Profile: Trailblazer’s Work, Life Have Been About Much More Than Sex-Ed in Schools

Susie Wilson, who led fight for family life curriculum in NJ, shares stories from her friendships with the Kennedys to the present day in new memoir

Susie Wilson
Name: Susie Wilson

Who she is: Wilson has been an institution in New Jersey education since the 1970s when, as a State Board of Education member, she led a protracted public battle to bring family life education to the state. New Jersey went on to be the first state in the country to mandate family life education in all public schools.

Why she matters: That episode only started Wilson on her way to promoting and speaking out for more comprehensive sex-education programs into the schools, including work with the Rutgers’ Network For Family Life Education and its nationally distributed — and student-written – “Sex etc.” magazine and website.

As if that wasn’t enough: At age 85, Wilson has barely slowed down since leaving Rutgers. She is an active community volunteer in her hometown of Princeton and remains outspoken on education issues.

Still running, the hobby: She started running at age 50 – and ran a 5K race this week.

“It suits my tenacious personality,” she said. “I’m not sure I could have gotten through those sex-education battles without running. I had a lot of time to think and plot.”

“Still Running,” the book: “Still Running” is the title of her new memoir about her years and accomplishments, including her life in Washington, D.C., with two young children amid the pressures of the political and social scene.

Early preschool interest: Wilson’s late husband, Don Wilson, was bureau chief for Life magazine when the two married, and went on to serve as a deputy director in the Kennedy administration’s information agency. Also a former reporter, Susie Wilson befriended Jacqueline Kennedy and helped her create a preschool for her children in the White House. She went on to be especially close with Robert Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, and even traveled with them overseas.

Lasting influence: “What came out of the Kennedy years was what I learned from Robert Kennedy about trying to make a difference and about political courage and courage in general,” she said. Kennedy’s anti-poverty work especially inspired her, an influence that she said helped spur her work involving sex education. “It really affected the poorest of our society and trapped them,” she said.

Started with a question: Appointed to the state board by former Gov. Brendan Byrne, Wilson didn’t set out to be a trailblazer in sex education. But when the state health commissioner came before the board to discuss sex education, Wilson stood out.

“I was the only person to ask a question that day at the board question, and because of that, I was put in charge of a committee to investigate the subject,” she said. ‘I had no concept when I began how controversial it was.”

Board’s influence: That was the heyday of the state board, when it was the chief influence on public-education policies in New Jersey.

“We really had a lot of power, and we used that power,” Wilson said. “You ask 10 people now about the State Board, and they shrug.”

Where is sex ed today? Wilson said she has seen considerable progress in the breadth and sophistication of programs, but said the state should evaluate the programs to determine how effective they’ve become and whether improvement is needed.

“For one, I don’t know if there is a great gulf between what kids are learning in Princeton as compared in a Newark, Trenton or Camden,” she said. “I think it would be very worthwhile for the state to fund an evaluation of this.”

Abstinence-only programs — still out there: Maybe not in New Jersey, but the federal government continues to fund abstinence-only programs across the country.

Wilson said research has largely debunked the programs as ineffective.

“We have spent $1.5 billion as a nation on abstinence-only education, and this last budget gave an increase,” she said. “It is really wasteful, and it hurts kids.”

Other causes: Wilson continues to speak out for other education policy issues, including the need for universal preschool and changes to the school day and year.

“We’re living a 19th century school calendar,” she said. “Very few people even mention it as a way of improving education, and that’s a subject I keep watching for.”

“It really affects kids in our cities so much,” she added. “What do these kids do for those other months? That’s the kind of thing I’m very much concerned about.”

New battles: She watched closely the debates over Common Core and new testing.

“It’s all about change and the difficulty of change,” she said. “And of course, the politics. It’s too bad.

“It’s hard sometimes to stay focused,” she said. “That’s what Robert Kennedy taught me, it requires political courage, and people have to be willing to stand up and do the hard work to make change.”