The Hulu miniseries “Mrs. America” depicts the work of Phyllis Schlafly to challenge the women’s movement and its push to pass the Equal Right Amendment.
The series perfectly captures Schlafly’s hairstyle and clothing choices, but doesn’t accurately depict the conservative matriarch’s kindness and strength as she rallied wives and mothers across America to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment.
Today on “Problematic Women,” we welcome Anne Schlafly Cori, her daughter, to tell the true story of the ERA fight, who Phyllis Schlafly really was, and what the Hulu series gets right and what it doesn’t.
We also talk with Kirsten Hasler, executive director of Eagle Forum’s Washington office, about carrying on Schlafly’s legacy. And, as always, we crown our Problematic Woman of the week.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript from the live podcast recording and the Q&A webinar with Cori hosted by Leadership Institute.
Virginia Allen: Before we get into really the nitty gritty of talking about the [Hulu] show [“Mrs. America”], I did just want to give you an opportunity to talk about what is it like to see your mom inspire a whole TV show and what it’s like to see your childhood put on display?
Anne Schlafly Cori: Well, it is exceptional, and she was exceptional, and think about it: She came from nothing. She educated herself, but she lived in a very small town in the middle of “flyover” land. She was never elected to any office. She never held a government position, yet she had enormous power and influence over a 50-year career. Is that not inspiration or what?
Lauren Evans: Oh, it truly is.
Schlafly Cori: Now, four years after her death, Hollywood still sees her as a threat, and I believe they see her as a threat because conservative women still admire her, follow her, and are motivated by her.
I think one of the overlooked things, and it’s overlooked in this movie, my mother mentored women. The movie shows her as quite condescending to her supporters, and it was actually the opposite. She mentored women to get up, get out, and get involved, and many, I know many women who started their own organizations because Phyllis told them to.
Evans: Anne, I want to give you an opportunity to tell us about a perspective that only you could tell us about. What was it like growing up Catholic in Illinois and being one of Phyllis’ six children and what was your childhood at home really like?
Schlafly Cori: Well, they did get the details very right in that childhood home … even down to the teakettle, was exactly a replica of the teakettle in our kitchen. It was kind of, almost kind of creepy there, but I am the youngest in the family, so I am portrayed as the one who won’t go to bed and insists on sitting on her lap, which was true. That actually did happen, and it certainly, for me, my mother’s office was the center of our house. She did all of her work at home.
I mean, I guess kind of what we’re all doing now today is working from our home office, and it was a beehive of activity, and I think they got that kind of right, how much activity was going on, because she was industrious and the phone was always ringing, and she, I mean, back then the way you communicated with people was either telephone or postal mail, and they were always done, and the phone was always ringing, and as the youngest, I got to be involved in everything and on the front line, and it was great fun.
I recommend everyone to have a childhood where your mother is incredibly active and involved.
Allen: Oh, I love that. So much of the world does view Phyllis Schlafly as this powerhouse of a woman because she stood so firmly against the Equal Rights Amendment, and throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and beyond. I mean, she had such a powerful presence in that political sphere, but to you, she was your mom.
If you could describe her, maybe in just a few words, how would you describe her?
Schlafly Cori: Well, I think another thing that the … she was a powerhouse, and I think that’s because she had integrity. Nobody ever had to guess what her opinion would be on any subject.
You knew where she stood, and you knew what her opinions were, which there was no whiffle-waffling or flaking around on something, or she never said, “I don’t know.”
As a child, shall we say, there was never a negotiation about curfew. It was what it was, and that was it. You just have to accept that, but I do say that having such a strong and firm mother meant that I always knew what the lines were. There was no … I knew that I had to color inside the lines.
Now, the other aspect of that I think is missed was her warmth. I believe that [actress] Cate Blanchett portrays her … very chilly, and you can’t inspire women or lead a movement if they find you cold and power-hungry and that she was not, she did not stand on ceremony, and everybody called her Phyllis, and so she had a familiarity, and I found that people could always come to her with their problems, and she was always had an ear to listen to people and their problems, and tried to help them, and I had a very warm and close relationship with my mother, and no, I didn’t do everything right throughout my life.
I think there were things that she wished I hadn’t done or things that she wished I had done, but she was always supportive and encouraging, and I think that’s what one of her leaders said to me the other day. She said, “I always called her Phyllis, the encourager.”
Evans: Anne, we talked about a little bit before that
your mother put herself through college. She was very intelligent, earning her
bachelor’s from Washington University and her master’s in government from
Radcliffe College. How did she get so interested in the political space?
Schlafly Cori: Well, it’s kind of funny how she got interested. Her family had no money to send her to college, so she had to work her way through college, and so she worked a manual labor job, and I believe the hours were, I don’t know, 4 [o’clock] to … I’m not sure, but it was a late-in-the-day shift or early-evening shift, and so the only classes she could fit in her schedule were political science classes, and that’s why it became her major, because that was how it fit in, and once she got into it, she thought it was very interesting.
Allen: All right. I want to fast-forward. We don’t have a ton of time, so I want to make sure we get to some of this meat. In the 1960s, the women’s movement was really, and then leading into the 1970s, was really strongly advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was really intended in their minds to bring about this gender equality into the law.
Then in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment, or the ERA, passed both the House and the Senate by an overwhelming majority, but in order for the bill to actually become law, it needed to be ratified by 38 states within seven years, or it would die. What did your mom see in the ERA that so concerned her and that she recognized was such a threat to American women and to America as a whole?
Schlafly Cori: I think the “equality of rights” sounds so simple, and how could you be against it, but you have to follow the train of thought to how the implications would be, and if you erase any distinction on the basis of sex, well, women lose at that point, because there are a number of laws and customs that are there for the benefit of women, and had changed in making men and women interchangeable in every situation is a harm to women.
Now, the arguments in the 1970s, a lot of them centered around the military, the draft, and combat duty, but today, the reason why Eagle Forum is still opposed to the idea that men and women have no distinction, no biological distinction, is because the most vulnerable women would be harmed, and so, if you look at schools, athletics, correctional institutions, women’s shelters, any place where women have a safe space, and privacy is threatened if you cannot make a distinction on the basis of men and women, because ultimately, there are true biological differences between men and women, and you can say that they don’t exist, but you’re fooling yourself.
Evans: And it’s crazy in the show when she brings up those ideals and says, “If you take away the distinction between men and women, this will happen.” Everybody kind of treats her like she’s crazy. Where are you getting that from? But it’s funny. History shows that that’s what happened.
Schlafly Cori: Well, I always thought she was quite pressured. That she could see where these radical ideas would take us, and it is true that she saw this amendment, the movement, and I think it’s portrayed in the movie as really a movement of elite women and that the women that she knew in the heartland would be the ones who would bear the brunt of the results.
Evans: The show, three of the nine episodes have been released. How much of those three, other nine episodes have you seen? And then I want to kind of know about what, before seeing the show did you know, did the producers give you kind of any screeners cards, did they allow you to give any advice?
Schlafly Cori: I was not involved in the production. I asked, I tried, and recently I read from one of the producers that they very much did not want to talk to any family member because, why confuse yourself [with] the facts, when you already have your mind made up of exactly how you’re going to portray Phyllis Schlafly.
I did watch it all when it came out, and the part that I think is, is really unfair to the supporters and volunteer followers of the Eagle Forum was how they portrayed the women of Eagle Forum, and they very carefully do these very specialized portraits of the feminist leaders, some of whom people don’t even remember, but instead they make up several fictional characters to drive the drama on the side of the conservative women.
Now, there are a number of fabulous conservative women that they could have made a true portrait of, but instead, they wanted to make these composite figures, and in some way, and I think they’re are quite slanderous and how they present them.
I mean, for example, they make up this character named Mary Francis, who’s allegedly a leader from Louisiana, and she’s racist. Well, the leader from Louisiana was Charlotte Felt, and she was not. They just, they could have [had] their research on these true, wonderful women, and then they go after my aunt Eleanor, which was kind of comical, because Eleanor was very involved in a conservative Catholic organization fighting communism, and to me, if you’ve seen it, what was comical to me is that when Phyllis and Eleanor were in a room together, Eleanor dominated.
Eleanor was one of the most forceful women I’ve ever known, and they made her into a wallflower. They didn’t have a desire for the truth. They had a desire for their version of rewriting history.
Allen: That’s so sad. But I’m so glad that we’re getting the true inside story from you today. You mentioned a little bit about some of these other women that were really working arm in arm with your mom.
How well did the show kind of capture that dynamic and how your mom actually worked with these women who were moms and housewives. and maybe didn’t have a formal education, but really train them to be such powerful spokeswomen for women?
Schlafly Cori: She did train them, and that was a key part of what she did. There’s a scene where it shows her getting a call from an Eagle in Oklahoma who says, “We won, we won.” And my mother is shown there as quite dismissive of her and non-supportive, which is not at all.
If, when my mother got calls like that, she jumped up for joy and said, “Let’s tell your story to everybody else so they can be encouraged by it.” But the training was essential.
My mother learned, as I always said, she had a three-minute speech. If you can’t get your point across in three minutes, you’re not able to make your point. You’ve got to learn your language, hone your skills to say it in three minutes, because that’s the only amount of time anybody will ever listen to you, and she used to have training sessions where she would film her Eagles making their three-minute speech and then we would watch them and critique them, and then they’d try it again until they would get it better.
She would have them learn how to dress and present themselves for the cameras so they would look their best on camera, and so, the training of people was critically important to her success because she knew she couldn’t make the argument in every state legislature.
She needed an army of women in each legislature to make the argument. She duplicated herself, in other words.
I always remember one Eagle, who said that she would play the cassette tapes back then when you could pop a cassette tape in your car. She would play these cassette tapes of my mother’s speeches and memorize them so she could say them just right when she would go out to do her lobbying, and she would have her facts all lined up.
That kind of encouraging and training was a hallmark of how she motivated and had success across the country, and I sure didn’t see that on the bickering and infighting of the feminist side. I don’t think they were training up future leaders.
Evans: If your mom was alive, what do you think she would
think about the show?
Schlafly Cori: Well, I think she would use it as an opportunity to get her message across. I mean, because it is, a lot of people will see this movie who have never heard of the fights of the 1970s and may think the idea of … equality of rights sounds pretty good, and so, I believe this is a fabulous opportunity to say, ‘Don’t be a victim. Don’t fall prey to victimhood ideology, but put yourself out there, and you, too, can make a success of your life.
Allen: Oh, so good. Anne, thank you so much. Anne, please
stay with us, we’re going to be doing some audience Q&A with you.
OK. All right. Anne, looks like a lot of these are for you, which we love. The first questions comes from Charles McCaslin. He says: How did Phyllis Schlafly as a Catholic conservative activist forge alliances with previously apolitical evangelical women in the fight against the ERA?
Schlafly Cori: This is a critical element of her success, and I think it’s one that’s frequently overlooked. Normally, people congregate with their own tribe, and they don’t get to know people outside their tribes, and it was highly unusual, the idea that Catholics, evangelicalism Christians, Latter-Day Saints, Orthodox Jewish people, it was unusual that they would get together and agree, and join the same organization, and yet that is what happened because my mother had a great line. She would say, “You may believe that the person you’re sitting next to will not be saved, but you’re going to work together on this issue.”
And so that creating these alliances across the religious spectrum to say there are issues that you agree on, and you’re more powerful if you work together. That was the start of the pro-family, religious movement that so impacted our politics in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Evans: Our next question comes from Jillian Kinder. She says, “Hi, Virginia and Lauren, longtime listener of the podcast.” Side note, any nice things moves you up in the queue. “I have a question for Anne. When I talk to liberals and progressives about the gender wage gap and the balance that women choose in their lives, I’m often attacked for wanting women to stay in the kitchen or being OK with discrimination. How would you answer this accusation or rephrase the argument in order to avoid these accusations?”
Schlafly Cori: We have equal pay for equal work since 1963, and when these compilations are made of the so-called “gender wage gap,” it’s an average across the whole board. It’s not a single job where one man is paid X and another woman is paid 83 cents of X.
That’s not the way it is. It’s an averages across the board, and if you work 60 or 80 hours a week, yes, you are going to make more money than if you work 20 or 30 hours a week, and I think it is naive to think that women don’t make different choices on how they want their work-life balance, and for most of the women I know, having a flexible schedule is the single most important factor in a job, and they will trade money for flexibility of schedule. And why? Because they prioritize their family in their life and [don’t] we all benefit when women prioritize their family?
Allen: Yeah. Well, Katrina Kenlein, asked the question, “What is the biggest piece of advice you think Phyllis would want young women to know today?”
Schlafly Cori: Oh, it’s definitely ‘Don’t be a victim, and don’t fall prey to victim ideology.” The feminist movement, and this was true in the ’70s and it’s still true today, says, because you are born a woman, you are a victim, and you will have a challenging life, and that there’s sexism against you, and that you will have a hard time succeeding.
But that’s not the case. I mean, look at the incredible number of successful women, not only now but successful women throughout for decades and decades that we’ve had in the United States, and their success was because they had a positive attitude towards life. They didn’t say, “I’m a victim and the deck is stacked against me.”
Evans: We have so many great questions coming in and thanks to [the Leadership Institute], they said we could go a couple minutes late, so feel free to keep getting them coming in. This next one is from Abigail Culp.
She says, “The first episode implies that Phillis stood up against the ERA to create political favor for her own ambitions. Can you speak to her motivations to launch such a strong movement and how she expected it to affect her political career?”
Schlafly Cori: The reason my mother got into politics was because she wanted to save America. She did not get into politics in order to boost her own ego. That’s just not who she was.
Her beliefs came from her faith. Her faith formed everything that she believed in politics, and so, when this women’s movement came along, she didn’t oppose it, because she thought it was an opportunity.
She opposed it because she thought it would fundamentally change the relationship between men and women and go against her faith in God.
Allen: Yeah. Well, Manfred Wendt, he writes, “Do you think that Phyllis Schlafly is properly remembered by the movement?” He says she’s often mentioned in regards to the ERA or the Eagle Forum, but what’s your opinion, Anne? Do you think that your mom’s legacy is properly remembered today?
Schlafly Cori: Yes, because we’re talking about it right now today. Isn’t this fabulous? Isn’t this the proof that it is? And certainly, there are a lot of women I’ve talked to who were directly influenced by her, but now I think we’re getting into younger women who are indirectly influenced by her, and so, yes. She’s not going away, and that’s why Hollywood wants to bring her down.
Evans: An anonymous attendee asked, “How can a working parent incorporate learning lobbying efforts into a schedule with young adults?”
Schlafly Cori: Well, I think that’s always a question about time management, and that is, it’s hard, but you will always prioritize what you feel most strongly about, and I’d say there are always issues that get people off the sofa and say, “I’ve got to talk to my legislator about this today.” And usually, those are the issues that directly affect you, your family, your pocketbook, and your faith.
Allen: Yeah. Sandra Gust, she says, “Hello from the great state of Wyoming. So wonderful getting to know your mother, Anne, via the wonderful internet. Now, how can I become an Eagle way out here in the wild, wild West?
Schlafly Cori: Well, isn’t that wonderful? I love that. Well, our website is eagleforum.org, O-R-G. We invite you to become a member. We have a network of chapters across the country. We’re mostly a volunteer organization. We do have an office in Washington, D.C., so we can keep tabs on the mischief there, and then our national headquarters is in Alton, Illinois.
I invite anyone to get involved. We send out a monthly snail-mail newsletter, and then we send out emails every day on the burning issues of the day to try to keep everyone informed.
Evans: We have time for about three more questions. And this one is from Anne LoCastro. “Since this Hulu show is so blatantly anti-conservative women, should you actually watch it and improve their ratings?”
Schlafly Cori: Well, I felt required to watch it because I wanted to speak from a position of “this was true, this was false,” but I do think, I mean, it’s a very well-done production, the costuming is fabulous, and so you have quite an entertainment on that, but it is an opportunity to say this is what they’re so concerned about, because one of the things that was interesting to me is how much time they devoted to abortion. Did they make it clear that abortion is the central, the only issue for the feminists of the 1970s and the feminists of today, and that is a lesson for all of us to remember.
Allen: Kat T. wrote in and asks, “What is the most important advice Phyllis would give to women who have been given the opportunity to speak and advocate? How did she believe that women should present themselves most effectively in the media or in the public square?”
Schlafly Cori: With style, grace, graciousness, and charm, and keep a smile on your face the whole time.
Nobody ever had to tell my mother to smile. She was a model of how to dissent with courtesy, and I think that’s something for all of us to remember, that she never shouted, she never jumped up and down, but with grace and style, she was always poised and confident, and that is a way your presentation can help you with your message, because don’t be messy, be sharp, and my mother, she always had her hair and dress done.
I mean, I never saw her in pajamas in the house. I mean on Saturday morning when she dressed to go to the supermarket, she was dressed as if she could be on a TV for a TV interview because she said, “You always be prepared. You never know when you are going to be interviewed on TV.”
Allen: Jullian Kinder asked, “What is one thing that young grassroots activists can learn from your mother’s activism?“
Schlafly Cori: Don’t think that it is an impossible battle.
When my mother started … fighting the Equal Rights Amendment, not only were the Democrats and the feminists against her, but also her Republican president, two other presidents, the party platforms of both parties, the Hollywood culture, the popular culture, all the newspapers, all the magazines, every one of them said, “We want this amendment, and we oppose you.”
And when the stacks are that high against you, you might say, “This battle, I’m not going to take it on.” But I think it’s proof that we can take on battles that are seemingly impossible, and we can win.
Allen: Well, I think that’s a perfect note to end on, that we can win indeed. Anne, thank you so much for your time. We just really, really appreciate you being with us today and sharing your insight and your wisdom with us.
Schlafly Cori: It was my pleasure.
… [I’ll just add] one of the charges that’s always made against her [Phyllis Schlafly], [was] that she was a hypocrite, that she was telling people to stay in the home when she was outside the home. Just for your information, she really, there’s this kind of activism traveling the country speechifying she started to do when I was 10 years old, and I’m the youngest, and that was … and there comes a point where, shall we say, kids are happy when their parents are leaving the house, or you say, do you really want to be around here all the time or you’re going to college or things of that nature.
And so I was the last one there, and she took me around to a lot of her stuff. I think part of the reason they always try to make the hypocrisy charge is she actually looked younger than she really was, and so they thought she was younger, and they thought she had younger kids at home.
There’s always this blowback of, she was a hypocrite and she was at home. I mean, yeah, she delegated. She had help, but she did what she wanted to do, too. The other thing is that there was only one person she felt she had to please, and that was her husband, and as long as she pleased her husband, then she was free to do whatever she wanted.
Allen: I love finding out that inside information. Well, I think that was one of the things that I was most encouraged by as I watched some interviews with your mom, was that she talked about the seasons of life and that, we mentioned this earlier, but that as a woman you can spend 20 years raising kids and then you can take another 20 years and go out and work, and that you can do both, and that’s OK to kind of have your life in these different seasons. That’s obviously what your mom did, and she did it very well.
Schlafly Cori: Well, and she went to law school in her 50s.
Allen: Yeah. Amazing.
Evans: That’s amazing.
Schlafly Cori: There’s nothing wrong with going to school
later in your life.
Allen: So great. Well, Anne, we again appreciate your time, and we hope to continue this conversation on Twitter and various other platforms, and we certainly encourage people to get involved and find out more about the Eagle Forum.
Schlafly Cori: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.