top of page

Phyllis Schlafly Created the Abortion Culture War in the 70s, and Her Mission Thrives Today

By Allison Markman

New York City, New York

Phyllis Schlafly in 1976, attending a Republican platform subcommittee on human rights and responsibilities, (AP)

Abortion is currently one of the most charged and divisive issues within American political discourse, but it was not always such a visceral and prominent issue in national politics or within the Republican Party. Public opinion over abortion, in this day and age, is far more polarized along party lines than it was in the first decades after the Supreme Court established a nationwide right in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.


In 1972, just one year prior to the Roe decision, neither the Democratic nor Republican party mentioned abortion. In 1973, Republican voters were just as likely as their Democratic counterparts to believe that abortion should be legal. Even in 1992, the majority of the Republican Party attempted to eliminate the pro-life endorsers within the party. During these times, abortion didn’t break down along party lines neatly as it does today.


When someone goes to get an abortion nowadays, they are greeted by protesters, instilling fear into patients whilst coercing them out of their decision. 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most cases. However, in June, a conservative Supreme Court was able to deny constitutional protection for the procedure with the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which held that the Constitution does not confer a right to an abortion. It left the decision on the legality of abortion to the states. With this power, fourteen states have passed full or six-week abortion bans, with more states expected to follow suit in the coming months.


Due to the moral and religious nature of the pro-life/pro-choice debate, abortion has become an increasingly salient issue for many demographics. Arguments are veering further away from medical opinion and interest in women’s autonomy, and more towards the morality of the procedure. The majority of pro-life sentiment is rooted in religious foundation, which emphasizes abortion as a measure of killing an unborn child deserving of constitutional rights, whilst the majority of the pro-choice argument is rooted in the belief that the woman has autonomy over her body and choices. With such opposing perspectives on either side of the spectrum, abortion is one of the most discussed political issues and a key subject for voters. A KFF tracking poll recorded a fourteen-point increase in women between the ages of 18 and 49 for whom abortion will be “very important” with six percent of them stating that they are now more motivated to vote in the midterms.


The emergence of a debate over abortion arose in the 1970s, which triggered a decades-long political realignment that shifted the axis of the two parties’ coalitions more along lines of cultural attitudes than socio-economic interests. The drastically polarized sentiments seen in the abortion debate today can be attributed to conservative political strategists and grassroots activists who engineered the issue of abortion to be a partisan one. One of those conservative strategists was a woman named Phyllis Schlafly, a grassroots activist, attorney, author, and paleoconservative, who slowly grew eminence through her belief in Christian values, nationalism, and her opposition to the feminist movement. Schlafly framed abortion as a moral and cultural issue in a strategic attempt to grow the Republican Party; she maintained that abortion was about protecting the unborn which helped her grow in popularity among religious groups and conservatives who soon mobilized to fight against the procedure.


Without figures such as Phyllis Schlafly, it is clear that abortion would not be the charged and polarized debate it is today. The echoes of her conservative advocacy are still heard today, evidenced by the strong pro-life sentiment among 21st-century Republicans who feel abortion is not a political concern but a moral one. Through speeches and literature, she amplified the belief that the Republican Party was the only means by which to fight against “the inevitable breakdown of morality” and “political disorder.” Phyllis Schlafly grew her anti-abortion message by using rhetoric that would attract the Religious Right, the dissemination of anti-feminist sentiment, uniting with important figures within the GOP, and becoming a personality that transcended politics and depicted Schlafly as an everyday woman fighting for traditional family values in America.


Phyllis Schlafly and The Republican Party

Despite her modest self-portrayal as the everyday housewife, Phyllis Schlafly’s work as a political strategist was consequential to the Republican Party. Before strategists like Schlafly, the Republican Party was relatively liberal on women’s issues and struggled to find a reliable voting bloc that guaranteed elections. Between her activism and high-profile connections, Schlafly grew enough support to paint the Republican Party as the protector of traditional values and pro-life sentiments. Her work granted the Republican Party a large conservative following which helped to strengthen the party’s popularity, as well as bolster family-centric values.


The appeal towards pro-life sentiments began with politicians such as Richard Nixon in the 1970s and the growing need to appeal to Catholic voters, evangelical groups, and social conservatives of the time. There was a time when the Republican Party was strictly for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants; however, Nixon was geared toward defending conservative values through religious and Catholic reasoning.

Nixon along with other leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson used movements like the Moral Majority to frame abortion in not only theological terms but in a language rooted in defending human dignity and personhood. The defense of the unborn led Catholics and evangelicals to elevate the GOP by winning primaries, reelections, and shifting agendas. For example, in 1972, polls suggest, many Catholic Democrats crossed party lines and helped Nixon to win re-election, carrying 49 states.


Candidates like Nixon and The Republican Party as a whole were in desperate need of an edge against the Democratic Party. That edge was found in Catholic and religious voters, and with time, Republicans understood that a strong stance on abortion would lead to support from these religious communities. Historian James R. Kelly stated that “many pro-life Catholics, find the positions of Democratic candidates on domestic policy much more to their liking than the positions of the Republican Party. But can a pro-life Catholic even consider voting for a pro-choice presidential candidate?” Religious groups, Catholics, and evangelists became a crucial voting bloc in elections, making a pro-life agenda a top priority for Republicans, a preeminence that still exists today.


Phyllis Schlafly understood the importance of winning over these crucial voting blocs and began weaving her pro-life narrative to appeal to these groups. Schlafly, herself, had a clear understanding of the types of voters she wanted to appeal to. Growing up in a Roman Catholic family in Missouri, Schlafly was religious herself and knew the principles most religious groups aligned with. She also had a profound understanding of the working and middle class in America, growing up in a middle-class family and growing up during the Great Depression. These experiences offered her a unique perspective on work, especially when her mother had to support the family after her father lost his job. Schlafly learned the lessons of hard work; she paid her way through Washington University by working night shifts at the munition factory.


For a woman who worked for her education, as well as a daughter who witnessed a mother provide for the family, it is a surprise that Schlafly grew to hold such traditional and conservative values rather than sporting a feminist perspective. Ironically, her feminist adversary, Betty Friedan, and she shared similar childhoods, with both women having strong mothers who emphasized education and intellect as well as a belief in the emergence of women in political leading roles. While Friedan advocated for women to be liberated from the archetypal roles history had placed on them, Schlafly became an antifeminist who saw history as having fulfilled its promise to women in family traditions. Their trajectories reveal women whose values were rooted in converse places, Friedan’s in the liberation of women from the family archetype and Schlafly’s in the conservation of the heteropatriarchal family unit.


In 1944 she earned her master’s degree in political science from Radcliffe College, now known as Harvard University. Schlafly was not very political throughout her time in college or graduate school, but considered herself a Republican, sporting a Wendell Wilkie campaign pin in 1940. If she were to have a career, Schlafly planned to work for the federal government. She studied political science, prompted by her mother who had always told her that political leadership was the way to true change. After graduating, Schlafly married her husband, Fred Schlafly in 1949, and went on to have six children in the following years. Her career in politics began when she began playing a major role with her husband in writing “The American Bar Association’s Report on Communist Tactics, Strategy, and Objectives” in 1957. It was a document of import amongst the grassroots anti-communist movement. Her literature grew her enough prominence to run for Congress as a Republican in the 24th Congressional District of Illinois. Despite her loss, her campaign invigorated her to keep placing herself into the nucleus of Republican politics.


Conservative Literature, Rhetoric, Misinformation

Schlafly spread her conservative, anti-feminist, and Christian principles through many mediums. In addition, to being a great orator with well-crafted speeches that inspired her conservative following, Schlafly authored dozens of books that succinctly outlined her stance on issues from abortion to gay rights. She used her religious and family-oriented principles to frame her perspective, and often attacks, on these progressive movements.


Before her resurgence of the conservative movement, Schlafly used conservative literature to fuel her rise to prominence. She frequently sent out detailed pamphlets on conservative issues through her group, The Eagle Forum. The Eagle Forum’s monthly pamphlets promoted conservative thought and attempted to untangle the myths of progressive ideals through conservative, heteropatriarchal language. The Eagle Forum and her conservative literature was designed to launch political attacks against gay rights, pornography, abortion rights, and activist judges, by taking any current social issue and beginning her own culture war using conservative reasoning. In her 2003 book, Feminist Fantasies, Schlafly makes an abstract comparison of feminism to communism, claiming the two were fated for inevitable failure as both didn’t appreciate the equality they already possessed.


Unfortunately, Schlafly capitalized upon conservative literature to spread divisive misinformation as a tactic to attack progressive ideals, particularly about how abortion access and The Equal Rights Amendment posed a dangerous threat to traditional family values. Scholars have characterized her writing as wielding false information to invigorate supporters. Her literature relied heavily on fear tactics of the loss of a heteropatriarchal tradition, conspiracy theories, and conservative rhetoric that manipulated readers.


For example, her book in support of Barry Goldwater, A Choice Not an Echo, was built on the conspiracy that the Republican Party was being controlled by a small and powerful group of “kingmakers” who deliberately chose candidates that would be likely to lose in order to support the rise of socialism in the United States. Her conspiracy accused businessmen such as David Rockefeller, Dean Rusk, and Arthur Hays Sulzberger of perpetuating a socialist state as they benefited from foreign powers to support these political ideals. Unfounded claims such as these made Schlafly appear as the defender of truth and democracy, a martyr fighting against the larger, more corrupt systems.


To push abortion as an issue of protecting human life, she undermined expert and scientific opinions by manipulating them to fit her narrative. Schlafly in a speech once said, “every new advancement in science, especially the DNA and ultrasound pictures of babies confirms that the unique individual identity of each of us is present, human, alive, and growing even before the mother realizes she’s pregnant.” Her brief mentions of unsubstantial scientific findings were used to ground her depiction of abortion as killing a life, making Schlafly's writing a way to paint abortion as a morally depraved procedure that threatened American family values. Her framing of abortion as a moral issue was geared to convince Republicans to adopt more conservative views for political gains.


In another book, How the Republican Party Became Pro-Life, Schlafly describes the pro-life movement as “the ongoing war to protect the lives of the most innocent among us.” In linking pro-life sentiments with saving children, Schlafly pushed Republicans to take a strong stand against abortion, hoping to gain support from evangelicals and Catholics who also subscribed to abortion as a tragedy that “killed millions of unborn babies.” Schlafly described her writing on abortion as, “strong and beautiful language,” language that essentially demanded protections for the unborn. Her language was also easily digestible to her readers and listeners. Donald Critchlow states in Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism that “her power lay in message and her ability to frame issues in a clear manner easily grasped by her audiences.” Further, after hearing Schlafly speak one woman wrote, “I shall never forget the impact of your talk on all of us present that evening and I wished so much that more people could have heard the talk.”


By claiming abortion to be an issue about protecting the unborn and family values, Schlafly attracted mothers, housewives, family-centric voters, and religious groups such as Catholics, who prior to the abortion narrative had predominantly voted Democrat.


For Schlafly, her disapproval and moral antagonism against abortion was politically motivated in hopes of gaining a new religious voting block for conservative policy. Spreading pro-life sentiments proved to be successful for Schlafly who continued to use abortion as evidence to attack feminism, the ERA, and progressive ideas. To consolidate the narrative over abortion and the ERA, Schlafly used specific rhetoric in her print media, books, and other conservative literature to fuel deep indignation towards feminism within the Republican party. She strategically associated abortion with the ERA, warning of what would happen if America lost its family values and pride in motherhood. Schlafly believed that if the ERA was supported and gender equality was upheld in the Constitution, it would leave room for the government to force the use of federal and state taxes for abortion. Further, Schlafly used the ERA’s argument of demanding an amendment to protect those who are discriminated against, and called for a human life amendment that would protect the unborn, endorsing “legislation which would make clear that the 14th Amendment protections applied to unborn children.” She maneuvered her language to mirror the ERA’s stipulations to try and reveal what she saw as hypocrisies within liberal and feminist movements.


Schlafly grew this argument and soon enough geared abortion toward the protection and rights of human life, human life that was “deserving of legal and constitutional protection.” Not only was Schlafly using rhetoric about “saving innocent lives,” she was now using rhetoric involving human dignity and constitutional rights. She even stated that Roe v. Wade “legalized deliberate killing of unborn babies.” Her likening of abortion to killing babies moved the pro-life conversation into homes that weren’t interested in the politics of the matter, but in the morality of it. Schlafly was able to make abortion not only a politicized issue but a highly personal one for voters who saw it as their primary political concern. In 1982, 18% of voters said that the candidate had to share their views on abortion, while 46% percent said it was a highly important issue; in 2022, 27% of people say that their candidate must share their views on abortion.


Schlafly also successfully steered abortion away from being a feminist cause that protected the autonomy of the woman and directed it towards needing to protect “the sanctity of innocent human life.” She minimized the feminist movement to detract from any arguments that supported the pro-choice perspective on abortion. Her statements made towards the feminist movement were targeted towards and degrading to their activism, saying things such as “sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women” and that “the feminist movement taught women to see themselves as victims of an oppressive patriarchy; self-imposed victimhood is not a recipe for happiness.”As Elizabeth Kolbert argues, these tactics allowed Schlafly to create a “compelling but evidently bogus narrative” that created a populist conservative, as well as undermined the palpable concerns behind the feminist movement.


Schlafly took the lead in rallying this festering opposition when she published What’s Wrong with Equal Rights for Women? in the Phyllis Schlafly Report in February 1972. The piece was an anti-feminist manifesto in which Schlafly articulated the fundamentals that guided her anti-ERA movements. Her principal reasons for opposing the women’s liberation movement were that the family should be the “basic unit of society, which is ingrained in the laws and customs of our Judeo-Christian civilization and is the greatest single achievement in the history of women’s rights.”


She believed that the “family” was the most important thing that “assured a woman the most precious and important right of all—the right to keep her baby and to be supported and protected in the enjoyment of watching her baby grow and develop.” Schlafly’s declarations were often a direct attack on author and feminist Betty Friedan who believed that women’s role in the traditional family kept that imprisoned within a submissive role. Many feminists at the time discussed how Schlafly’s language was used to appeal to the paternalistic perspectives and male legislators. This was evidenced by her language and her actions; Schlafly and her followers dressed up and delivered baked goods to state legislators. Her tactics were to appeal to a conservative, mostly male, base, and her claims made it appear that the goals of feminism somehow clashed with the ideals of family.


Schlafly’s literature and rhetoric had two goals, to paint abortion as an egregious offense to gain a conservative following and to connect the societal degeneration of abortion to other progressive issues. She used unfounded and schismatic claims to tip the Republican Party further conservative by speaking to family, religious, and traditionalist values. To ensure success and popularity, her statements were divisive and volatile towards progressive movements. Assertions that the ratification of the ERA would lead to the elimination of alimony laws, child support, single-sex bathrooms, and force women to fight in wars, were a part of a strategy to move people right out of fear. She disseminated information meant to frighten the public and framed progressive issues as an attack on traditional family values. Her rhetoric alongside the literature she published was well maneuvered to grow her the Populist following she required to construct the culture war that exists today in the debates on abortion.


Cult of Personality

Schlafly was not only armed with conservative rhetoric but all the charm and disillusion of a midwestern housewife. With freshly blown-out hair, a pearl necklace, and a homemaker persona, Phyllis Schlafly was the ideal woman to represent a movement that fought strongly for the preservation of family values and the issues that threatened them. In public, Schlafly emphasized the feminine and domestic aspects of her identity, such as her motherhood, how she breastfed all six children, and her tireless efforts toward their education. She often enjoyed mentioning how all six were proficient readers. She aimed to navigate a balance between aspirational yet relatable, a figure other conservative women could look up to. Kacey Calahane writes that Schlafly used a strategy she calls “weaponized housewifery,” luring conservative women and mothers to be militia behind her traditionalist views on women, religion, and politics.


Capitalizing on her personality and homemaker status, Schlafly mobilized a citizens army of white religious women that organized at the grassroots level against abortion. She founded her organization and conservative advocacy group, The Eagle Forum, to further her power in the advocacy sphere and spread support around issues that were connected with “defending the family.” For example, the group distributed “baby’s best friend rattles” in an attempt to “rattle the nation’s conscience;” they also gave out pamphlets on fetal development. Activism and messaging such as this by the Eagle Forum allowed her to politicize abortion by spreading conservative rhetoric on a larger scale. Her newsletter, sent out by the Eagle Forum, the Phyllis Schlafly Report boasted over 30,000 paid subscribers, a figure demonstrative of her expansive influence over republic politics.


Schlafly also collected these followers by depicting herself as a woman trying to better the Republican Party and speak up against more powerful institutions. As mentioned previously, in A Choice Not an Echo, she adds to this portrayal by claiming the Republican Party via The Eastern Republican Establishment had been corrupted by communist sympathizers and other dangerous elites. By protecting the sanctity of the Republican Party, Schlafly portrayed herself as the savior of true Republican principles. She appeared as the champion of family values, attacking any progressive movement or ideas that challenged the American pedigree. She claimed feminism to be an inevitable failure for women and believed women should respect motherhood and the privilege of having a child, rather than fighting against it.


Schlafly was extremely conscious of the image behind her activist efforts. She understood the value of appearing demure and traditionally female whilst fighting fiercely for conservative advocacy. For example, Schlafly used charm and humor to appeal to her audience which made her appear human and approachable. Schlafly painted herself as humorous, writing that she once interrupted her speech to crack a joke about how one of her donors, a vegetarian, had been served a bundle of broccoli and a lone carrot for dinner. Schlafly cultivated a charming persona in her interactions, as well as her interviews where she appears even-keeled, charming, feminine, and never forgets to mention her status as a mother and homemaker, despite her rising political status. While feminists at the time such as Betty Friedan were depicted as crazed and wild, Schafly made sure to never show a dent in her cool demeanor. Instead of protesting as most feminists would do, Schafly and her followers displayed a more maternal side to their political endeavors. Her ability to animate and inspire conservatives through her persona kept the GOP alive, as well as her ability to understand which issues to best capitalize on to grow support.


Politically, Schlafly always made sure to place herself on the outskirts of the Republican Party, so that she could be seen as a populist leader who had grave concerns for the party’s future whilst still preaching the party's core beliefs. Schlafly often portrayed herself as a figure fighting the establishment and rising as a concerned and devoted civilian. For example, when discussing how she and her co-founder selected headquarters, Schlafly writes, “the Republican bigwigs lock up all the venues, all the hotels, and all the places you can have parties so that the party controls everything in the city.” Her portrayal of herself as a lone wolf within the Republican Party working to bring back family values and conservative principles made her grassroots activism attractive for those frustrated with the Republican Party and untrusting of “big wig” politicians.


Schlafly’s use of homemakers and mothers provided an innocent and righteous spin on her campaign against feminism, abortion, and liberal ideals. Her “weaponized housewifery” added to Schlafly’s facade of a ‘nice lady’ who simply refused to part from her morality and Christian principles. This front aided her crusade through ample media attention and her ability to get close to state legislators and Congress. Schlafly wielded her cult of personality to attract conservative supporters, molding an unassuming charm that allowed her to represent housewives across the country, concerned for family values.


Today

With the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade reversed, women’s rights and critical health have seemed to take a back seat to the pro-life rhetoric of protecting unborn lives. Abortion is now banned in 11 states, and temporarily blocked in 5, and most states that allow abortions have numerous restrictions including Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, and New Hampshire. In a survey done by Pew Research in June of 2022, 61% of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal all or most of the time, while 37% say it should be illegal all or most of the time. Though most of the country, six-in-ten adults, disapprove of the reversal of Roe v. Wade, most Republicans and GOP leaners, 70%, approve while 48% strongly approve.


We witness today the consequences of strategists like Phyllis Schlafly who fueled a culture war to instigate division and power for her party. On his website, Republican Ohio senate candidate J.D. Vance states,


“Abortion has turned our society into a place where we see children as an inconvenience to be thrown away rather than a blessing to be nurtured. Eliminating abortion is first and foremost about protecting the unborn, but it’s also about making our society more pro-child and pro-family. The historic Dobbs decision puts this new era of society into motion, one that prioritizes family and the sanctity of all life.”


His reliance on the same arguments Schlafly employed four decades prior is demonstrative of the impact she has had on the abortion debate. Today, the issue’s strength relies heavily on being tied to family values, on protecting “unborn life,” and on an oversimplification of a woman’s choice to have a medical procedure. Republican women who have followed in Schlafly’s footsteps by creating their own brand of gender politics, echo the same rhetoric on abortion. From politicians like Sarah Palin who states that her “personal opinion is we should not create human life, then destroy it” to Republicans like Michelle Bachman who, having five children herself, believes that she “made a commitment that no matter how many children were brought into our life, we would receive them because we are committed to life.” In understanding Schlafly’s success, her predecessors have repeatedly argued for human dignity and the protection of innocent lives.


Moreover, as witnessed in Schlafly’s campaign against abortion, misinformation still remains prevalent, especially with the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram which allows the dissemination of information to be done quickly but often erroneously. Though Schlafly didn’t have social media, her conservative literature was her means of disseminating conservative news full of anti-women and anti-abortion rhetoric. Even the ways in which Americans consume news are, like Schlafly’s pamphlets, incredibly divisive and biased. In a world of bias and information that is infrequently, fact-checked, misinformation is bound to spread due to carelessness, or in Schlafly’s case, as a means to propagate a following. Like Schlafly profited off the spread of misinformation in her quest to generate a pro-life GOP, pro-life politicians and organizations continue to use this strategy. On August 31, the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America Organization tweeted:


“Just 10% of voters support the Democrats’ position on abortion on demand up until the moment of birth. So we’re asking, on behalf of the other 90% of voters: @Maggie_Hassan can you name ONE single limit on abortion you would support?”


However, with just a Google search, one can discover that nearly six in ten Americans believe abortion should be legal in almost all cases, revealing the ease with which people can spread and circulate falsehoods on the internet. The dissemination of misinformation leads the public to confusion, and rage, and is often fuel behind culture wars in the United States. Culture wars often occur when bold, cultural ideas are opposed, which leaves little room for compromise or interpretation. Unfortunately, political strategists in want of voters rely on these types of reactions and division to unify their political party and garner support. The same tactics that worked for Schlafly work for other divisive political leaders who wish to achieve the same success in their own fields of interest.


Schlafly’s involvement as a grassroots activist has encouraged other pro-life grassroots movements to continue today as a means to frame abortion as a corrupt and depraved act against human rights. Organizations such as LOVE LIFE continue to mobilize at the grassroots level, placing protesters at abortion clinics to induce fear as women walk into the clinic. Women and medical patients are harassed by rhetoric that blames the women for “killing an unborn child” rather than focusing on the woman making a choice for her autonomy. Not only has Schlafly’s legacy contributed to grassroots activism, but the large sentiment of the Republican Party’s pro-life stance. Schlafly and her political strategies were capable of shifting the timbre and prominence of abortion issues in the United States amongst conservatives, which has birthed a culture war involving women’s rights and the protections given to an unborn child. Schlafly has made abortion a moral discourse, an opponent of family values, and in doing so has made it so there is cultural significance aligned with abortion politics. This creates a dynamic in which discourse surrounding abortion veers from standard political parley and thus can be easily manipulated to fuel indignation that further polarizes U.S. politics. There are politicians who offer solutions to the afflictions of our divisiveness, and then those who exploit our impediments for gain and power; Phyllis Schlafly was the latter.

bottom of page