Featured image: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly. FX Network. Retrieved from Indie Wire.
In April 2020, FX released the nine-part series Mrs. America on Hulu. The show, which portrays the fight for and against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, features a star-studded cast, including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracy Ullman, and Sarah Paulson. Created by former Mad Men writer Davhi Waller, the show has a Mad Men-like ability to capture the spirit and feel of the era – using music, wardrobe, and even Blanchett’s clipped accent in portraying Phyllis Schlafly – to bring the audience into the past.
Much has been written about the quality of the writing and performances from television critics’ perspective, in such venues as the New York Times, NPR, and Rolling Stone. Media outlets have also dissected the show’s historical accuracy from the big moments down to the minutiae, the best of which appears in Slate’s What’s Fact and What’s Fiction series. While the show goes to considerable length to maintain historical accuracy, even delivering lines verbatim from recordings and historical documents, it does, of course, take liberties for the sake of drama and storytelling. In particular, Sarah Paulson’s Schlafly-acolyte character Alice is not based on a real person, allowing her character to be used as a vehicle for moments of interpersonal drama.
But beyond dissecting the script and period-piece wigs for accuracy, what can the show tell us about the broader and more nuanced historical context of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment? Where does it shine and where does it fall short? And what should we take away from the show, and its real history, to better understand our present?
Phyllis Schlafly and The Campaign Against the ERA
“Let me tell you the truth about Phyllis Schlafly. She’s a liar, a fearmonger, and a con artist, but worst of all, she’s a goddamn feminist. She might be one of the most liberated women in America.”
– Bella Abzug, Episode 7: “Bella”
“That is exactly what the men with money want us to do. They use women as a cover to orchestrate a catfight to distract everyone so they can sit in dark rooms and smoke cigars and count their money.”
– Gloria Steinem, Episode 4: “Betty
The focal point of the series – and the inspiration for the Mrs. America title – is Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly. While the feminist heroines come into focus for an episode each, the series as a whole shifts back and forth between the episode’s feminist and their singular counterpart in Schlafly. There is much to unpack about both the historical and the fictionalized Schlafly. As outlined on the show, Schlafly rose to fame in conservative circles with her book A Choice Not an Echo (1964), written in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Contrary to popular misconception, Schlafly did not always oppose the ERA, and at one point she even thought it might be “mildly helpful.” However, in 1972, after a friend encouraged her to take a deeper look, she came out in strong opposition. In the series, this eye-opening moment is portrayed by the fictional character Alice talking about the ERA in a beauty salon and then bringing Schlafly a box of books on the subject. Throughout the show, the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about whether Schlafly was a true believer or if her ERA opposition was merely a route to gain power and influence within the Republican Party.
The Equal Rights Amendment has roots in a much longer history not covered in the series, dating back to 1923 when Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party mobilized on behalf of the amendment, 1940 when the Republican Party added it to their platform, and 1944 when the Democratic Party followed suit. Mrs. America’s shorter timeline begins when the growing second-wave feminist movement returned the ERA to the forefront of American consciousness and lobbied it through Congress in 1972. It had strong bipartisan support, including endorsement by President Richard Nixon. By all accounts it was considered a done deal, merely awaiting ratification by the necessary three-fourths of the states. When and why, then, did a popular, bipartisan amendment fail? This is the central question of the series.
Contrary to Mrs. America’s portrayal, the failure of the ERA was not solely due to Phyllis Schlafly’s grassroots organizing. The answer lies in the larger realignment occurring within the Republican Party in this era. Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, along with the rising popularity of Ronald Reagan, represented a serious challenge to the moderate Rockefeller Republicans. This era also saw the pursuit of the so-called “Southern Strategy” within the party to appeal to disaffected Democrats, particularly those in the South who opposed the social changes of the 1960s brought by the Civil Rights and antiwar movements, feminism, and the counterculture. This shift coalesced in the rise of the “New Right”—a diverse coalition of social conservatives motivated by anticommunism as well as their positions on race, religion, family, or gender roles.
Part of the New Right opposition to the ERA stemmed from conservatives’ belief in limited government, and their fear that the amendment would grant too much power to the federal government to interfere in the traditional, nuclear family. Schlafly capitalized on these concerns and stoked fears by highlighting the potential – if unlikely – wide-ranging ramifications of the amendment, regardless of their validity. For example, she argued that the ERA would force men and women to share public restrooms, lead to women being drafted into combat, hurt women’s custody rights in divorce cases, and lead to same sex marriage and unlimited abortion rights. Schlafly especially pulled no punches in critiquing “women’s libbers” who supported the ERA because, she argued, they “hate men, marriage, and children.”
But Mrs. America’s focus on Schlafly and the rise of the New Right blinds the audience to other hidden opponents of the ERA. As feminist scholar Jessica Neuwirth argues, many businesses and insurance lobby groups were anti-ERA because “they knew very well that equality would cost a lot of money, from equal pay itself to equalizing the actuarial tables and insurance rates.” In addition, insurance was regulated by state governments, where ratification occurred, and “the most frequent occupation of a state legislator was insurance agent.” Indeed, in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Gloria Steinem and Eleanor Smeal panned Mrs. America for its failure to examine the role of business and insurance interests in the anti-ERA movement, instead depicting a “Catfight Theory of History” that pits women against women.
However, we can acknowledge Neuwirth’s findings and refrain from using the term “catfight” but still want to explore the central question of why women like Schlafly and her followers would work against the rights of other women. This question, and the battle lines it drew, also makes for riveting television. The irony the show leans into heavily is that despite her opposition to “women’s libbers,” Schlafly herself led a relatively liberated life. Although she portrayed herself as a traditional homemaker, she was a visible and vocal leader in Republican politics, on television, and in speaking engagements across the country. As depicted in the last episode of Mrs. America, she eventually attended law school at Washington University in St. Louis. This tension – that Schlafly campaigned against the feminist movement while simultaneously benefiting from its gains – drives the show and Blanchett’s compelling performance. In one telling scene she shirks off the duties of motherhood that she’s painted as central to her identity – in this case it’s picking up her daughter stranded at school – for an event with Ronald Reagan. The final scene of the series – in which Schlafly returns to the kitchen to make dinner after President-Elect Reagan informs her she will not have a position in his cabinet despite her efforts on the campaign’s behalf – puts her position into stark relief. It is reminiscent of another Hulu television character – Serena Joy on The Handmaid’s Tale – whose leadership on behalf of a movement against women leads to the silencing of her own voice. Indeed, Margaret Atwood, the author of the book The Handmaid’s Tale that the series is based on, was partially inspired by Phyllis Schlafly for the character Serena Joy.
The Diversity of the Women’s Movement
“There will be no ‘Lavender Menace’ bullshit here. Lesbians are welcome. Horizontal hostility is not.”
– Flo Kennedy, Episode 4: “Betty”
“I would like to explore the idea of tokenism in the workplace. This phenomenon that happens where one minority is propped up to cover the experience of an entire population. Like the white population, we are diverse within ourselves.”
– Margaret Sloan-Hunter, Episode 4: “Betty”
Unlike the singular focus on the conservative Schlafly, Mrs. America correctly portrays the second-wave feminist movement as one without a single dominant leader. The show brings to the forefront many of the leading feminist activists and political leaders of the period, including Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Brenda Feigen, Florynce Kennedy, Midge Costanza, Jill Ruckelshaus, Audrey Rowe Colom, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, and more. For the sake of drama, however, it does overplay some of the conflict between individuals, especially Steinem and Friedan.
The most significant tensions in the second-wave feminist movement existed around race and sexuality, and both sources of conflict come into focus at various points in Mrs. America. Black feminist Frances Beal described the intersection of prejudice as “double jeopardy” in 1970, long before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989 to explain how intersecting identities – race, sex, class, sexuality – impact individual experiences of discrimination and privilege. The impacts of “double jeopardy” are evident in many of the characters’ story arcs, depicting how the real-life counterparts felt working at the margins of a white- and straight-dominated feminist movement.
The tensions between straight and lesbian feminists play out in several episodes, particularly through the character of Midge Costanza, special assistant to President Carter. Costanza, along with her partner Jean O’Leary, campaigned heavily to include a “sexual preference” resolution at the National Women’s Conference knowing that the issue remained on the margins of the movement and might not pass. Betty Freidan, who once referred to lesbians in the feminist movement as a “lavender menace” truly did have a change of heart to support the resolution at Houston, as depicted in the series. While this probably didn’t change too many minds in the moment, it did symbolize shifting thinking about sexuality within the movement.
The clip below depicts the frustrating experiences of Margaret Sloan-Hunter, a black lesbian writer at Ms. who later left the magazine to create the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) with Flo Kennedy. Uzo Aduba’s powerful, Emmy-winning performance as presidential-contender Shirley Chisolm in episode 3 likewise reveals her struggle against being sidelined by a white-dominant feminist movement and Democratic Party.
The State Meetings
“I want you to imagine a group of Native Alaskan women getting on a bus in Fairbanks, Appalachian women getting on a bus in Beattyville, homemakers getting on a bus in Toledo. They’re all traveling to represent their state, all of them yearning to have a voice in government, to vote on issues that affect their lives.”
– Gloria Steinem, Episode 7: “Bella”
“If we’re gonna take over their conference by winning seats, they can’t see us coming.”
– Phyllis Schlafly, Episode 7: “Bella”
Nothing better encapsulates the scope and diversity of the feminist movement than the state meetings held before the National Women’s Conference of 1977, depicted in episode 6 of the series. As this was the focal point of my own doctoral dissertation, seeing it portrayed on screen felt surreal. Indeed, the show gave more time and attention to these meetings than many historical monographs written about the second-wave feminist movement.
My research focused on four state meetings, two that were sites of significant conservative surges and takeovers – Missouri and Washington – and two that were not – Vermont and North Carolina. Mrs. America focused primarily on the sites with conservative surges, which in reality accounted for a distinct minority of the states; consequently, the show skims over states in which women from all different backgrounds came together peacefully to find commonalities and vote on issues that mattered to them. I argued that these state meetings revealed the localization of feminism—women from small communities who networked, coalesced, and learned from one another. In many states, networking and coalition-building at these meetings led to new feminist activists, new statewide feminist organizations, the passage of new laws, and an increase in women running for political office. Hearing the Gloria Steinem quote above at the start of the episode brought me a flood of emotions and left me on the edge of my seat in the hopes that this local feminist coalition-building would become the focus of the episode, but harmony, naturally, does not make for as interesting of a television show as conflict.
The Emotional Significance of Houston
“Let this message go forth from Houston and spread all over the land. There is a new understanding, a new sisterhood against all injustices born right here. We will not be divided and defeated again.”
— Coretta Scott King, Episode 8: “Houston”
“I came here to defend myself, but I have to ask, who exactly is attacking us?”
– Alice, Episode 8: “Houston”
The Mrs. America viewer experiences the National Women’s Conference of 1977 through the eyes of the character Alice, Schlafly’s friend, who begins to question some of the polarization between the two sides. Despite being a fictional character, Alice’s argument that the conservative women did not need to oppose all of the feminists’ resolutions mirrored real life. Peggy Keilholz, a conservative Missouri delegate, caused tension within her all-conservative delegation when she voted “yes” on many resolutions. In particular, Keilholz remembered her fellow delegates calling her disloyal after she voted in favor of the resolution on women’s health, which included a reference to abortion rights. If not for the reassuring words of two of the delegates who told Keilholz to “do what you think is right,” Keilholz considered that she “probably would have left Houston early” because of the hostile environment among her delegation on the conference floor.
Mrs. America also provides glimpses of the grandiosity and excitement of Houston that Americans across the country would have watched on the nightly news – from the torch run from Seneca Falls to Houston, to the massive WOMAN sign behind the podium. The larger importance of Houston, I argue, is that it served as an emotionally significant event in the lives of its attendees. The emphasis on emotional celebrations, appearances by celebrities and first ladies, and historical commemoration not only roused the attention of the media and thus the American public, it also provided something akin to a religious revival atmosphere for attendees. Delegates and observers at Houston laughed, cried, shouted, fought, danced, sang, and cheered. As one participant Alice Rossi remembered of Houston: “It was marked by long hours, sleep and food deprivation, disruption of ordinary daily habits, intensity of social interaction, underlying anxiety concerning political disruption, sheer people density, excessive sensory stimulation, ear and eye strain for those try to follow events on the Coliseum podium over the buzz of delegates in front of them.” No wonder, Rossi argued, that participants were given to outpourings of emotion; the intensity of the experience “opens mind and body to profound vulnerability.”
The much smaller Pro-Family rally, also depicted on the show through Schlafly’s and Lottie Beth Hobbs’s perspectives, was an emotional event in the same vein. Historian Donald Critchlow argued that the counter-rally likewise had a “revival atmosphere” particularly because many of the attendees came from evangelical Christian denominations. But alongside these positive encounters, a shared sense of outrage and injustice propelled future action from each side in the months and years after Houston.
“I think that you are using the fight over women’s equality to build a mailing list of women who would support a conservative presidential candidate like Reagan. That list is gonna be worth a lot.”
– Jill Ruckelshaus to Phyllis Schlafly, Episode 6: “Jill”
“Our movement didn’t start in Washington; it’s not going to be stopped by it.”
–Gloria Steinem, Episode 9: “Reagan”
Mrs. America‘s ninth and final episode hastily covers the years after Houston, an era that could probably furnish a standalone season, if not an entire series of its own. As the United States electorate became more conservative, the power Schlafly sought suddenly seemed within reach, while feminists’ influence inside the beltway waned. In a gut-wrenching moment of the final episode, Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan fired Bella Abzug as head of the National Advisory Committee on Women, immediately after the group met with Carter to present the Plan of Action from Houston. While this scene might seem like a dramatization, the Mrs. America storyline closely followed the reality, which Gloria Steinem dubbed the “Friday Night Massacre.” As depicted, twenty-five of the other Advisory Committee members resigned in protest. Most Americans disapproved of Carter’s handling of Abzug’s firing, according to a Harris poll. In response to the firing and Carter’s tepid support for women’s rights, NOW and many other feminist organizations withheld their support for Carter in the 1980 election, backing Ted Kennedy in the primary. For Carter, the firing became a costly error that affected his reelection. However, the cost of not supporting Carter was high for feminists as well, causing Hamilton Jordon to remark, after the election, “the feminists … got—in Ronald Reagan—exactly what they deserved.”
As feminist influence waned in Washington in the 1980s, so too went the ERA. Three states shy of the three-quarters of states needed for the ERA to become law, Congress extended the original ERA ratification deadline until 1982 after pressure from feminists and a NOW-sponsored boycott of conventions in unratified states, but the three outstanding state ratifications never came. Reagan’s election in 1980 solidified the realignment of the Republican Party toward the New Right and the 1980 GOP platform was the first to not include support for the ERA in forty years. Yet, even as the show paints a somewhat bleak picture of the future of the ERA, at the time of the amendment’s failure, most Americans supported it. Even in unratified states like North Carolina, Florida, and Illinois, a solid majority of all voters favored its passage.
Today and Tomorrow
“Hold the door for the next bunch.”
— Bella Abzug to Shirley Chisholm, Episode 9: “Reagan”
“Sometimes the battle follows us home”
— Ronald Reagan, Episode 9: “Reagan”
Mrs. America ends in 1980, but repeatedly alludes to present political concerns. For example, viewers can not miss the introduction of two young Republican up-and-comers, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, in the last episode. In the epilogue, we are reminded that Schlafly remained active in family values politics up through her death in 2016, shortly after endorsing Donald Trump for president.
But as the music swells and the series ends, the show leaves viewers with a message of renewed hope: it notes that three more states have ratified the ERA in the past few years, and that the House voted to remove the ratification deadline in February of 2020. A Republican-led Senate makes passage unlikely, but with a 2020 sea-change in the Senate, it’s not impossible.
In the years since the 1970s, many of Phyllis Schlafly’s talking points against the amendment are no longer contemporary concerns – women are no longer excluded from combat and politicians on both sides of the aisle support women registering for the Selective Service; gender-neutral bathrooms are common; Obergfell v. Hodges (2015) legalized same sex marriage; and women no longer receive custody preference in divorce cases. No longer able to fall back on Schlafly’s old arguments against it, some critics now charge that the ERA is simply no longer necessary. Yet legislation can be overturned much more easily than a constitutional amendment and there are still no guarantees of women’s equal rights at a constitutional level. As the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once argued, “certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.” Perhaps the most compelling reason to seek ratification comes from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who articulated its importance for the next generation: “I have three granddaughters. I’d like them to be able to take out their Constitution and say, ‘Here is a basic premise of our system, that men and women are persons of equal stature.’ But it’s not in there.”
Mrs. America’s writers and creators owe a significant debt of gratitude (and an apology) to the historian Marjorie Spruill, whose 2017 book Divided We Stand chronicles much of the same history covered in the series. Spruill’s book draws on copious, detailed primary source research and interviews with key actors on both sides. It appears as though Spruill was not credited in or consulted for in the series, a serious oversight. For more about the battle over the ERA, the National Women’s Conference, and the rise of the New Right, see Spruill’s work on the subject:
- Marjorie J. Spruill, Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017).
Histories of the second-wave feminist movement, the National Women’s Conference, and the state meetings before Houston include:
- Lee Ann Banaszak, The Women’s Movement Inside and Outside the State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
- Sara Evans, Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (New York: The Free Press, 2003).
- Judith Ezekiel, Feminism in the Heartland (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002); Mary Thom, Inside Ms.: 25 Years of the Magazine and the Feminist Movement (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997)
- Myra Marx Ferree and Beth B. Hess, Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement across Three Decades of Change (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994)
- Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Viking Press, 2000)
- Barbara Ryan, Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement Ideology and Activism (New York: Routledge, 1992)
- Marjorie J. Spruill, “The Mississippi ‘Takeover’: Feminists, Antifeminists, and the International Women’s Year Conference of 1977” in Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, ed. Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003).
- Winifred D. Wandersee, On the Move: American Women in the 1970s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988)
Histories of the Republican Party and New Right’s intersection with the ERA and National Women’s Conference:
- Donald Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005)
- Ernest B. Furgurson, Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986)
- Rebecca Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988)
- William A. Link, Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008)
- Catherine Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006)
- Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, eds., Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
 Some portions of this article also appear in Mary Berkery, “‘We are a Multitude’: The 1977 International Women’s Year State Meetings and the Transformation of the Modern Feminist Movement” (PhD Diss., Binghamton University, 2013); Berkery, “The New Suffragists of 1977 and the Challenge of Coalition Building at Missouri’s International Women’s Year State Meeting,” Missouri Historical Review 107, no. 1 (Oct. 2012); Berkery, “A New ERA? The Past and Future of an Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution,” Excelsior Magazine 21, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 10-15.
 Catherine Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 81.
 Rymph, Republican Women, 212-215.
 Jessica Neuwirth, Equal Means Equal: Why the Time for an Equal Rights Amendment Is Now (New York: The New Press, 2015), xvi.
 Frances Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” in Sisterhood is Powerful, ed. Robin Morgan (New York: Vintage, 1970); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics” (University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989).
 Berkery, “We are a Multitude.”
 Peggy Keilholz, interview by Anne Kenney, transcript, 10, 15, 23, T-584, Folder 92, Box 3, sl. 228, International Women’s Year Collection (IWY Collection), Western Historical Manuscript Collection (WHMC), University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), St. Louis, MO. In Berkery, “We are a Multitude”
 Alice Rossi, Feminists in Politics: A Panel Analysis of the First National Women’s Conference (New York: Academic Press, 1982), 324.
 Donald Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 246; Pat Reed, “Pro-Family Group Inks Proposals,” Daily Breakthrough, November 20, 1977, Houston, 3, Document 144, in Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, “How Did the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977 Shape a Feminist Agenda for the Future? in Women and Social Movements in the United States 8, no. 4 (December 2004). Reed wrote that the Pro-Family rally had “a revival-type atmosphere filled with cheering and ‘amens.’”
 This was a play on “the Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate scandal when Nixon fired Archibald Cox. Marjorie J. Spruill, “Gender and America’s Right Turn” in Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, ed. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 88.
 Bella Abzug and Mim Kelber, Gender Gap: Bella Abzug’s Guide to Political Power for American Women (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 74; Suzanna Braun Levine and Mary Thom, Bella Abzug: How One Tough Broad from the Bronx Fought Jim Crow and Joe McCarthy, Pissed off Jimmy Carter, Battled for the Rights of Women and Workers, Rallied Against War and for the Planet and Shook up Politics Along the Way (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 221. The poll revealed a 52 to 29 percent negative rating of Carter’s firing of Abzug.
 Spruill, “Gender and America’s Right Turn,” 88.
 “Equal Rights Amendment.” In Suzanne O’Dea, From Suffrage to the Senate: America’s Political Women (Grey House Publishing, 2013).
 Neuwirth, Equal Means Equal, 5-7.
 The legality of the so-called “three state plan” remains somewhat unclear, due to the original ratification deadline and the rescission of ratification of several states. A separate strategy, endorsed by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, involves starting over with a new vote and new ratification in the states.
 Leigh Ann Wheeler, “Will the #MeToo Movement Lead to the Equal Rights Amendment?” Houston Chronicle (December 1, 2017).
 ERA Coalition, “Breaking: Americans-by 94%-Overwhelmingly Support the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)” (June 17, 2016).
 Neuwirth, Equal Means Equal, 71.