“Mrs. America,” a nine-part streaming series starring Cate Blanchett, has revived interest in Phyllis Schlafly, described in her New York Times obituary as “one of the most polarizing figures in American public life.”
In the early 1970s, I moderated a broadcast debate that matched Schlafly against Betty Friedan, the feminist crusader and author. Several years ago, I remembered the event in this newspaper column:
April 27, 2013
ERA debate of long ago can still provoke passion
By Steve Vogel
Forty years after the fact, the fur still flies — though one of the debate participants has been dead seven years.
In one corner was Peoria native Betty Friedan. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, ignited the women’s liberation movement. A founder and the first president of the National Organization for Women, she died in 2006.
In the other corner was Phyllis Schlafly of Alton, the legendary conservative more responsible than anyone for the Equal Rights Amendment not becoming part of the U.S. Constitution, and for U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater securing the Republican Presidential nomination in 1964.
The date was May 1, 1973, only months after Schlafly had launched her STOP (“stop taking our privileges”) ERA movement. Illinois was a key battleground state in the air-tight amendment ratification process, and Illinois State University had invited the two to debate.
As host of WJBC’s “Problems & Solutions” talk show, I routinely and shamelessly gleaned the speaker’s lists at local universities to supply my program with interesting guests. To my surprise, Schlafly and Friedan agreed to appear together on my show just hours before their ISU debate.
In state legislatures across the nation and in the media, they were gladiators. Yet they had never met face-to-face.
“I found her cross and disagreeable,” Schlafly, now 88, told me last week. Schlafly still does a daily radio commentary that airs on 500 radio stations.
When she and Friedan arrived at the studio that day, the temperature seemed to drop 10 degrees. They didn’t shake hands. They didn’t exchange pleasantries during commercials and news breaks as most political combatants do. Their sneers were silent.
At one point on the air, Friedan told Schlafly, “I’d like to burn you at the stake. I consider you a traitor to your sex. I consider you an Aunt Tom.”
“That,” Schlafly responded, “just shows how intemperate you and your followers are. Why won’t you women libbers accept that most women are happy being a wife and mother?”
Friedan wore a pants suit, a frown and no makeup. Schlafly wore a dress and makeup. A bright smile would appear each time she called Friedan “honey.” That almost provoked a hair-pulling match. Schlafly wore hers up, Friedan wore hers down.
Schlafly remembered the WJBC appearance very well. “She (Friedan) started out believing I was just an airhead that wouldn’t be able to compete with her because she was an educated woman.”
Why no chit-chat during commercials? “I never had any small talk with the libbers,” Schlafly told me. “They all wake up mad.” She said she loved to provoke them by starting her speeches with, “I want to thank my husband for letting me come here today.”
What would be different today had the ERA passed?
Same-sex marriage would have been a reality 25 years ago, Schlafly responded. But it’s legal in some states now, I observed. Not mandated by the constitution, she answered. Then I asked how she feels about the role of women in today’s society. There was a pause.
“The U.S. is better because a lot of women have shared their talents in important places,” she eventually answered. Then she quickly added, “But all the polls say women are less happy today than they were in the 1970s.”