Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade

Review of Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade, by Donald Critchlow (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)

But other people don't want to read the Pentateuch if they're already converted. These folks like to read about the movements such books spawned. In this category, most of the books are crap. Generally written by liberals and leftists who do not understand conservatism, the bulk of this stuff should be avoided.

National Review editor Jonah Goldberg penned the above words in a 2001 column entitled Goldberg's Conservative Canon: A motley affair in which he describes three types of books about conservatism: the first being conservative philosophical classics; the second, as listed above, being conservative social movements; and the third being "crib-sheet books, the compilations, quote books, 'dictionaries' and encyclopedias." Goldberg's assessment of scholarship on conservative social movements reveals that, at least to him, few good books explore the subject. But, perhaps, this is about to change. Released late last year and well received in conservative publications, Donald Critchlow's Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism uses the life and activism of Phyllis Schlafly as a fascinating window through which to view conservatism's augmentation in the American political sphere. By highlighting Schlafly's genius at energizing grassroots activists, Critchlow illuminates the oftentimes overlooked, but extremely important, role that women played – and continue to play – in rallying for conservative politicians and, importantly, conservative ideas.

Undeniably one of America's most important women, Schlafly is quick-witted, charismatic and intelligent; she has received credit for almost single-handedly halting the Equal Rights Amendment's advancement. Yet, her life and activism have been overlooked in scholarship about conservatism, most of which seeks to explain its appearance first as an intellectual movement, and later as a grassroots phenomenon. The normative narrative of conservatism proceeds as follows: prominent intellectuals popularized conservative ideas in the post-World War II era and were joined by grassroots activists during the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. Together, they went on to create conservative organizations and think tanks. The movement reached its peak with the election of Ronald Reagan to the White House. In this description of the rise of conservatism, conservative intellectuals paved the way for the grassroots. But is this narrative correct? The answer to the above question is, at least according to Critchlow a resounding "no." Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism challenges the above chronology by arguing that grassroots activism, centered on anticommunism, played a central role in the rise of the American conservatism – and, in fact, paralleled the development of intellectual conservatism. By highlighting the complex interactions between grassroots and intellectual conservatism, Critchlow argues that these phenomena developed in tandem.

Donald Critchlow situates the activism and ideas of Schlafly, and others like her, in what he calls a "moral republican sentiment": a combination of belief in small government and personal responsibility with a reliance on faith and adherence to so-called traditional values. "Moral republican sentiment" was a discourse that women, who believed that "the nation must not stray from its religious foundations and values lest society collapse into anarchy," utilized within their political activism. And this idea is also what fueled women to challenge what they saw as threats to their families, and America as a whole. Citing women's participation in such groups as the National Federation of Republican Women and the Daughters of the American Revolution, Critchlow also points out that Phyllis Schlafly, who held high office in both of these groups, was instrumental in helping women activists to develop leadership skills for local organizing. This is precisely what makes Schlafly so fascinating: how is it that a woman so hostile to feminism strengthened women's participation in politics? It would be a mistake to call Schlafly a feminist. Yet, it would also be a mistake to identify her as an enemy to women everywhere, as she helped to bring many conservative women into the political sphere and gave them a language through which to articulate their discontents.

Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is packed with information, and throughout the text Critchlow oscillates between a history of Schlafly and a history of conservatism in the late twentieth century. Yet, unlike other historians who focus on the right in America, Critchlow remains remarkably detached – so much so that one wonders what, exactly, he really thinks. In Mrs. America Alan Wolfe of The New Republic blasts Critchlow for his lack of critical perspective on Schlafly. By writing that Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is "fair and balanced, in the Fox News sense of the term," Wolf chides Critchlow for his failing to note that every idea Schlafly had was "scatter-brained, dangerous, and hateful." Conversely, several conservative commentators, most notably Kate O'Beirne have lauded Critchlow for his treatment of both Schlafly and the history of conservatism. While I like Critchlow's book – and consider it a useful contribution to the field of women's history – I, like Wolfe, am troubled by his uncritical treatment of Schlafly's ideas. But his does not mean that Critchlow's text has little to offer. Quite the contrary, as Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is well-written, well-researched, and an important addition to historical writings on women, politics, social movements, and conservatism in the United States. This does not mean that Critchlow's text has little to offer. Quite the contrary, as Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism is well written, well researched and an important addition to historical writings on women, politics, social movements, and conservatism in the United States. Several years ago, Jonah Goldberg remarked that most histories of conservative social movements fail to capture the essence of conservatism. I hope that Goldberg has read Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism. Perhaps he'll find that it fills the intellectual gap.

Other reviews of Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism:

Leader Who Transformed the Image of Conservative Woman

Phyllis Schlafly: A Living Blueprint for Young Conservative Hopefuls

Firebrand: Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative revolution

The Book on Phyllis Schlafly

An interview with Donald Critchlow: