are conservatives.
FP: How would American conservatism and America be different if there had been no Phyllis Schlafly?
Critchlow: It is certain that ERA would have been ratified. It defeating ERA, Schlafly tapped into a new constituency that GOP conservative strategists realized could revive the party: Christian evangelicals. This was a constituency waiting to be mobilized. Traditional minded Christians, as well as Jews, felt that they were under attack by the secular left. Since the banning of prayer in public schools in 1962, evangelical Christians had been simmering. Then in the late 1960s came further assaults on tradition and custom through the liberalization of abortion on the state level, feminism, sex education, and the spread of pornography. Schlafly mobilized evangelical Christian women into the STOP ERA campaign, and in doing so, helped revive the conservative movement and the GOP, shifting it to the Right. She showed that social issues was the key to unleash a conservative revolution that began in the midterm elections of 1978 and continued through the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
FP: Is it possible for Schlafly to have a successor?
Critchlow: Schlafly has a unique ability to take complex arguments and present them in an understandable way to average people. She combines with this talent skills as an organizer. These skills are not easily replicated. While Schlafly might not have an immediate successor I am convinced that woman of courage and talent will always emerge. American history is a story average people who rose to the occasion in time of crisis. Our young people should be taught that there are other people in modern American history other than just critics, people who believe in traditional religious and political values and willing to devote their lives to the defense of their beliefs.
FP: In your own view and in terms of what you found, what do you think were Schlafly’s greatest accomplishments? And how do you think history will remember her?
Critchlow: Phyllis Schlafly told me that her greatest accomplishment was raising six successful children. Devotion to family and children should be seen as the greatest accomplishment of every American parent because healthy families remain the cornerstone of republican government. As her biographer, I think her greatest political accomplishment was inspiring average American women to translate their social concerns into activism. Participation in democratic life is essential to maintaining a healthy polity. I hope history will portray Schlafly as a individual who stood firm in her convictions, in the face of immense opposition from Presidents, leading politicians, the media, Hollywood celebrities, and many others. Conviction and principle—and a willingness to act—should inspire young conservatives today to work for a healthier and stronger America. We must remember that the American experiment in democracy is still young and remains fragile.
FP: Mr. Critchlow, thank you for joining us today. It was a pleasure to have you with us.
Critchlow: Thanks for having me and I will look forward to hearing from your readers what they think of my new book.
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