As the most visible and effective critic of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), Phyllis Schlafly squared off against the National Organization for Women and other pro-ERA groups in one of the most bitter battles of the 1970s. Critics denounced her as a hypocrite: though she lauded stay-at-home mothers and wives, she herself was a full-time political activist and lawyer. Nonetheless, Schlafly's grass-roots efforts prevailed, and the ERA went down to defeat. Now 84, Schlafly remains a force in conservative politics, with a busy lecture schedule. She is the president of the pro-life, antigay marriage Eagle Forum, which has 25,000 members. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Schlafly at her home in St. Louis. (See pictures of Barbie at 50.)
You're credited with single-handedly defeating the Equal Rights Amendment. Is that your greatest achievement?
In the political field, yes. Of course, I have six children and I'm most proud of them. If you're talking about politics, it was quite an achievement because of the odds we were up against. Nobody thought we could possibly win. Everything was against us, from the media to the politicians, the whole political structure of the country, and we were able to get the law. In politics, it's more fun to win than it is to lose.
What would have happened, do you suppose, if the amendment had passed? What would we be living with now?
It would have given vast new powers to the federal courts because the Equal Rights Amendment did not define the operative words, which were sex and equality. So what does sex mean? Is it the sex you are, or the sex you do? What does equality mean? Does it mean equality of individual people like the Fourteenth Amendment, or does it mean the equality of a group? In America we really don't believe in group rights. I think it's pretty clear that if the Equal Rights Amendment had passed, we would have had same-sex marriage 25 years ago.
What do you think of the fact that it's happening now?
Well, most of it is from the courts, and the courts are doing what they shouldn't be doing. That's why I call them supremacists. That's the title of my latest book, which is to show how the courts have been stepping out of bounds and pretending we have a living Constitution, which they can interpret according to their own social views rather than the way it was written. (See more about feminism.)
Can you imagine the day when gay marriage will be standard in the whole country?
No, I don't believe it's going to happen. I think the American people are overwhelmingly opposed to that.
Is that something you've campaigned against?
Yes. Eagle Forum has certainly taken positions against same-sex marriage and is working on that in the states where it's a lively issue.
You have a gay son, don't you?
The gay community tried to make a thing about that a number of years ago.
Is that something you will talk about?
Well, I don't try to run my children's lives, and he has been very supportive. He works for Eagle Forum. He runs my operations office and he's very supportive of all the positions that I've taken.
Does he agree with you about gay marriage?
He does indeed, yes. It's part of the need for a stable society. My own belief is that the problem [facing] marriage is maybe only 5% a problem with gay activism, and 95% a problem with feminist activism. [Feminists] have given us divorce, millions of fatherless children and the idea that it's O.K. to be a single mom. I'm not talking about women who lose a husband for one reason or another. We're talking about the idealization of a single mom. I believe that the worst thing the liberals did in this country was the Lyndon Johnson welfare system, which broke up millions of marriages by funneling taxpayers' money solely to the woman. That made the father and husband irrelevant. (See more about gay marriage.)
As you know, nobody made feminists more angry than you did. At one debate, Betty Friedan said to you, "I'd like to burn you at the stake."
In 1972 the feminist movement made the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment their major goal, and they had every advantage. They had three Presidents, Nixon, Ford and Carter, [behind them]. They had all the governors. They had 99% of the media. They had organizations, they had Hollywood stars, movie stars, and they felt I was responsible for not letting them get what they wanted. So they were mad about it.
They also thought you were a hypocrite because you had a career yourself, but you didn't seem to want other women to have one.
Well, that's ridiculous because obviously I've had a wonderful life and I'm an example that women can do whatever they want to do. I've had it all, but I've had it at different times in my life. I spent 25 years without any income, a separate income, raising my six children. And after that I had time to go out and engage in politics. The feminist movement is not about success for women. It is about treating women as victims and about telling women that you can't succeed because society is unfair to you, and I think that's a very unfortunate idea to put in the minds of young women because I believe women can do whatever they want. Feminists don't honor successful women. You never hear them talking about Margaret Thatcher. Take Condoleezza Rice. She's a remarkable, successful woman. You don't hear the feminists talk about her or Carly Fiorina or Jeanne Kirkpatrick. They don't talk about them because they are just determined to preach this idea that women are unfairly treated in our society and they need legislation and government and taxpayers' money in order to get them a fair break.
Last year, when you received a Ph.D. at Washington University, an honorary degree, there were huge protests. That's your alma mater. How did you feel about that?
I thought the feminists made fools of themselves. And all they really succeeded in doing was let everybody in the country know that I got an honorary degree from a prestigious university.
So what's the next cause?
Well, I guess the next cause is to keep Obama from taking this country into socialism which means the government running everything, which means having everybody believe that the government can solve their problems. And of course I grew up during the Depression. We didn't have any of the handouts and we grew up to be the greatest generation.