Last night around 9:40 I received an email with a curious subject line. “The Greatest American Woman, R.I.P.,” it read.
“Who could that be?” I wondered as I opened the message. Came the answer: Phyllis Schlafly.
“Today, Phyllis Schlafly died like she lived – with dignity and a smile,” wrote Ed Martin, president of the Eagle Forum, a group Schlafly founded. “Surrounded by her family, Phyllis passed away and entered her reward with the Lord. Her family, friends and staff will miss her. Her nation will be eternally grateful.”
Schlafly was a spouse, mother and grandmother. Some people are genuinely saddened by her passing. But the measure of a public person is not taken by the reaction of her family and friends. We have to look at Schlafly’s impact on the larger culture, and a sober assessment of her life’s work shows that her impact was not good.
Schlafly was best known for defeating the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, but her larger mission was one of seeking to deny people their rights – just because those people failed to live up to her religious ideals.
In recent years, Schlafly’s Eagle Forum turned its ire on the LGBT community, with a flood of hysterical op-eds and articles. At one point, Schlafly even proposed impeaching judges who upheld marriage equality and called on Congress to cut off all federal aid to any state that permitted the practice.
Her nation will be eternally grateful? Sorry, but I have to disagree. Schlafly’s vision of America was one where right-wing Christians of her stripe – she was a traditionalist Roman Catholic but often sounded like a fundamentalist, Religious Right-style evangelical – ruled the roost. Others were second-class citizens. Most Americans aren't grateful for her tireless work to roll back women’s reproductive rights or the hate she spread against those Americans she derisively called “the gays.”
Firmly grounded in an “Ozzie and Harriet” mythology, Schlafly was clueless about the realities of modern life. In 1981, she told a U.S. Senate committee that women who are sexually harassed have only themselves to blame. Lecherous bosses, said Schlafly, “hardly ever ask sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is ‘No.’ Virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities, obscene talk or profane language.”
America has rejected the narrow and hateful vision of Phyllis Schlafly. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)
She opposed equal pay for women, fought efforts to make child care more affordable and plentiful and opposed programs to give young people sex education in public schools. (Sex ed., she once opined, is “a principal cause of teenage pregnancy.”)
Schlafly’s views belong to an America of the past. They’re anchored in the America she idealized – the fake 1950 vision of a white, Christian nation where schoolkids prayed on command and God gave us nuclear weapons to scare off the Reds.
Hers was an America where wives graciously submitted to their husbands. Schlafly often began speeches by thanking her wealthy husband for allowing her to be out that night. The irony is that she made a career out of traveling the country telling women that they didn’t need careers.
Schlafly’s Potemkin Village of 1950s nostalgia collapsed long ago. It collapsed when some Americans had the temerity to point out that the vision didn’t include them – and noted, by the way, the 1950s weren’t so great for lots of people: blacks living in the Jim Crow South, women fighting in court for the right to work in certain professions, Jewish families seeking the right to live in neighborhoods that sought to exclude them and atheists daring to speak against the “God and country” rhetoric of the Eisenhower Era, to name a few.
Schlafly’s supporters will plug along. The Eagle Forum is riven by internal division right now, and a dissident faction, including some of her own children, sought to oust Schlafly from the group.
That matter is in court and will play out there, but in a sense, the outcome does not matter. The factions are fighting over table crumbs. Phyllis Schlafly does not represent the future. Her vision is firmly grounded in the past, and, with luck, the nation will continue speeding past it so rapidly that soon none of us will even be able to see its vague outlines.
If you doubt that, simply look at the world around you. You will see that Schlafly’s vision has been repudiated. It was repudiated this morning when millions of women suited up for work in a myriad of professions. It was repudiated all over the nation by same-sex couples, now legally married, who woke up and started another routine day.
You can see the repudiation in the eyes of immigrant families working hard to make the American Dream real for them. It’s reflected in the faces of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist and Wiccan public school students who long ago decided they won’t accept second-class status.
Schlafly is repudiated every time a young woman makes her own decisions about reproductive choice. She is repudiated every time trans kids stand up for their rights in a public school. Her vision is repudiated every time a woman files a lawsuit to block sexual harassment in the workplace.
Schlafly dreamed of an America based on rejection and exclusion. That is not our America. Our America is better than Phyllis Schlafly.
Of course, some are trying to drag us back, but the story of our nation is one that – despite the fits and starts and often frustratingly glacial pace of change – moves toward more freedom, not less. The story of America is not the story of Phyllis Schlafly. We have repudiated her narrow and mean-spirited vision. We know that it’s a relic of a nastier, more unpleasant time. We won't go back there.
Yes, Phyllis Schlafly helped defeat the ERA. But she lost the larger cultural war. And for that, we can be truly grateful.