Phyllis Schlafly intimidated people who did not know her, mostly because she spoke with firm conviction. She was tough and relentless in a debate. She excelled and rose to the occasion when she had opposition.
“Tough” was a word she liked to use. As a mother, she would answer her children with the word “tough” whenever we tried to squirm out of doing a chore. In other words, “tough” because she was in charge and you will do what she tells you. Or “tough” as in, you ought to toughen up and not whine or be a cry-baby.
Her toughness was tempered with a genuine graciousness and her likeability served her well when she lobbied legislators. Everyone knew where Phyllis stood on issues and that she would stick to her principles. Phyllis’s advocacy could not be purchased. She liked that no one ever doubted where she stood on issues.
She was cool under fire and never let her emotions get the better of her speech. While her opponents would cry — as Democratic Congressman Patricia Schroeder famously did — Phyllis Schlafly would no more cry in public than she would undress. She was certainly passionate about her causes, but she made her arguments dispassionately. She was more interested in facts than emotions. I only saw my mother cry once: on her deathbed. She viewed the public display of uncontrolled emotion as a weakness.
Because of her inner strength and the way she radiated confidence, some women did not consider her female. Betty Friedan called her “a traitor to her sex” — as if all women should have the same opinions. Gloria Steinem called her “the perfect enemy: wrong on every subject.”
My mother always admired and donated to missionaries, because she recognized that missionaries had the strength and confidence to go alone to a place and preach the truth. Phyllis Schlafly chose to do her missionary work at college campuses. She spoke to hundreds of hostile college audiences and was frequently booed or hissed at. She was energized and excited by these events. That’s toughness. When she spoke at Georgetown University while I was a student, a group of female students dressed up in chains (to show the oppression of women) and rattled their chains throughout the speech. She was unflappable.
Eunie Smith (president of Eagle Forum and Eagle Forum of Alabama) attended the first debate that Phyllis did on the Equal Rights Amendment against former Texas Lt. Gov. Sissy Farenthold in Birmingham, Alabama. The hour-long debate was moderated by the speaker of the Alabama House. When Phyllis had her turn for a two-minute response, the feminists in the audience hissed; but Phyllis, without missing a beat, said, “Mr. Moderator, please note the side from which the disruption comes.” They hushed. Sissy was so thoroughly beaten that she did not attend the dinner reception planned after the debate.
The courage and toughness of Phyllis Schlafly was contagious to Eunie and all the Eagles. Phyllis did not intimidate those who knew her. None of her family, friends, employees, or volunteers found her intimidating. Her admirers found her elegant toughness to be an inspiration.
Strong women can be exhausting because tough people demand excellence from everyone. Phyllis rejected excuses. The dog never ate her homework. She liked hard work; in fact, she did not know how to play or vacation. The work she had to do never left her mind from waking up to going to sleep. She did not know how to have conversations on subjects that did not interest her. Yes, Phyllis had a big ego, but it gave her the tough skin she needed to be successful in a hostile environment and the drive and determination to succeed.
One of her attributes that aided her tenacity was efficiency. She called herself “industrious.” Phyllis got things done, a lot of things. She multitasked. When she attended law school at Washington University in St. Louis, she had a 45-minute commute each way from home. So she utilized the time efficiently. At that time, there were no phones in the car. Her state leaders would use a cassette tape to record questions and comments for Phyllis. During her commute, Phyllis would listen to the tapes, then record her comments on the same cassette and mail the tape back to her lieutenant.
I well remember the anger and ugliness of my mother’s opponents. On June 30, 1982, CBS’s “Cagney and Lacey” scheduled a drama on the same night that Phyllis planned a celebration for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. The fictional drama showed the attempted assassination of Phyllis Schlafly during a political speech. The script was an attack on conservative women. After a lobbying campaign to CBS, the network did not air the show on that big night and no assassination attempt occurred. Even so, a bomb threat was made during the program. My mother held her cool and the dinner was a spectacular success.
Phyllis Schlafly is a role model for all women because she was both tough and winsome.