How accurate is ‘Mrs. America’s’ portrayal of Republican women? We investigated
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), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) 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 offers a necessarily subjective take on highly polarizing figures such as Schlafly, whose family and supporters have been critical of the series.
Episode 6 tells the story of Republican feminist Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), a relatively little-known figure in the fight over the ERA, and follows both the libbers and the antis as they attempt to expand their coalition across the religious and political spectrum. It also delves into the never-not-timely subject of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Here is a look at fact versus fiction in “Jill.”
What the ‘Mrs. America’ gets right and wrong about Brenda and Marc Feigen Fasteau and Phyllis Schlafly’s son in Episode 5.
Lottie Beth Hobbs and other religious conservative women played a crucial role in expanding Schlafly’s anti-ERA coalition
A key development in “Jill” is the alliance Schlafly, a Catholic, forges with other religious conservatives, particularly evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants but also Mormons and Orthodox Jews, in order to expand her fight against the ERA via the newly formed Eagle Forum.
In an amusingly tense scene, Schlafly meets with Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond), whose widely read “Pink Sheet” flyer — so named for the color of the paper it’s printed on — borrows heavily from Schlafly’s own, to propose coordinating their efforts.
Religion is “absolutely essential to understanding the foot soldiers of this movement,” said Marjorie Spruill, author of “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics,” a key resource for Waller. “Schlafly was really smart about bringing these groups that had previously been suspicious and hostile to one another together — Catholics, Mormons, fundamentalist Protestants. All those groups had a real stake in male authority in the church.” By bringing them together under the banner of the Eagle Forum, Schlafly helped “make this not just an ad hoc movement against the ERA but a permanent political and social movement,” Spruill said.
Though not nearly as well-known or as publicity friendly as Schlafly, Hobbs, a Texan, was the founder of an organization called Women Who Want to Be Women — or WWWW — which began as an effort to rescind Texas’ ratification of the ERA and distributed a flyer known as “The Pink Sheet.” She was a member of the Church of Christ, “a church that believed in preserving male authority in the church and in the family,” Spruill said, and played a crucial role in mobilizing conservative women, particularly in the South and the West, “who had not been very politically active before.”
“They believed they were Christian soldiers working to preserve a Christian way of life against these ungodly feminists,” said Spruill, explaining that religion, rather than class or education, was a key dividing line in the ERA battle: Research showed that people who were the most active against the amendment were regular churchgoers affiliated with conservative denominations.
Hobbs, who died in 2016, published numerous books on Christianity, with titles such as “You Can Be Beautiful: With Beauty That Never Fades” and “Daughters of Eve: Strength for Today from Women of Yesterday.”
According to this fascinating piece on “The Pink Ladies” at war with the ERA, published in Mother Jones in 1977, Hobbs was initially so hostile to the press she wouldn’t even give reporters her name, using only the name “Mrs. X.” (The piece also gets into the alleged ties between racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the anti-ERA movement.) As Spruill writes in “Divided We Stand,” Mary Kay Cosmetics even distributed literature from the Pink Ladies.
Wayne Hays, a Democratic congressman, was accused of keeping his mistress on the payroll
“Jill” revisits a political sex scandal that has been somewhat forgotten because, well, who can keep track of them all? In the episode, Ruckelshaus, Abzug and Chisholm interact with Rep. Wayne Hays and his surly secretary, who is later revealed to be his mistress.
Hays was a Democrat from Ohio who resigned after Elizabeth Ray, a 27-year-old clerk in his office, claimed she was paid $14,000 a year for sexual favors and did no office work. “I can’t type, I can’t file, I can’t even answer the phone,” Ray told the Washington Post, which broke the story in May 1976.
Ray had a Capitol Hill office, where she kept a copy of Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” next to a typewriter that was never plugged in, according to the Post. The office, which she visited once or twice a week for a few hours, was next to Abzug’s, “in which — in only a slightly larger space — a dozen or more Abzug staffers are shoehorned into as many desks piled with office work.”
Hays, then in his 60s, was newly wed to his second wife — who had also been his secretary in Ohio — when the scandal broke. He initially denied the affair, saying, “Hell’s fire! I’m a very happily married man.” He soon admitted to the liaison and resigned tearfully, but insisted that Ray had not just been paid for sex.
Ray went to reporters after Capitol police escorted her out of Hay’s office, where she’d gone to confront the congressman about being the only member of his staff excluded from his wedding guest list. “I was good enough to be his mistress for two years, but not good enough to be invited to his wedding,” she said.
Ray also told federal investigators that she was ordered by her previous employer, Rep. Kenneth J. Gray of Illinois, to have sex with Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel in exchange for his vote on a building project.
And she claimed she was not the only young woman on Capitol Hill who was used for sex.
“There are 10 or 15 offices [on the Hill] that I know girls have had to do this to get a job,” she told the Post, noting that only Hays was unusually cruel. “The other congressmen at least treat them like a date. I used to go into depression, but I had to tell myself that it’s a job I have to do right now.”
Ray later posed for Playboy and published a roman a clef novel called “The Washington Fringe Benefit” featuring thinly veiled portrayals of DC power brokers. Hays returned to Ohio, where he remained active in local politics, and died in 1989. You can watch an interview with Ray here.
“Mrs. America” depicts the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. We’re fact-checking its historical accuracy, episode by episode.
Schlafly believed that sexual harassment was not an issue for “virtuous women”
In “Jill,” Schlafly and Ruckelshaus, both Republicans, share a drink and talk policy. The conversation is initially friendly but becomes more heated when it turns to the subject of the ERA. Ruckelshaus cites the struggles of women being sexually harassed on Capitol Hill as evidence of the need for the ERA; Schlafly responds that “virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions.”
The conversation between Ruckelshaus and Schlafly seems to have been invented as a way to contrast two women who stand on different sides in the ERA battle but share many things in common — large families, advanced degrees from Harvard, relative affluence and an interest in Republican politics. But Schlafly really did hold these views on sexual harassment; in fact, the quote is lifted directly from her testimony in a Senate Labor Committee hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace in 1981.
“When a woman walks across the room, she speaks with a universal body language that most men intuitively understand,” she said in the hearing. “Men hardly ever ask sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is ‘No.’ Virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities, obscene talk or profane language.”
Schlafly, who died in 2016, not long before the explosion of #MeToo, also expressed inflammatory opinions on domestic abuse (allegations were often made up because “the financial incentives to lie or exaggerate are powerful,” she once wrote) and marital rape (“When you get married you have consented to sex. That’s what marriage is all about.”)
Jill Ruckelshaus was a Republican feminist who supported abortion rights at a time when that was still a thing
Once known as “the Gloria Steinem of the Republican Party,” Ruckelshaus was one of the co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She served as the head of the Office of Women’s Programs in the Nixon administration. Originally from Indiana, She was also married to Bill Ruckelshaus, a casualty of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” (More on this later.)
Originally from Indiana, Ruckelshaus married her husband, then a widower with twin babies — his first wife had died shortly after their birth — when she was 25, and they had three more children together. And yes, she did take Dr. Spock on her honeymoon.
As captured by Banks’ performance, Ruckelshaus, who had a master’s degree from Harvard, could always be relied on for a pithy quote and used humor to advance her cause. She once opened a speech by comparing herself to one of Henry Kissinger’s girlfriends, quipping, “I know what’s expected of me, but I’m not sure I can make it interesting.” But unlike some of her more radical peers, Ruckelshaus was seen as non-threatening, praised by the press for her “cornfed good looks.” A profile in 1983 described her as “a paragon of upper-middle-class assertiveness” and noted her “Windex-blue eyes.”
While Ruckelshaus was viewed at the time as something of an oddity — “the Nixon administration’s token women’s libber” — she was not a complete anomaly. As portrayed in “Mrs. America,” First Lady Betty Ford was also a vocal feminist who supported abortion rights and enthusiastically campaigned for the ERA. In August 1975, she sat with “60 Minutes” for a controversial interview in which she praised Roe v. Wade as a “great, great decision.” (Schlafly picketed both Betty Ford and Rosalyn Carter outside the White House.)
The United Nations had declared 1975 “International Year of the Woman,” and President Ford, who supported the ERA, appointed Ruckelshaus to lead the commission overseeing its observation with the hopes of boosting public support for the amendment, which had begun to stall. As depicted in “Jill,” this included a televised special, “Women of the Year,” broadcast on CBS and sponsored by Ladies Home Journal. It featured appearances by Alan Alda and Barbara Walters, as well as a two-minute speech about the ERA by Ruckelshaus.
As depicted in “Jill,” at the Republican National Convention in 1976 the party reiterated its support for the ERA, calling its ratification “essential to insure equal rights for all Americans,” despite the vocal objections of Schlafly and her followers. But the party, which had previously not addressed the issue in its platform, had begun to solidify its opposition to abortion, calling Roe v. Wade an “intrusion into the family structure” and expressing support for a constitutional amendment protecting “the right to life for unborn children.”
Ruckelshaus later served under Ronald Reagan as the commissioner of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but was fired “because I wasn’t Republican enough,” she told C-SPAN in 2005.
Locked in a tight race with Reagan, Ford wanted Bill Ruckelshaus as his running mate, but changed his mind at the last minute
Like his wife, Bill Ruckelshaus (portrayed in the series by Josh Hamilton) was a moderate Republican who found himself at odds with his party. Twice appointed to run the Environmental Protection Agency, he was also a deputy attorney general during the Nixon administration but resigned on Oct. 20, 1973 rather than follow the president’s orders to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the event known as “the Saturday Night Massacre.”
Ruckelshaus’ upstanding reputation — he was jokingly called “Mr. Clean” — made him an appealing pick for Gerald Ford in 1976, who was making his first (and only) run for the White House while the Watergate scandal was still fresh in the minds of voters. Coming into the convention in Kansas City, Ford held a narrow delegate lead over Ronald Reagan, the candidate backed by the new right, but did not have enough to secure the nomination.
According to Nelson A. Rockefeller, the incumbent vice president who had agreed to step down, Ford wanted to pick Ruckelshaus, a moderate. But he instead picked Kansas senator and staunch abortion opponent Bob Dole in order to quell a potential rebellion among conservative Southern delegates who backed Reagan. (Reportedly there were even a few Ford-Ruckelshaus buttons made.) There was speculation that Jill’s activism, particularly her position on abortion, kept her husband off the ticket.
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