Forgetting Phyllis Schlafly

Schlafly speaks at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference. (photo by Gage Skidmore)

Phyllis Schlafly, political activist and founder of the conservative Eagle Forum organization, passed away last week in Missouri at the age of ninety-two. She leaves behind a repugnant legacy of homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and bigotry.

Lest anyone forget, Schlafly was one of the main reasons that the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have ensured equality under the law regardless of gender, did not become law. Schlafly was one of the central advocates against the amendment, and her “Stop ERA” campaign brought together large numbers of fellow organizers to advocate against the proposal and against gender equality in general. (“Stop” stood for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.)

As Clyde Haberman of the New York Times noted, “she warned of an America where husbands would no longer be required to support their wives, where anyone could walk into any public bathroom, where women would join men on the front lines of war, where gay men and women would be given the same dignity as husbands and wives.” This hatred of gender and LGBTQ equality was mirrored by her hatred of immigrants, as she worried publicly about “this tide of illegals crossing our borders.”

Some of Schlafly’s political and philosophical opponents have taken a softer tone regarding her activism since her passing, believing that the somberness of death somehow makes her deserving of the very kindness and empathy that she refused to show to the millions of Americans whose lives she negatively impacted. Others prefer the Christopher Hitchens method of calling a spade a spade, believing that truthfully assessing the actions of a public figure is necessary both for keeping an accurate historical record of the individual and for delegitimizing behaviors or beliefs by the individual that cause suffering.

Regardless of the manner in which society and individuals wish to eulogize Schlafly, politicians and activists alike are already trying to use her as a prop for the very same outdated ideas she supported while alive. Donald Trump, infamous for his own racist legacy, lauded Schlafly’s opposition to apologizing for hateful remarks, claiming that Schlafly “never wavered, never apologized, and never backed down in taking on the kingmakers.”

It is for this reason that Schlafly, influential in life, must not be so in death. The more people praise her “accomplishments” or her beliefs, the larger she becomes in our collective memory, and the longer her ideas will remain relevant. Instead, society must work to forget both her and her harmful ideology, properly relegating them to the trash bin of outdated ideas along with phrenology and geocentricism.