The True Story Behind Mrs. America: 10 Facts About Phyllis Schlafly

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America.
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America. / Sabrina Lantos/FX

"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

So reads section one of a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, it passed through congress on March 22, 1972. Enter Phyllis Schlafly: the conservative lawyer and mother of six whose grassroots campaign to thwart the ERA is the subject of the new Hulu/FX miniseries Mrs. America, starring Cate Blanchett.

Schlafly, who passed away in 2016 at age 92, is best remembered for her stand against the amendment. But her political rise neither began nor ended with the ERA fight. Here are some facts about the real woman behind Mrs. America.

1. Phyllis Schlafly tested ammunition to pay her way through college.

Phyllis Schlafly was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 15, 1924. She earned a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis in 1944, graduating with full Phi Beta Kappa honors. To finance this stage of her education, Schlafly landed a job at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant, where she was paid $1250 per year to evaluate ammo by shooting machine guns and rifles. No stranger to graveyard shifts, she’d often punch in at midnight and stay on the clock until 8 a.m.

2. Phyllis Schlafly ran for congress—twice.

Phyllis Schlafly prepares to speak during the Family Research Council's 2007 Washington briefing.
Phyllis Schlafly prepares to speak during the Family Research Council's 2007 Washington briefing. / Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Phyllis Schlafly's 1952 bid to represent Illinois's 24th congressional district fell short; she ran as a Republican in an area that leaned Democratic and lost to Charles Melvin Price, an incumbent who ultimately served on Capitol Hill for more than 40 years. Schlafly tried again in 1970, this time for Illinois's 23rd congressional district, squaring off against George E. Shipley, who publicly suggested that Schlafly would be better off staying "at home with her husband and six kids.” Once again, Schlafly was defeated.

3. Phyllis Schlafly’s self-published book, A Choice Not An Echo, helped Barry Goldwater clinch the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1964.

Released in May of 1964, A Choice Not an Echo lambasted “secret kingmakers” and the “eastern establishment,” which allegedly controlled the era’s Republican Party. In it, Schlafly made the case for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona as he sought the party’s 1964 presidential nod. The book sold 3 million copies, several of which were handed out to the delegates at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Goldwater became the GOP nominee, but incumbent Lyndon Johnson trounced him during the general election.

4. Phyllis Schlafly wrote more than two dozen books.

Schlafly never stopped writing; altogether, she was the author, co-author, and/or editor of a total of 27 books. Her final book, The Conservative Case For Trump, was published on September 6, 2016—the day after she died. (Ed Martin and Brett M. Decker co-authored the text.)

5. Phyllis Schlafly played a crucial role in stopping the ERA.

Political activist Phyllis Schlafly in 1982.
Political activist Phyllis Schlafly in 1982. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Upon approving the ERA, congress set a deadline: for the amendment to succeed, at least 38 state legislatures would need to ratify it by the year 1979. Historians credit Schlafly, and a movement she organized, with killing its momentum. Describing the ERA as “an attack on the rights of the wife,” Schlafly believed the amendment threatened traditional gender roles. She also claimed it would promote abortion and same-sex marriage while forcing women to participate in military drafts.

In 1972, Schlafly launched the nationwide STOP ERA campaign. Although 35 legislatures had ratified the amendment by the spring of 1977, it never crossed the finish line. With Schlafly’s campaign gaining speed, the ERA failed to meet its original ratification deadline. Congress then intervened, setting a new deadline for 1982. Even so, advocates were unable to get the necessary support in time.

6. When Phyllis Schlafly took the Illinois bar exam in 1978, she wore a disguise.

Schlafly received a law degree from the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law in 1978, when she was 53 years old. “My children didn’t want me to take the bar exam because they were afraid that if I failed, like Ted Kennedy, it would be on the front page,” Schlafly told NPR’s Michael Martin. “So I wore [a] black wig and went up and nobody recognized me on the first day. But the second day of the exam, when I left, I walked right into the arms of a Chicago Tribune photographer and reporter.” Even so, she passed.

7. For decades, Phyllis Schlafly’s voice was a familiar one on American radio.

Often referred to as the “Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” and “First Lady of the Conservative Movement,” Schlafly established a multi-issue interest group called the Eagle Forum in 1972. According to their website, she recorded “about 8000” three-minute opinion pieces, which aired on 600 radio stations. In addition, Schlafly was a syndicated newspaper columnist who frequently appeared on CBS News and CNN as a commentator.

8. Phyllis Schlafly’s debates with feminist Betty Friedan could get pretty heated.

Famed feminist Betty Friedan was the author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of America’s “second-wave feminism” movement. At public debates, she frequently clashed with Schlafly. Their most famous interaction came in 1973, when Friedan told Schlafly “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” Writing in her 1981 book The Second Stage, Friedan said “Phyllis Schlafly is herself taking advantage of the equal opportunity she says other women don’t need, getting her law degree at a prestigious university which never would have admitted a middle-aged woman like herself before the women’s movement.”

9. Phyllis Schlafly promoted anticommunist study groups.

Phyllis Schlafly delivers a statement to the press in 1992.
Phyllis Schlafly delivers a statement to the press in 1992. / CNP/Ron Sachs/Getty Images

Schlafly, a lifelong Catholic, co-created the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation (CMF) in 1958 as part of an effort to rally her faith community against communism. The group was named after József Mindszenty, a high-ranking figure in the Roman Catholic Church who’d been imprisoned by Hungary’s communist government. Schlafly penned the CMF’s newsletter and encouraged churches to use a 10-week anticommunist group study program she designed. “By 1962,” wrote Schlafly biographer Donald T. Critchlow, “the Foundation claimed to be sponsoring more than 3000 study groups in 48 states, every Canadian province, Caribbean countries, and Mexico.”

10. Phyllis Schlafly owned a framed piece of the Berlin Wall.

Schlafly kept the historic keepsake on display in her office, along with a 1970 Doonesbury cartoon which criticized her.