Here she comes, striding down the marble halls of the Utah state Capitol. Everyone here knows her — the woman with the glittering gold eagle pin on her lapel, fluffy hair and manicured nails, painted baby pink on this gray February morning.
One of the most recognizable power brokers on the Hill, she and her team commandeer a row of tables in the cafeteria each morning, setting up mission control to protect the two things they say matter most: the Constitution and the family.
She is Gayle Ruzicka, president of Utah Eagle Forum, one of the most powerful people in Utah politics to never hold elected office.
Yet many politicians brush aside such claims, dismissing her power and influence as a media creation; others admit Ruzicka had influence, but in the '90s, not today.
Yet even their protestations paint a picture of power.
Sen. Curt Bramble, the long-serving Utah County Republican, and undoubtedly among the most influential politicians in the state, says no legislator has reason to fear her. But in the next breath, Bramble admits when he does vote against her, he looks up to the galleries where Ruzicka sits and makes eye contact, to let her know he doesn’t always do what she wants.
Stories circulate of lawmakers who theatrically crumple notes she sends them on the Senate or House floor to let her know her influence has its limits.
In the eyes of some, Ruzicka’s advocacy, while admirable in its intensity and duration, is waning.
The Eagle Forum’s stances, and by extension Ruzicka’s, on many social issues have been called passé or extreme, illustrating the Republican party’s fragmentation.
The Republican Party is clearly “not the same party that it was ... 20, 30, 40 years ago,” says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics in the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. The Tea Party movement, among other things, pulled the party to the right, “drowning out” the voices of moderate Republicans, especially moderate Republican women.
But that’s fine, the women of the National Eagle Forum have never been interested in the moderate, middle ground.
Beginning in the mid '70s, the unabashedly pro-family organization galvanized conservatives and reshaped American politics with a militant brand of grassroots activism.
They fought against Communism, abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, winning support from conservatives and ire and grudging admiration from liberals who resented their effectiveness.
It was within this framework that Ruzicka rose to power, becoming the state’s Eagle Forum president and a friend and confidante of the founder, Phyllis Schlafly, who often called on Ruzicka to educate other state presidents about the success she was having in Utah.
But the Eagle Forum's most potent issues — the ERA, Communism, same-sex marriage — are no longer front-of-mind for most voters, and even in a red state like Utah, Ruzicka’s Eagle Forum often seems stuck in the past, said lawmakers on the hill and activists who spoke to the Deseret News.
Ruzicka represents “old politics,” says Chelsea Shields, anthropologist, consultant and women's rights activist. “(That means) ‘we gotta hold our ground, if we don’t hold our ground, the moral fiber of society will be ruined.' It’s not about rationally discussing needed solutions. The younger generation doesn’t value that form of gridlock and political chess game.”
If that’s true, perhaps the Eagle Forum's impact, in Utah and nationally, will wane if younger generations continue to lean more liberal.
But Ruzicka doesn’t see it that way.
Abortion, always a smoldering issue, has again burst into flames, a rallying cry for conservatives of all stripes and perhaps the fastest way to solidarity within the Republican party.
“Bringing up abortion has always been ... a key strategy, maybe even the key strategy for Republican politicians to appeal to a conservative religious base,” says Daniel K. Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, and author of the books, “God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right” and “Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.”
The president knows this, which is why he brought it up in his State of the Union speech, to mobilize voters and remind them “what’s at stake,” Williams says.
The Utah Legislature is considering two abortion bills: one to ban abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome, while the other would ban elective abortions past 18 weeks — the latest bills in a long lineup of legislative challenges to Roe v. Wade suggested or shaped into existence by Ruzicka, Utah Eagle Forum and a coalition of pro-life groups.
The two bills and the ongoing abortion debate in Utah may prove to be one of the most effective ways to gauge the relevance of the Utah Eagle Forum today — and of Ruzicka herself.
Born to active Democrat parents in Nampa, Idaho, (her father was a railroad union president) Ruzicka can’t remember when she wasn’t involved in politics.
“I thought that’s just what everybody did,” she says. But as she started sorting out things for herself, a 16-year-old Gayle realized she was a Republican.
When the Equal Rights Amendment debate raged in the early '70s, Ruzicka found she aligned with Schlafly, a constitutional attorney who organized the “STOP ERA” movement.
By the time she and her husband moved their family to Utah in 1989, the then 46-year-old Ruzicka was on the national Eagle Forum board and on the radar of Schlafly, who noticed the energetic woman repeatedly attending national conventions.
In 1991, Schlafly asked Ruzicka, who was then vice president of the Utah Eagle Forum, to take over as Utah’s president.
“I thought she had lost her mind,” Ruzicka says. She remembers giving Schlafly a list of other women she felt were more qualified
Schlafly was undeterred and Ruzicka took up the reins, quickly expanding Utah Eagle Forum’s reach by establishing state chapters and connecting concerned women through her notorious “phone tree.”
That mobilizing tool, plus an increased legislative presence, were foundational pillars that would showcase Utah Eagle Forum’s organizational power for several decades.
“I don’t think there are other states where the Eagle Forum exercised the long-term, continued political influence and really on the scale that the Eagle Forum in Utah has achieved,” says Melanie D. Newport, assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut who studied the rise of Utah’s Eagle Forum. “I personally have used that as a model for every social movement that I’ve researched and taught since — I know what advocacy looks like after working on the Eagle Forum.”
The appeal of the Eagle Forum in the early 1990s was that it was “rooted in the housewife experience in Utah,” Newport wrote.
Mothers who wanted to protect their families from drugs, sex and poor schools became connected with Utah Eagle Forum, which offered a chance to get involved politically without leaving their homes.
When important bills came up, Ruzicka would draft a message and contact her chapter presidents. The chapter president would start the “5 call 5” system: call five women, relay the message and ask them to each call another five with the same message.
Within hours, hundreds of women would know what was going on at the Capitol.
Ruzicka says they never knew exactly how many women they reached with the phone tree, but often heard from legislators and secretaries that “they were getting so many phone calls,” — something that hadn’t happened before the state chapters.
“That is how Eagle Forum got on the map,” says Ruzicka. “No (legislators) would listen to me if somebody didn’t call them first. But as soon as we organized the state, then they’d get phone calls, and that’s what made the difference.”
Quickly, Utah Eagle Forum became synonymous with a conservative and vocal voting bloc, and legislators knew if they crossed Ruzicka, they’d hear from dozens, if not hundreds who felt the same way she did — often in a single evening.
“Gayle speaks for a very vocal segment in our state, and so when I talk about Gayle, I talk about thousands of people that I think she’s speaking for in addition to herself,” says Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross.
This combination of grassroots activism and daily legislative presence was “fascinating” to Schlafly, who “loved the way we do things here,” Ruzicka says.
“Utah is one of our strongest state chapters,” says Anne Schlafly Cori, Phyllis’ daughter and chairman of the Eagle Forum following Phyllis’ death in September 2016. “I think Gayle has led Utah Eagle Forum very well.”
Friends and foes
Back in the Capitol cafeteria on a blustery February morning, Ruzicka presides over a small network of volunteers, ranging from high school homeschoolers to white-haired senior citizens.
The tables are covered with the day’s schedules, bill printouts, a large container of pretzels and a dizzying array of neon pink, green and yellow highlighters.
It’s the fifth week of the Legislature and Utah Eagle Forum is mounting a defense against any bill that threatens to encroach on parental authority or expand the role of government. Today it’s the potential for a Constitutional Convention, which Ruzicka vehemently opposes.
(Despite her pleas against it, the bill would pass out of the Senate by a slim margin).
Ruzicka’s staunch positions, particularly on moral issues, have earned her titles like “Satan,” “infamous Gargayle,” and “Utah’s morality maven.”
But in person, Ruzicka, no taller than 5-foot-6 with watery blue eyes, seems less like a demonic spawn and more like a concerned grandmother.
She scoffs at words like “power” and “influence,” and dislikes having her picture taken.
Slightly uncomfortable talking to a reporter, only after several interviews does she open up about raising 12 children, her love of gardening and how she used to knit in committee meetings to stay awake.
Spending time with Ruzicka in the lunchroom headquarters reveals a woman who has devoted her life to a cause she believes in, staying relevant in a male-dominated legislature for three decades by mastering the art of debating without burning bridges or taking offense.
Yet she’s caused plenty of offense, resulting in copious hate mail and phone call death threats, plus nasty online comments and off-the-record remarks.
The most contentious topic? Gay rights.
“Two men cannot create a mother and a father no matter how hard they try,” Ruzicka was quoted saying in a 2014 news article about same-sex adoptions. “Two men can’t be a mother and two women can’t be a father.”
In a now-famous quote to The New York Times about Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, to which Ruzicka was opposed, she said, “Homosexuals can't reproduce, so they recruit. And they are not going to use Utah high school and junior high school campuses to recruit."
“She has a very black-and-white kind of worldview,” says Troy Williams, who runs the state’s LGBTQ advocacy organization, Equality Utah. “One side is good, one side is evil. But the truth about life is there’s so much gray.”
Just like the relationship between Williams and Ruzicka.
On a recent visit to the Utah State Capitol, Williams spoke to a group of young Utah Eagle Forum volunteers.
“I am living proof that if you dedicate your life and work hard, one day you could be the director of Equality Utah,” he said. “(Gayle) always rolls her eyes. We laugh a lot together and we have serious ... disagreements on policy issues, but we are always kind and loving to each other, and it’s not just for show. I genuinely respect Gayle.”
It was Ruzicka who took Williams on his first tour of the Capitol and taught him how to lobby — after Williams started volunteering with Utah Eagle Forum following his church mission, hoping a zealous-like participation in conservative causes would change his same-sex attraction.
It didn’t, but the political education was life altering.
“The thing that Gayle really taught me ... was if you are passionate about an issue, you need to dedicate your life to it,” Williams says. “I’ve dedicated my life to advancing equality for the LGBT community and where did I learn that? From Gayle.”
Yet despite the “weird symbiotic relationship” between them — Ruzicka refers to Williams as a “militant homosexual," while Williams references Ruzicka's right-wing, harmful hysteria over trans people — on a personal level they make it work.
Williams knows many people who come to the Capitol furious with Ruzicka, then tell him, “ ‘I met Gayle Ruzicka, and she was really nice!’ ’’ he says.
“I know!” he tells them. “You don’t have to agree with someone’s politics to love them.”
Besides, Williams reminds angry progressives that if they had half of Ruzicka’s conviction, the entire state would be blue.
Robert Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah, invited Ruzicka several times as a guest speaker to his “History of American Social Movements” class in the 1990s. Even knowing it would be a harsh crowd, she came willingly, he says, often bringing along a child or two who completed homeschool homework in the back of the class.
“I’m opposed to her politics 100 percent, but I have to tell you, I admire her determination and her will,” Goldberg says. “She would hold forth for 45 minutes, an hour against withering criticism and withering opposition and she did not bat an eye, nor did she give one inch.”
Not only is she religiously convinced of her positions, but she defends them with dignity — no yelling, screaming or flailing, says Jason Chaffetz, a former Utah congressman.
Even though folks may not appreciate her “raw conservative” positions, she’s still doing politics the “right way,” he says, which earns respect across the political spectrum.
One example: Following a lengthy, emotional committee meeting to discuss the 18-week abortion ban, bill opponent Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, looked out at the packed room and thanked attendees for coming and discussing reasonably, then addressed Ruzicka specifically.
“I look at my good friend Gayle Ruzicka, I do consider her a friend,” he said. “Many times we’ve disagreed with each other, and on other important things we’ve agreed, but I count her as a friend, which is critical from my perspective, that we can separate politics from personal.”
Even fellow advocates admit Ruzicka’s influence is unique.
During one session, Maryann Christensen, Utah Eagle Forum executive vice president and 20-year veteran of the legislature, remembers approaching one legislator about a bill.
“Have Gayle call me,” she was told.
Christensen smiled as she noted that despite being second in command, Ruzicka was still the preferred channel of communication.
Out of touch
For all the connections and influence over three decades — Chaffetz has spoken at Ruzicka’s annual Utah Eagle Forum event for 10 years, once via Skype while detained in an off-site congressional meeting — some argue her activism relies on antiquated methods and ignores issues that resonate with younger Republican voters, especially women.
Phone trees and fax machines were effective in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but today’s national Eagle Forum “is very dated in their approach and their technology,” says Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College who studies gender, religion and politics.
The Utah Eagle Forum doesn’t keep membership numbers, but Ruzicka says between 7,000 and 8,000 people get each email blast. Their Facebook page is followed by 1,200 people; their Twitter account, @UtahEagleForum, has 229 followers but zero tweets.
“Young activists see Gayle as this really cool icon, and think that she’s done a great thing,” says Shields, "(she’s) just super dated and unaware of the actual issues affecting modern Utahns today — except if you’re white, wealthy and a stay-at-home mom.”
Those descriptors may have defined Ruzicka’s generation, but are not as representative of Utahns today: Only 55 percent of Utah women are married, almost 18 percent are separated, widowed or divorced and 27 percent have never married, according to the YWCA of Utah and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Even among married women, the stay-at-home mom who “fits the profile of the Eagle Forum activist (is) just getting harder and harder to come by,” said Deckman. In Utah, nearly 60 percent of mothers with children younger than 6 work, while 73 percent of women with kids ages 6-17 work.
Ruzicka doesn't judge women for working — her own mother worked full time — she just believes in more conservative government, without taxpayers paying for others’ child care.
Yet affordable child care is the very issue that keeps coming up, says Erin Jemison, YWCA Utah Director of Public Policy, because "things have changed since the ‘50s in terms of what families can afford.”
A few years ago, the YWCA was advocating for bills related to early childhood services, and had to “soothe concerns” raised by Utah Eagle Forum that the government was trying to tell parents how to raise their children.
Community activist Deeda Seed remembers her group of low-income, often single mothers being “consistently opposed by Utah Eagle Forum” in the ‘90s when asking for help with child care to attend school or find better jobs.
The Utah Eagle Forum would testify that “child care was taking women away from what they should really be doing,” Seed remembers — rhetoric that puts low-income, single moms in a place where they can "never be right,” Seed says.
Even despite growing bipartisan support for national paid family leave, including among Republicans like Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Ruzicka is opposed.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate,” she told the Deseret News last February in response to a bill proposing paid parental leave to all state employees. “It’s important for mothers to be with their babies, but not at taxpayer expense.”
Tax issues aside, last year, Ruzicka and other Utah Eagle Forum members spoke against an initiative to send a statue of Martha Hughes Cannon, a Utah physician and first female state senator in the country, to Washington.
The Eagle Forum’s comments weren’t specifically against Cannon, but rather in favor of Utah native Philo T. Farnsworth who is credited with inventing television and already enshrined in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., alongside Brigham Young.
Natalie Tonks, then a high-school senior, testified in the committee that Cannon was a trailblazing woman whose legacy “deserves to be honored.”
The resolution passed out of committee, but Tonks, now a freshman at Brigham Young University, says it was “frustrating that as a woman (Ruzicka) didn't feel the need to carry that legacy forward. She's obviously ... in a place of power personally, and yet she was working to actively discourage the placement of powerful women in the public consciousness."
The issue at hand
But child care and statues are not the battle of today.
Sitting in the House galleries, Ruzicka looks over the body of legislators as she listens to Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, introduce a bill to ban elective abortions after 18 weeks, select situations excluded.
“The procedure that is used in 95 percent of second trimester abortion cases shocks the conscience,” Acton says, “and involves dismembering and crushing the living infant in its mother’s womb.”
Ruzicka slowly rocks back and forth in her chair. She knows this bill intimately. She pulls up her computer, reads through the bill again. Puts her computer away. Scoots to the edge of her seat.
“We can’t wait for other states,” Acton finishes. “Utah should be leading out.”
Over a few objections, the bill passes, just like Ruzicka knew it would.
Despite aging communication methods and allegedly out-of-touch perspectives, when abortion comes up, Ruzicka is cutting edge, an expert on abortion law and legislative hurdles and totally tapped into how Utah’s conservative legislators will vote.
This institutional knowledge has allowed her to shape the state’s abortion laws for 30 years — directly, like she did by bringing this bill to Acton last fall; indirectly, through her support of any pro-life bill, and collectively, by teaming up with other pro-life groups to work with legislators like Carl Wimmer, who passed six pro-life bills during his tenure, and Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who approached Ruzicka about the topic in 2012.
Ruzicka and Eliason developed a bill requiring a 72-hour-waiting period before a woman could get an abortion — a landmark bill in Utah, Ruzicka says, and one that still remains unchallenged in court.
Across the country, pro-life legislators are continuing their decades-long barrage on Roe v. Wade — Missouri just proposed an abortion ban following detection of a heartbeat, usually around 6 weeks, with similar bills being discussed in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — and blue states are finally pushing back.
New York recently stunned pro-life advocates by passing a bill making abortion an option after 24 weeks if the mother’s life or health is at risk or if the fetus is non-viable, while a bill in Virginia would have loosened restrictions against a third-trimester abortion, bringing up words like “infanticide.”
Today, “there’s a greater difference between the red and blue states on the abortion issue than perhaps there ever has been in the last 46 years,” says historian Williams.
Blue states are becoming even more pro-choice, while red states are entrenching harder for the pro-life cause, often passing laws immediately challenged in court.
Eventually, pro-life advocates hope this legal tug-of-war will result in the Supreme Court adjusting or overturning Roe v. Wade, returning the debate to the states.
And for the first time in 25 years, Williams said, there's a "somewhat plausible reason" to believe that could happen.
In a few days, the Utah Legislature will be over.
The abortion bills will likely pass, but the success or failure of individual bills won’t alter Utah Eagle Forum’s trajectory or diminish Ruzicka’s intensity.
She’ll be back next year, and probably the year after that — just like most of the legislators whose numbers are in her cellphone — continuing to shape policy with people whose worldview often mirrors her own, the epitome of “soft power” and “status quo.”
Because of the state's Republican supermajority, Ruzicka can maintain an influence that young activists dislike and simultaneously covet.
One activist who labeled Ruzicka dated, called the Deseret News days before the article was to run asking that her quote be removed, worried that appearing to oppose or insult Ruzicka would anger Utah Eagle Forum-following women with whom they’re trying to build bridges, and potentially damage their group’s future political prospects.
Shields, 37, spent last year advocating at the legislature, but struggled to connect with older legislators who dismissed her issues, like equal pay, as unimportant.
“People in office relate to Gayle and Gayle’s issues,” she says. “We can work really hard, push through one issue if we all get together ... but that takes years. Gayle doesn’t need to take years, she can text a bunch of senators, and say ‘this is what people want, and they’re going to show up.’ There are just so many more people on her side in the legislature.”
Those people are the “white Mormon males and women like Gayle who work within the current old boys’ club — play the game their way,” says Susan Madsen, professor of organizational leadership at Utah Valley University. They’ve been in power for decades, and like anyone with power, are not pushing for change.55 comments on this story
And despite the 2018 midterm election’s “blue wave,” which sent a record number of Democrats and females to office, Utah politics remains very red and very much an “old boys’ club.”
Over time, as conservative boomers are replaced by more liberal millennials and Gen Zers, the political calculus will be very different, says Goldberg, but right now, Ruzicka remains comfortably, deeply entrenched on the right where she’s always been — the constant in a sea of political variables. The beneficiary of the status quo.