How many people who actually lived through the rise of Phyllis Schlafly are going to watch “Mrs. America,” the FX miniseries about her?
I should be one. Beginning in the early 1980s, I reported on Schlafly as a Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was part of my then-groundbreaking beat covering women in politics and so-called women’s issues. She was a hometown phenomenon still based in the St. Louis area. And the Equal Rights Amendment, which Schlafly lassoed and rode to national prominence, was big news.
I covered all sides of the issue and talked to Schlafly numerous times. When news broke, she was ever ready with a pithy quote, smiling cheerfully as she slipped the rhetorical knife into her opponents. In longer interviews, she was a wizard at evading questions she didn’t want to answer. How many members did her Eagle Forum actually have? No one could find out.
Trump is an echo of Schlafly
In 1982, when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to meet the deadline for ratification by 38 states, Schlafly threw an elaborate celebration at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington. “Over the Rainbow,” she called it. She said women deserved credit for defeating the ERA, but were “so smart they let the men think they did it.”
Reporters were seated in the middle of the ballroom, surrounded by her cheering supporters and an elevated head table of conservative luminaries that stretched around three sides of the room. We cowered as speakers railed against the press.
It was a precursor to Trump rallies, and all the more uncomfortable because this face-to-face hostility was new. Long before Donald Trump, Schlafly had mastered the tactic of manipulating the press to her advantage.
As a reporter who sometimes used her pithy quotes, I could see the trap. But I could never fully break out of that trap. She was a formidable political force, so ignoring her seemed wrong. Pointing out her evasions had no impact. Neither did reporting on the contradictions between her chosen lifestyle as a prominent political activist and the life of domesticity that she championed for others.
It’s the same trap reporters face today with Trump. News organizations now may feel freer to call out his lies and hypocrisies, but he still manages to turn their megaphones to his purposes.
Part of me wanted to write this column to add perspective to whatever image the miniseries might portray of Schlafly and those times. But part of me resisted. I still regret that I was not more effective in helping people see through Schlafly’s public image. I still resent that Schlafly always managed to capture more of the spotlight than she deserved. Today, I’m incredulous that she can still manage that feat from the grave.
Will I watch the miniseries? Probably not. The first time through with Schlafly in real life was more than enough.