Few people I know were as inspired by their childhood as Phyllis Schlafly, who died Sept. 5 at age 92. Those who battled her over her decades as a conservative activist could only have wished she’d had a far different upbringing.
Born in 1924 in St. Louis, Schlafly was the older of two daughters. Her parents struggled financially; her engineer father Bruce lost his job in the Depression, and her mother Odile worked two jobs, seven days a week. There was no money for frivolity. Dinner-table conversation was about literature and politics, with Bruce steadfastly opposed to Roosevelt and his New Deal. Schlafly graduated valedictorian of her class at 16, eventually paying her way through Washington University by working nights.
This tenacity and capacity for hard work would never be more on display than in 1972, when the Equal Rights Amendment went to the state legislatures for ratification. Schlafly, then 48, decided it would put the nation on a path to same-sex marriage and women in the draft. So she set out to defeat it. She and her legions of worshipful women would dash to Springfield, Ill., or Tallahassee, Fla., to lobby legislators, often with arsenals of home-baked bread and pies. The ERA ultimately fell short of ratification. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in a sense, she single-handedly stopped it.
Her distaste for frivolity endured in adulthood. Asked once if she had any hobbies, she named “nuclear strategy” and Republican National Conventions. A former president of the National Organization for Women told me that while awaiting a school debate with Schlafly, she saw the packed auditorium and said to her opponent that she felt like Mick Jagger. “Who’s Mick Jagger?” Schlafly asked.
Felsenthal is a biographer and the author of The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority
This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.