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Want to know more about the real ‘Mrs. America’? Here’s your reading list

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in "Mrs. America."
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in “Mrs. America.”
(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

Mrs. America” is an ambitious limited series telling the story of the decade-long battle over the Equal Rights Amendment. Like a second-wave feminist version of “Avengers: End Game,” the nine-part drama pits conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her loyal housewife foot soldiers against a band of feminist all-stars, including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman).

The series is not based on a single book but baked out of numerous memoirs, biographies, scholarly histories and journalistic accounts, topped off with a generous helping of creative license. Creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller spent several years researching the time period, a process she rather enjoyed. “Research is my jam,” says the former “Mad Men” writer. “I can spend hours down a rabbit hole on newspapers.com reading the Alton Evening Telegraph from 1972.”

Below are the books Waller says were most instructive when it came to understanding this complicated chapter of American political history as well as its tremendous impact on the present day.

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Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics” by Marjorie J. Spruill

Waller and her writers relied heavily on this comprehensive history of the battle over the ERA and the still-raging culture war it ignited. Spruill, a historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, provides a detailed account of the 1977 Women’s Convention — a pivotal but overlooked event in the women’s movement that’s the focus of a standout episode later in the series. Spruill “did a really impressive job on the political history,” Waller says, “and really giving context to how the battle between the ‘pros’ and the ‘antis’ fit within a larger political history and landscape.”

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” by Suzanne Braun Levine and Mary Thom

With a comically long subtitle that really lets you know what you’re in for, this oral history includes lengthy interviews with a wide array of people who knew Abzug, who represented the West Side of Manhattan and parts of the Bronx in Congress in the 1970s and was one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Written by two of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, the book was useful in explaining how Abzug “came to the the women’s rights movement from the civil rights movement,” Waller says. It also conveyed Abzug’s colorful personality through funny anecdotes. One of these stories — revolving around the congresswoman’s bawdy response to a nude poster of Gloria Steinem produced by pornographer Al Goldstein — made it into Episode 4, “Betty.”

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Gloria Steinem at home in New York City, 2010.
(Annie Leibovitz / Penguin Random House)

The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem” by Carolyn F. Heilbrun

Waller says this biography offers a largely uncritical portrait of the celebrated feminist but provided a helpful overview of Steinem’s upbringing in Ohio, her romantic relationships and the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971 — a signal event portrayed in the Steinem-centric episode, “Gloria.” In addition to Steinem’s memoirs, “My Life on the Road” and “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion,” “The Education of a Woman” offered details that were “really helpful in rounding out her character,” Waller says.

Florynce ‘Flo’ Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical” by Sherie M. Randolph

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A major theme in “Mrs. America” is the divide between white and black feminists in the 1970s and the role of race in the battle over the ERA. Before she began her research, Waller knew little about Florynce Kennedy, a lawyer and activist played in the series by Niecy Nash. “After reading this book, I think it’s a gross failure” that Kennedy isn’t more widely recognized, she says. “This is a great biography that really places her at the beginning of intersectional feminism, as one of the first women to speak about the intersection of sexism and racism and the connections between Black Power and the feminist movement.”

Cover of the book "Florynce 'Flo' Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical" by Sherie M. Randolph.
(Richard Avedon / UNC Press)

Interviews With Betty Friedan” edited by Janann Sherman

This collection helped round out Waller’s portrayal of the woman whose groundbreaking book, “The Feminine Mystique,” helped ignite feminism’s second wave. “A lot of the interviews in the book really captured details about Betty — for instance what a mess her apartment was, her purse being a landfill of people’s phone numbers and notes to herself and makeup,” Waller says. “It gave such nice texture to her character.” She also drew from Friedan’s collection, “It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement,” which delves into key dramatic moments such as the 1972 Democratic Convention, as well as the columns Friedan wrote for McCall’s magazine, which often dealt openly with her quest for romance. “We were fascinated by how boy crazy Betty was. She really loved to date and really loved falling in love. We found it a wonderful characteristic of hers.”

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Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade” by Donald T. Critchlow

“I actually find it very useful to read works of hagiography, because then you understand why she appealed to so many people on the far right,” Waller says of this biography by a conservative scholar. The book offers a primer on conservative activism, explains Schlafly’s background in nuclear defense and includes detailed accounts of several events that made it into the series — including a pivotal meeting with Sen. Barry Goldwater and the formation of Stop ERA — but were not thoroughly documented in feminist literature.

Phyllis Schlafly, national chairman of Stop ERA, in 1976.
(Associated Press)

Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” by Carol Felsenthal

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Despite being a subtly critical look at Schlafly, this biography is still well regarded by her acolytes. Felsenthal was a young feminist who became interested in learning more about Schlafly after she negatively reviewed Schlafly’s 1977 book, “The Power of the Positive Woman,” and was inundated with hate mail. Felsenthal, who consulted on “Mrs. America,” ended up spending time with Schlafly at home in Illinois and interviewing her family members. The biography “paints a really detailed portrait of Schlafly’s home life,” Waller says. It was recommended by a member of Stop ERA who was friends with Schlafly. Waller attributes the book’s popularity with supporters to glowing quotes about Schlafly from Stop ERA members, as well as the credit Felsenthal gives her for killing the amendment’s ratification. “There’s also a narrative that once Carol spent time with Phyllis that Phyllis turned her,” Waller says, “but I can assure you she’s still very much a feminist.”

Read more about the characters of “Mrs. America” from The Times’ archive: Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug.

The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report From Behind the Lines” by Tanya Melich

“Once we decided that the show was about a lot more than just the battle over the ERA and second-wave feminism and really about the rise of the new right and the Moral Majority and the realignment of the parties, we wanted to read more about the shift in the political landscape in the ‘70s that we’re still feeling today,” Waller says. Melich’s book included the type of “pro-choice Republican feminist leaders who now don’t really exist anymore,” including Jill Ruckelshaus, a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus (played in “Mrs. America” by Elizabeth Banks). “The pivot of the Republican Party from being pro-woman and pro-choice to being the party that’s anti-woman really happened around 1976, and this book really speaks to that turn.”

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In "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan coined one of feminism's most memorable phrases: "the problem that has no name."
(Associated Press)

Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington” by Bella S. Abzug

Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Times” by Flo Kennedy

The Good Fight” by Shirley Chisholm

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“It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement” by Betty Friedan

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion” and “My Life on the Road” by Gloria Steinem

“The Power of the Positive Woman” by Phyllis Schlafly

The women of “Mrs. America” were a prolific bunch. In fact, Waller jokes, “There were times when I wish they were a little less prolific.” But their numerous memoirs and essay collections were invaluable when it came to capturing their individual voices and telling the story of the time from multiple points of view. “When you read Betty Friedan’s account and then you read Shirley Chisholm’s account and then you read Gloria Steinem’s account, you start to get a fuller picture,” she says. “To have each woman be able to tell us in her own words was really a gift to us.”


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