If you’ve watched any of “Mrs. America,” the star-studded miniseries about the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, you may be wondering how accurately it captures this divisive chapter in American political history.
The nine-part drama pits conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her followers against a band of feminist all-stars led by Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), who are prone to spirited internal debates. Creator Dahvi Waller and her team of writers conducted extensive research into Second Wave feminism and the rise of the new right in the 1970s.
Like nearly all works of historical fiction, “Mrs. America” takes some liberties, particularly when it comes to private conversations behind closed doors, and it offers a necessarily subjective take on highly polarizing figures such as Schlafly. But when it comes to events in the public record, “Mrs. America” hews close to the facts, often quoting feminist leaders and their critics verbatim.
“Overall, they have done a very good job,” said historian Marjorie Spruill, author of “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized America.”
Episode three explores the thorny intersection of race and gender on both sides of the ERA debate. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first black woman elected to Congress, makes a historic run for the presidency in 1972 but faces skepticism from both the women’s movement and other black politicians. Meanwhile, Democrats fight over abortion and ERA opponents grapple with racism in their ranks.
Here’s a look at fact versus fiction in episode three, “Shirley”:
Shirley Chisholm was stung by the lack of support she received from the women’s movement and black politicians
As the convention approaches, Chisholm, one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, faces pressure to drop out from her supposed allies — including Rep. Ron Dellums (Norm Lewis), cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus, who tells Chisholm they question whether she is “the candidate for blacks, or just for women.” She also struggles with wavering support from her peers in the NWPC, Abzug and Steinem.
As a trailblazing black woman in politics, Chisholm was used to having her loyalty questioned. When she declared her candidacy at an event in Brooklyn in January 1972, she said, “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement in this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.” During a campaign stop in Los Angeles, Chisholm confronted doubts about her candidacy in the black community — “Not many black people can really believe that a black person, who also happens to be a woman, can become president of this country” — and also fielded questions about why she chose not to wear her hair in a natural look.
Indeed, as Barbara Winslow writes in her book “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change,” Chisholm was viewed with skepticism — and in some cases anger — by the leading black male politicians of the time because they believed she would be viewed as the women’s candidate. And she was heartbroken when Dellums, her longtime supporter, bailed on her at the last minute to endorse McGovern — as depicted in “Mrs. America.”
Likewise, Chisholm received only “lukewarm support” from leading feminists, according to Winslow. Abzug never formally endorsed her, while Steinem’s support was qualified by the fact that she named McGovern “the best of the male candidates.” Chisholm actually confronted Steinem on a Chicago TV show about her “semi-endorsement.” Years later, Steinem expressed regret over the issue.
Another “Mrs. America” detail that stands up to scrutiny? According to Winslow’s book, Chisholm received multiple death threats and was given Secret Service protection. The FBI also investigated a racist smear campaign against her involving forged press releases written on stolen Hubert Humphrey campaign stationery.
There was a fight over abortion at the 1972 Democratic Convention. And, yes, Shirley MacLaine helped keep the issue out of the party platform
At the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, the NWPC emerged as a political force. Women made up 38% of the delegates, up from 13% in 1968, and some wanted to leverage their newfound clout to get the party to support reproductive choice at a time when abortion was still illegal in much of the country. (The Supreme Court would hand down its decision in Roe v. Wade about six months later.)
In “Shirley,” we see Steinem and Abzug meeting with George McGovern’s campaign director Gary Hart (John Palladino) and McGovern delegate Shirley MacLaine (Vanessa Smythe). Using an arcane mechanism of the convention rules, Steinem pledges 100 female delegates from California to McGovern in exchange for a floor vote on a reproductive rights plank. But when it looks like the measure might pass, Hart panics and pulls a delegate switcheroo, resulting in a bitter loss for abortion-rights proponents — particularly Steinem.
Which is basically what happened. In her colorful dispatch from the convention for Esquire Magazine, Nora Ephron wrote, “The fight over the abortion plank — which was referred to as the human-reproduction plank because it never once mentioned the word abortion — produced the most emotional floor fight of the convention.” She describes a tearful Steinem calling Hart a liar and a bastard, and Abzug “screaming at Shirley MacLaine.” For her part, the actress defended her role in the incident in a piece for the New York Times, explaining her pragmatic opposition to the plank despite her personal support for abortion rights. “It seemed to me a strong abortion plank would hurt not only George McGovern — but the issue itself,” she wrote at the time.
The show’s portrayal of Steinem as idealistic and Abzug more grounded is fair, Spruill said. “Steinem hates political compromises. And Abzug is also concerned about economic and racial justice as well as gender. But she also is a politician who deals in the world of what’s possible and understands that better. She was concerned that they get McGovern elected first.”
Phyllis Schlafly probably did turn a blind eye to racists in her movement
In the same episode, Schlafly acolyte Alice (Sarah Paulson) confronts Mary Frances (Melinda Page Hamilton), a Stop ERA member from Louisiana, about her racist language. Schlafly intervenes in the dispute and taps Mary Frances to lead her state organization but reminds members to stick to approved talking points. “It serves our cause better to all use identical language,” she says. In other words: It’s fine if you’re racist, just don’t advertise it because it makes us look bad.
While the specific scenario appears to have been manufactured by the writers of “Mrs. America,” the dynamic it portrays is accurate, according to Spruill, who interviewed Schlafly on multiple occasions.
“She told me, ‘I am an equal-opportunity opponent of the ERA, and any group that is opposed to it, whatever their reasons, are welcome to work with us,’” Spruill said. In her research, Spruill also found that a “significant number” of prominent Stop ERA members were affiliated with far-right organizations such as the John Birch Society and segregationist groups including Women for Constitutional Government, which was founded in opposition to the integration of Ole Miss.