The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Phyllis Schlafly is gone. Her ideas are not.

Conservative writer, lawyer and activist Phyllis Schlafly, who founded the Eagle Forum, has died at the age of 92. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Phyllis Schlafly, 92, outspoken conservative thinker and political activist, died Monday. And with her, more than a few obituaries and memorials seemed to imply, went an entire series of once widely held ideas on social policy, gender issues and equality. Schlafly's death somehow became emblematic of a bygone era and dying ideas.

A reminder of some of those ideas: For one thing, Schlafly believed that sex education was “a principle cause of teenage pregnancy.” And, when speaking at a Senate Labor Committee hearing on the problem of workplace sexual harassment, Schlafly said that “men 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.”

Those Schlafly ideas and more got a real airing over the Labor Day holiday, along with more than a few allusions to Schlafly as an icon of an era of gender debates gone by. But that is an idea about as accurate as those often-made claims that thanks to a more diverse and accepting generation of young Americans, racism and racial disparities will simply die out or die down as the Greatest Generation fades away. In much the same way that millennials have held firm in demonstrable ways to any number of eyebrow-raising ideas and layered-on modern notions, Schlafly's ideas on sex education and sexual harassment in the workplace continue to thrive. That's both a testament to Schlafly's considerable political skill and the enduring appeal of some of her ideas.

Doubt that? Consider each of the Schlafly ideas described above.

Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist, has died at age 92

Schlafly believed sex education to be dangerous or counterproductive. Today, only two dozen states and the District of Columbia require sex education at all. This means that in another 26 states, some students receive no sex education of any kind.

Among the states that do require sex ed, almost all advance abstinence as a best practice and the only sure way to avoid unwanted pregnancy or disease. Several provide no information about contraception at all. Beginning in the 1980s, just after the height of Schlafly's political influence, the federal government began investing in grant programs and other initiatives aimed at encouraging states to provide abstinence-only sex education and little to no information about contraception. Since the early 1990s, the federal government has pumped almost $2 billion into programs that taught abstinence until marriage only.

Even the public health community was open to the idea. After all, the United States had the dubious distinction of the highest teen birthrates in the developed world. By the time President George W. Bush took office, abstinence education had secured a permanent place at the government funding trough and in the cultural imagination as a safe, moral and responsible form of sex ed. Anything else was suspect. In fact, Newsweek reported in 2009, the Bush administration bumped standing non-grant federal funding for abstinence education from $80 million in 2001 to $200 million in 2007.

People's politics and personal feelings on this can and will differ. But the science really isn't debatable here.

In 2007, a Mathematica Policy Research Inc. study conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were ineffective and recommended that the federal government divest from the abstinence-only education space. The spending continued. Subsequent studies even suggested a link between abstinence-only education, lower rates of contraception use and increased teen pregnancy.

And in February, when the Obama administration made a 2017 Health and Human Services budget request that dropped the $10 million federal grant program encouraging so many states to go this route, there were still groups that complained. The idea that sex ed needs to be limited and/or constrained to abstinence hasn't gone the way of the Model-T at all.

Finally, there's that little matter of Schlafly's ideas on workplace sexual harassment. Schlafly spoke about sexual harassment in a way that seemed to imply women with morals who went to the office properly attired had little to worry about.

Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump and one of his sons, while speaking in Trump's defense, indicated that any hypothetical situation where Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, might face sexual harassment could and would be resolved quickly because Ivanka Trump would simply leave that job. Trump said he would hope his daughter would find a new career. Trump's son, Eric Trump, said his sister would not "let" this sort of thing happen to her. She would leave. And Ivanka Trump herself said in her 2009 book, "The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life," that she dressed a certain way on construction sites and wore her hair in a bun to avoid work site sexual harassment.

Again, that's not quite the same as saying that women who are sexually harassed bring these problems on themselves or suffer alone because women who dress and behave "appropriately" do not, but it comes pretty darn close, with Ivanka Trump coming closest of all. And it implies that the onus for resolving and preventing workplace sexual harassment is on those who are being harassed.

See the link?

Know the term ‘victim blaming?’ Donald and Eric Trump sure don’t.

Schlafly, a woman described in her New York Times obituary as the "'First Lady' of a Political March to the Right," may not be the kind of human political force quoted every day. But some of her ideas live on today, in different minds.

Loading...