We should not pretend that someone is amazing at death when they were wicked at life.
People often say to “not speak ill of the dead.” I, too, was guilty of using this popular catchphrase until I realized that changing the way I spoke about someone at death created a wicked lie of how they lived their life. This especially applies to homophobic, anti-feminist people like Phyllis Schlafly.
Schlafly died on Monday at the age of 92. As difficult as it is to acknowledge, she was one of the most prominent conservative organizers of the 1970s, even helping to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)—from which the feminist movement(s) took years to recover—which explicitly prohibited gender- and sex-based discrimination. In 1972, the ERA was passed by Congress but later failed when enough states did not ratify. This was due to Schlafly’s intense activism against women’s rights.
As an onlooker, it is hard to imagine why Schlafly would oppose the ERA. She was an attorney who in the 1970s was obviously being paid less than her male counterparts. But at the same time, she was also a proud housewife who demanded that men should be paid more.
The same year Congress passed the ERA, though later failing, Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum, which focused on pro-family and socially conservative issues. These issues often reified the troubling paradigm that marriage was between one man and one woman, and preserved qualities that only cisgender, heterosexual white men would find endearing.
It’s clear that Schlafly is no stranger to the American political movement. In 2016, she not only endorsed Donald Trump to be the next president, she even introduced him at this year’s Republican National Convention. Schlafly was everything many in the growing electorate are not—or at least that we can hope are not—so why are we afraid to speak openly and honestly about the way she lived because she’s dead?
When Justice Antonin Scalia died in mid-February 2016, conservatives and liberals took the Internet by storm discussing the impact of his death. On one hand, many conservatives viewed Scalia as the Reagan of the Supreme Court and attempted to get people to understand the positive effect he had on people’s lives. On the other hand, (and I happen to fall in this camp), many liberals were not disappointed in Scalia’s death and even began to think of how many marginalized communities would be positively affected with him no longer weighing in on important decisions like abortion rights and affirmative action.
This sparked continuous conversation of how to speak about people once they die. Over the years I have become uncomfortable with giving a free pass to dead people. Many of those dead people who we give free passes to made life hell for many living people. So while society is focused on not speaking negatively of certain people because they are no longer living, the harmful effects of their discrimination continues to hurt many people.
Schlafly, for example, was vehemently opposed to LGBTQ justice, immigrant rights, and equity for women and girls. Schlafly even had a history of downplaying rape and sexual harassment of women. In 1981, before the U.S. Senate, Schlafly stated “Non-criminal sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases.” First, what is a “virtuous” woman? Second, the problem of sexual harassment did not just begin in 1981. Schlafly was well-aware of this.
A 1976 survey by Redbook underscored that 80% of respondents experienced sexual harassment on the job. A few years later, TIME covered issues of sexual harassment at colleges/universities, namely Yale and Harvard, noting that in the late 1970s and early 1980s an estimated 18 million women had been sexually harassed at work. But to Schlafly, none of this mattered because these women “asked for it,” giving a literal “meh” to the very real issues of rape and sexual assault.
What’s worse, less than 10 years ago, Schlafly was quoted in the Sun Journal indicating married women have automatically consented to sex, thus cannot be raped. This is the woman we are worried about respecting?
It’s safe to say that there are just some terrible people in the world. What many of us should not do is pretend that someone is amazing at death when they were wicked at life. This does not mean one must go out of their way to prove-up how awful a person was, but it’s dangerous and problematic to lie about someone’s legacy—particularly when that legacy is so damaging to those already outside of the margins.
Phyllis Schlafly may be dead, but that did not stop her from being a dreadful person. And I’m satisfied with being honest about that.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based essayist, activist, and policy nerd. He has written for the TheRoot.com, Atlantic, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, Hello Beautiful, Think Progress, and theGrio. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.