On the eve of Women’s History Month, the Golden Globe Awards snubbed FX’s “Mrs. America,” a highly acclaimed series that traces the career of Phyllis Schlafly, the infamous anti-feminist, and her battle against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Opposite Cate Blanchett’s Schlafly, a star-studded ensemble portrays Schlafly’s feminist foes like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm. The show concludes around 1980, with Ronald Reagan in the White House and the ERA’s deadline set to expire.

Phyllis Schlafly addresses her supporters in 1977 at an anti-Equal Rights Amendment rally at the State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. “Mrs. America,” an acclaimed FX series in which Cate Blanchett portrays Schlafly, concludes in 1980, with the ERA on the ropes. But her second act – in which she set her sights on rolling back other feminist legal gains – was just as controversial and consequential. Associated Press

But Schlafly’s career didn’t stop there – and the show shouldn’t, either. In fact, Schlafly’s second act was just as controversial and consequential. And “Mrs. America” season 2 would be just as captivating. Perhaps the role of Schlafly in her later years could even be played by Cecil B. DeMille Award winner Jane Fonda.

After achieving national notoriety as the figurehead of STOP ERA, Schlafly set her sights on rolling back other feminist legal gains – work that conservative judges, including women like Justice Amy Coney Barrett, continue today. Schlafly published more than a dozen books and countless newsletters, and she threw the weight of her 50,000 Eagle Forum followers behind conservative causes like obstructing same-sex marriage and championing religion in schools. Now with a J.D. under her belt (she graduated from the Washington University School of Law in 1978 at age 53), she also turned her attention to the courts, opening fire on “activist” progressive judges.

Schlafly even sought a Supreme Court seat for herself. In both 1981 and 1987, she made bids for vacancies on the bench, recruiting her influential allies to write to Reagan on her behalf.

When Reagan tapped Sandra Day O’Connor to fill Justice Potter Stewart’s seat in 1981, Schlafly was outraged. The personal slight surely stung, but Schlafly zeroed in on O’Connor’s relatively liberal views on abortion, women’s rights and religion. Schlafly mobilized thousands for a Dallas rally and, according to the Phoenix Gazette, panned O’Connor as “out of step with the pro-family, pro-life policies on which the president was elected.”

Later in the 1980s, Schlafly returned to the politics of constitutional amendments. To the chagrin of most conservatives – but the satisfaction of Chief Justice Warren Berger – she launched a campaign to stop calls on the right for an Article V convention to usher in a balanced-budget amendment. Such a convention would have opened up the entire Constitution to revision, which Schlafly feared could produce unintended – and decidedly nonconservative – consequences. Employing grassroots strategies that she had honed during the STOP ERA campaign, Schlafly successfully urged legislators to “Can the Con Con.”

But it was a crusade against Ruth Bader Ginsburg that consumed her later years. It began during Ginsburg’s 1993 confirmation hearings. Eagle Forum’s executive director, Susan Hirschmann, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee and urged the panel to interrogate Ginsburg about her views on education, the military and sexual morality. Hirschmann relayed a list of 20 questions that Schlafly had scripted based on Ginsburg’s 1977 work, “Sex Bias in the U.S. Code.” Schlafly, writing in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, called the book a “Rosetta stone” for glimpsing Ginsburg’s jurisprudential agenda, betraying her “as a radical, doctrinaire feminist, far out of the mainstream.”

Hirschmann caught The Washington Post’s attention. But the politicians were not swayed: The Senate easily confirmed Justice Ginsburg 96-3.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, shakes hands with Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., looks on before Ginsburg’s 1993 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Phyllis Schlafly, an attorney who had hoped that President Reagan would tap her for the high court, denounced Ginsburg as “a radical feminist” and a judicial activist. Doug Mills/Associated Press

Ginsburg’s confirmation only fueled the Eagle Forum’s fight, however. For the next 20 years, Schlafly excoriated Ginsburg’s court opinions and extrajudicial behavior. “People often ask me whether feminists are still a threat after we defeated their goal of putting androgyny in the U.S. Constitution,” she wrote. “The answer is certainly ‘yes’ so long as such a radical feminist sits on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Ginsburg never took the bait and restrained from direct reply, but Schlafly regarded each of her Supreme Court opinions as a counterattack.

No decision provoked her more than United States v. Virginia, which in 1996 struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s men-only admissions policy. Schlafly viewed Ginsburg’s majority opinion as a slippery slope toward a sex-neutral military and draft, and she urged VMI alumni to reject the decision before Ginsburg utterly undermined their masculinity.

Increasingly, Schlafly cast Ginsburg’s jurisprudence as symptomatic of a deeper disease: judicial supremacy. Schlafly saw feminists gaining a foothold on federal courts and “causing ominous dislocations in basic concepts of American law and justice.” Praising Justice Antonin Scalia’s devout originalism, she railed against Supreme Court decisions advancing an expansive interpretation of the 14th Amendment that permitted affirmative action programs and recognized the rights of immigrants and LGBTQ individuals.

The only hope for preserving tradition, Schlafly contended, would be to limit federal courts’ jurisdiction and stack them with judges in Scalia’s image. Court reform regularly topped the Eagle Forum’s annual wish lists. The Republican Party’s 2004 platform included a plank on judicial supremacy, echoing the concerns that Schlafly had voiced that same year in her book “The Supremacists” and during a House hearing.

Schlafly finally got some say in the Supreme Court’s composition when she helped to block White House staffer Harriet Miers’ appointment in 2005. Schlafly fiercely opposed President George W. Bush’s pick, calling her a “tragic disappointment,” and, worst of all, a “feminist.” Bush’s supporters had expected him to name “a justice who would be the ideological opposite of Ginsburg,” said Schlafly. But “Bush blew it” and chose Miers – “a female (David) Souter, a childless appointee and a blank slate.” With conservatives critiquing her ideological commitments and liberals challenging her qualifications, Miers withdrew her candidacy.

2005 also marked the founding of the Judicial Crisis Network, a female-led conservative advocacy organization that quickly eclipsed the Eagle Forum’s capital and clout. The network became the chief spender supporting Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and most recently launched an $800,000 smear campaign against two of President Biden’s Department of Justice picks. Their formidable influence is a testament to Schlafly’s success in mobilizing conservative women around judicial issues.

Phyllis Schlafly endorses Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a March 11, 2016, campaign rally in St. Louis. “He has the courage and the energy – you know you have to have energy for that job – in order to bring some changes. To do what the grassroots want him to do because this is a grassroots uprising,” Schlafly declared. Seth Perlman/Associated Press

Schlafly died in September 2016 at the age of 92. She dedicated the final year of her life to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In the throes of the election, Trump stopped by Schlafly’s funeral to pay his respects to the movement “hero” and promote her forthcoming book, “The Conservative Case for Trump.” He lauded, “Phyllis was there for me when it was not at all fashionable.” Perhaps Schlafly saw a kindred spirit in Trump: a man who was willing to bend to the furthest fringe of the far right in pursuit of his own power and who saw no problem with sexualizing and subordinating women.

When Trump named Barrett to fill Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, commentators immediately noted similarities between the nominee and Schlafly. As Gloria Steinem told Christiane Amanpour, “It’s like having Phyllis Schlafly put on the Supreme Court. I mean, that’s who she is. It’s very discouraging.” The similarities were indeed striking: conservative, Catholic, anti-abortion mothers of large families from the Midwest, preaching traditional gender roles while enjoying successful careers in the public sphere.

Schlafly could not stop Ginsburg, but she paved the way for Ginsburg’s antithesis: Barrett. Even if the ERA makes a 21st-century comeback, the current composition of the Supreme Court may stall the advancement of gender equality for decades to come. Whether one views Barrett’s appointment as a triumphant or tragic series finale, there is no question that she lives in the house that Mrs. America built.

 


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