When she first welcomed British ‘morality’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse to her home town of St Louis, Missouri, in December 1972, America’s own self-appointed moral guardian, Phyllis Schlafly, might have wondered whether she was looking at a mirror image of herself.
Both favouring twin-sets, the two women also sported stiffly lacquered hairstyles — but the similarities between them went far beyond their prim appearance.
Middle-aged matrons they might have been, but both were experts at — and relished — riling their opponents.
Hugh Carleton-Greene, the BBC’s director-general between 1960 and 1969, was so often provoked by Whitehouse that he bought a caricature of her, naked with six breasts, and threw darts at it in his office.
When she first welcomed British ‘morality’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse to her home town of St Louis, Missouri, in December 1972, America’s own self-appointed moral guardian, Phyllis Schlafly, might have wondered whether she was looking at a mirror image of herself
As for Schlafly, a Roman Catholic mother of six who was the scourge of America’s feminists, she would begin her speeches by first thanking her husband, Fred, for allowing her to attend whichever gathering she was addressing.
‘I like to say that, because I know it irritates women’s libbers more than anything else,’ she admitted.
‘And it certainly worked. The Feminine Mystique author and activist Betty Friedan once described Schlafly as a ‘witch’ whom she’d like to see ‘burned at the stake’.
Back in 1972, Whitehouse was in the U.S. to discuss sex education in schools. In Schlafly’s view, such classes were akin to providing ‘sales parties for abortions’.
Both favouring twin-sets, the two women also sported stiffly lacquered hairstyles — but the similarities between them went far beyond their prim appearance. Middle-aged matrons they might have been, but both were experts at — and relished — riling their opponents
But at the time, the American’s attention had been diverted to what was to become her most controversial fight of all — an attempt to thwart the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) legislation guaranteeing women equality under the U.S. Constitution.
That epic battle is the subject of Mrs America, a big-budget new drama series set to air on BBC2 from next week, starring Cate Blanchett — in real life a vocal feminist — as Schlafly.
‘I’m never interested in portraying myself,’ Blanchett has said. ‘Often, the further from my own experience and my set of values, the more fascinating it is.’
By that measure, she will have greatly enjoyed the challenge. But Schlafly’s family are furious that no attempt was made to consult them on the making of the drama.
Daughter Anne Schlafly Cori has dismissed the series as ‘fictional’.
‘Although the producers use my mother’s name, characters and dialogue are made up and not historically accurate,’ she said, describing the series as offering a ‘horrific misrepresentation’ of her mother.
‘In truth, she was a role model to millions of women.’
The epic battle over Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) legislation guaranteeing women equality under the U.S. Constitution is the subject of Mrs America, a big-budget new drama series set to air on BBC2 from next week, starring Cate Blanchett (pictured)— in real life a vocal feminist — as Schlafly
She was not aware of her mother’s encounter with Mary Whitehouse, but it’s fascinating to speculate how the two women got along.
Both were ultra-conservative Christians who were outspokenly homophobic — as were many people in that less enlightened era — as well as pro-marriage and anti-abortion.
In Schlafly’s opinion, it was a legal nonsense to suggest that a husband could rape his wife.
‘When you get married you have consented to sex,’ she once said. ‘That’s what marriage is all about.’
Just six months before her death from cancer at the age of 92, she endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Indeed, Trump gave the eulogy at Schlafly’s funeral, describing her as ‘a true patriot’ and ‘hero’
Neither would she have had any truck with the #MeToo movement.
In her view, sexual harassment in the workplace was ‘not a problem for virtuous women’, and where it did occur it was the fault of temptresses who ‘have abandoned the Commandments against adultery and fornication’.
Described by her biographer Carol Felsenthal as ‘one of the most hated women of the last century’, Schlafly also had critics among her political bedfellows.
One Republican neighbour described her as ‘an exponent of an extreme Right-wing philosophy — a propagandist who deals with emotions and personalities where it is not necessary to establish facts or prove charges’.
If that sounds familiar, it should perhaps come as no surprise that in March 2016, just six months before her death from cancer at the age of 92, she endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Indeed, Trump gave the eulogy at Schlafly’s funeral, describing her as ‘a true patriot’ and ‘hero’.
Even those who disagreed with that assessment had to admit she had guts, as demonstrated when a male protester smashed an apple pie into her face during a lunchtime speaking engagement in New York in 1980.
Despite suffering a painfully scratched eye, she calmly wiped away the remains of his carefully chosen missile.
‘I’m never interested in portraying myself,’ Blanchett has said. ‘Often, the further from my own experience and my set of values, the more fascinating it is’
The dish famously represents the traditional American family values Schlafly claimed to champion, and it was a symbol she happily weaponised during the anti-ERA protests she helped mount.
They often presented legislators with gifts of freshly baked bread and apple pies, reminding them of the domestic comforts that were under threat should women be encouraged away from the home.
This obsession with women being homemakers may have stemmed from the straitened circumstances of Schlafly’s own childhood.
Born in St Louis in 1924, the elder of two daughters, she was only six when the Depression hit and her father, Bruce, a sales engineer, lost his job.
With her husband out of work, her mother Odile, who had been a teacher before she married, took a job in a St Louis department store and then became a librarian in a museum.
Carol Felsenthal says Schlafly’s impatience with women who worked came from seeing her mother have to earn a crust when she would have rather kept house.
Born in St Louis in 1924, the elder of two daughters, Schlafly was only six when the Depression hit and her father, Bruce, a sales engineer, lost his job
Schlafly supported herself through university by working night shifts in a munitions factory and, as her critics were always quick to point out, she never settled fully into domesticity even after marrying her husband, Fred, a wealthy lawyer 15 years her senior, in 1949.
She ran for the House of Representatives, but although unsuccessful, she proved you didn’t need to hold office to wield power.
The Republicans were then a predominantly moderate or liberal party. But she became part of an increasingly influential ‘moral conservatives’ faction that in 1960 tried unsuccessfully to stop ‘aggressive action’ against segregation becoming a plank of Republican policy.
Although their preferred candidate, the hard-Right Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, went on to lead the Republicans to electoral disaster against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, she remained a powerful voice within the party, not least through the Phyllis Schlafly Report.
This was a monthly newsletter which, along with regular appearances on radio and TV, mobilised her supporters and informed them about her campaigns, including the fight with women’s libbers that cemented her political reputation.
Schlafly supported herself through university by working night shifts in a munitions factory
The battle began in 1972 when Congress passed the ERA. To become law, it had to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, which seemed a formality until Schlafly got to work.
Calling the proposed amendment a ‘threat to the traditional American family’, she claimed that it would result in women being drafted, the spread of unisex toilets and same-sex marriage.
But her biggest objection was that it would prevent women being fulfilled as housewives — as she herself claimed to be.
With her perfect posture and proud membership of the Daughters of the American Revolution — an organisation for women descended from soldiers who fought for independence — she certainly appeared the epitome of the perfect wife and mother.
She let it be known she had breast-fed all six of her children, and taught them all to read before they started school, and had a simple explanation for how she found time to indulge her ‘hobby’ of politics.
‘I’m organised. I’ve learned to budget every minute,’ she told one interviewer, emphasising that she was careful not to over-do it.
‘I have cancelled speeches whenever my husband thought that I had been away from home too much,’ she said.
Schlafly let it be known she had breast-fed all six of her children, and taught them all to read before they started school, and had a simple explanation for how she found time to indulge her ‘hobby’ of politics
What she never seemed to mention was revealed in 2011 when she co-wrote a book called The Flipside Of Feminism with her niece, Suzanne Venker.
When the LA Times challenged Venker to explain her aunt’s ability to juggle the demands of motherhood and activism, Venker admitted: ‘She had domestic help . . . she wouldn’t have called them nannies, but she had people in her home.
‘Did she mention that fact? No, she did not.’
This hypocrisy of hiring staff to do the work she claimed was the preserve of a mother was frequently highlighted by Schlafly’s opponents, along with other insults.
But she seemed only to relish their opprobrium, especially if her frustrated rivals resorted to attacking her, instead of her position on equal rights for women.
That’s not to say Schlafly always held back, once denouncing the ERA activists as ‘a bunch of anti-family radicals and lesbians’.
The problem for the feminists was they seemed to go out of their way to prove her right.
‘Some of their leaders’ statements might have been written by Phyllis Schlafly — so sure were they to strike fear and suspicion in the hearts of housewives (and their husbands),’ Felsenthal wrote.
The biographer cited one ERA supporter informing the readers of Time magazine that ‘feminism is lesbianism’ and another declaring that ‘the family, as that term is presently understood, must go’.
‘It wasn’t male chauvinist pigs who were blocking ERA,’ concluded Felsenthal. ‘It was women. Too many feminists had appeared on too many talk shows implying that there was something wrong with being ‘just a housewife.’
Schlafly and her band of activists prevailed, helped not least by linking the ERA to a controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision legalising abortion and thus diminishing support for the amendment in God-fearing southern states.
Schlafly, pictured above with her husband Fred, ran for the House of Representatives, but although unsuccessful, she proved you didn’t need to hold office to wield power
By the 1982 deadline, the amendment had received just 35 ratifications, three short of the 38 needed, and the movement to support it had lost steam.
This freed Schlafly to campaign on other causes, some too contentious even for Ronald Reagan’s administration.
When attempts were made to introduce Aids awareness classes into schools in the 1980s, Schlafly decried them as ‘the teaching of safe sodomy’, and she remained opposed to same-sex marriage — even after her eldest son, John, was outed by a gay magazine in 1992.
Describing this as ‘a deliberate strike at me’, Schlafly declared that it only showed those responsible to be ‘hateful’ people.
That, perhaps understandably, was an accusation often levelled at Schlafly herself — but her daughter, Anne, is continuing her work chairing the Eagle Forum, the campaign group her mother founded.
Among their concerns is the impetus the Me Too movement has given to efforts to revive the ERA.
In the past two years, three more states — Nevada, Illinois and Virginia — have given belated approval to the amendment.
That brings the total number of ratifications to 38, but now the Eagle Forum and other lobby groups are insisting the 1982 deadline must be respected.
Experts suggest the issue will be tied up in the courts for years, adding an edge to the series which, for all the Seventies nostalgia it will undoubtedly offer, is far from the stuff of history yet.
MRS America, BBC2, 9pm, Wednesday, July 8.