The infamous conservative activist was widely credited with the downfall of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s

By Claudia Harmata
April 15, 2020 12:25 PM
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The fight for gender equality has had many foes throughout the years, though none quite like Phyllis Schlafly.

An infamous conservative activist, Schlafly is best known for her ruthless crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution that would have guaranteed equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. That battle is the central storyline of FX on Hulu’s new limited series Mrs. America.

The series follows Schlafly’s (played by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) campaign against the ERA and its feminist supporters, including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
| Credit: Sabrina Lantos/FX

“The feminists were trying to speak to the aspirational nature in women as human beings,” Blanchett, who also acts as a producer for the show, recently told The New York Post. “And I think Phyllis really spoke to the homemakers’ fears. She had a fire in her that made her a long-distance runner.”

Schlafly, who died at the age of 92 in 2016, was born in 1924 to a Roman Catholic family in St. Louis, Missouri. After her father lost his job during the Great Depression, her mother found a job to support the family.

The valedictorian of her high school class, Schlafly put herself through a bachelor’s degree in political science at Washington University in St. Louis by working the night shift in a munitions factory. She went on to earn a master’s degree in government from Radcliffe College (now a part of Harvard University) and landed a job at a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Cate Blanchett; Phyllis Schlafly
| Credit: Sabrina Lantos/FX; AP/Shutterstock

Following her brief stint in D.C., Schlafly returned to St. Louis, where she settled down and married John Fred Schlafly, Jr., a lawyer, in 1949. They had six children together. However, Schlafly seemed to desire more than life at home, campaigning for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1952 on a strongly anti-communist platform, though she lost to Democratic candidate Charles Melvin Price.

She first rose to national prominence in 1964 with her book A Choice Not An Echo, which accused elites in the Republican Party of systematically stifling grassroots conservatives from presidential nominating conventions. The activist then began rallying her supporters with a monthly newsletter titled The Phyllis Schlafly Report.

In a 1972 issue of the newsletter, Schlafly publicly announced her opposition to the ERA, which at the time had been ratified by 22 of the 38 states needed for passage. She then began an organized protest against the bill, telling her supporters, largely made up of conservative housewives and mothers, to write to their Senators to oppose the amendment.

Phyllis Schlafly
| Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty

Her argument was rooted in the fear that the ERA would allow the conscription of women into the military, as well as require women to seek outside jobs regardless of their desire to remain housewives or not.

“I am not against women working outside the home, that’s their choice. What I am against, is a small, elitist group putting down homemakers,” Blanchett says as Schlafly in the trailer for Mrs. America. “They want to create a sex-neutral society, which will mean that women are going to find themselves with two full-time jobs. So you need to tell your Senators you want them to vote ‘no’ on this Equal Rights Amendment.”

Schlafly also dismissed sexual harassment in the workplace, saying it was “not a problem for virtuous women,” according to The New York Times, and that “sex-education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions.” She later established a lobbying organization called Stop ERA that mobilized her supporters with chapters across the country to protest the ERA’s passage.

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
| Credit: Sabrina Lantos/FX

The ERA eventually failed to be ratified by the required majority states, and Schlafly was widely credited with its downfall.

“She knew the patriarchy was a much stronger structure than the feminists perceived it was. And she knew which side she was going to stand on,” Blanchett told The Post of Schlafly. “The feminists, by being intersectional, meant that there was always going to be room for discord and doubt. In Phyllis’ camp, it was a hierarchical structure where there were many voices, but they were all channeled through her.”

“And she was very happy to be the only woman in the room,” the actress added.

Schlafly’s daughter Anne Schlafly Cori has taken issue with the trailer for the limited series.

“What I have seen in the trailers makes it clear to me that Cate Blanchett misunderstood my mother; her acting is cold, cruel, and calculating. Phyllis Schlafly was warm and gracious and her beliefs were sincere. Women idolized Phyllis Schlafly,” she told Vanity Fair.

The first three episodes of Mrs. America are available now on FX on Hulu. New episodes will be released weekly on Wednesdays.