How accurate is ‘Mrs. America’s’ portrayal of Bella Abzug? We looked into it
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 7 focuses on Abzug, the three-term congresswoman from New York City who was known for her wide-brimmed hats and pugnacious wit, suggesting she and Schlafly were alike in their similarly thwarted political ambition. Set in 1977, immediately following her failed run for the Senate, Abzug is tasked with organizing the National Women’s Conference in Houston. Meanwhile, Schlafly and fellow ERA opponents gain steam — and become targets.
Here is a look at fact versus fiction in “Bella.”
What Hulu’s ‘Mrs. America’ gets right and wrong about Republican congresswoman Jill Ruckelshaus and evangelical activist Lottie Beth Hobbs in Episode 6.
Yes, Phyllis Schlafly got a pie in the face
In April 1977, Schlafly was hit in the face with a pie while at an event for the Women’s National Republican Club at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where she was accepting an award from the group.
The pie-thrower was Aron Kay, a.k.a. the Yippie Pie Man, a 27 year-old affiliated with the radical left-wing Youth International party who tossed the confections at a number of public figures over the course of a 20-year period and helped popularize pieing as an act of political protest.
But unlike the creamy-looking pie in “Mrs. America,” the pastry Kay lobbed at Schlafly was actually the all-American apple pie. Kay, who normally used cream-based pies, opted for apple because it represented motherhood and Americana, he explained at the time.
Kay also worked with a group called Pie Kill Unlimited, which would pie people for a price. He said he threw a pie at Schlafly because of her work against the ERA and that while some women’s groups backed his action, he was not paid for this particular attack.
A detail the episode gets right: Schlafly responded to the incident with relative good humor. “I appreciate that they didn’t pick cherry pie,” she told reporters. “That would have stained my dress.”
Kay was a menace to people across the political and cultural spectrum, tossing pies loaded with symbolic ingredients at then-Senate candidate Daniel Patrick Moynihan (mocha cream); Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt (coconut cream), California Gov. Jerry Brown (lemon coconut), New York Mayor Abe Beame (apple crumb) and Andy Warhol (cherry). He tossed his last pie in 1992, at antiabortion activist Randall Terry, but new generations of activists have followed in his footsteps, targeting public figures including Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch.
Ray never set out to hurt people and believed in nonviolence. As he told the San Francisco Examiner in 1998, “If wars were fought with pies, a lot of lives would be saved.”
Abzug was a trailblazing female lawyer who was involved in a high-profile civil rights case
Abzug was raised in the Bronx by her parents, who were Russian Jewish immigrants. Her father ran the cleverly named Live and Let Live Meat Market on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. She earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1944. In 1950, she joined the defense team working on the case of Willie McGee, a black Mississippi man who was accused of raping a white woman. He maintained their relationship was consensual, but a jury convicted him after deliberating for 2 ½ minutes.
Abzug traveled to the South to work on the case, which attracted extensive media coverage. She was turned away by a number of hotels and at one point wound up staying over a New Orleans brothel, as she recalls in “Mrs. America.” “I went through a lot of indignities for this case. It was not exactly a fun case,” wrote Abzug, who faced attacks from white supremacists and a hostile press. The Jackson Daily News said that “they should burn Willie McGee’s white woman lawyer along with him in the electric chair.” She was pregnant while working on the case and suffered a miscarriage at eight months. McGee was executed in 1951, and the execution was broadcast on the radio. “What he really did, the Southern bigots would not tolerate at the time,” Abzug wrote.
“Mrs. America” depicts the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. We’re fact-checking its historical accuracy, episode by episode.
Abzug’s career was at a difficult turning point when she was asked to preside over the National Women’s Conference in 1977
At the age of 50, Abzug ran for Congress in a progressive Manhattan district, using the slogan “A woman’s place is in the House,” as noted in “Mrs. America.” She walked away from the safe seat after three terms in order to run for the Senate but lost by less than a point in a tight primary race to the more moderate Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who went on to hold the seat for four terms. It was the first of several unsuccessful attempts to return to elected office.
In 1977, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to chair the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year and oversee the National Women’s Conference in Houston. As “Mrs. America” portrays, the conference was preceded by statewide meetings across the country, which were designed to help set the agenda in Houston and ultimately set goals for the elimination of barriers to women’s equality.
But ERA opponents, angry that feminists were running the IWY conferences, formed an ancillary group called the Citizens’ Review Committee and “organized to challenge feminists for control of them and the right to speak for American women,” writes Marjorie Spruill in her book, “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics.” The state meetings, intended to be an incubator for ideas about achieving women’s equality, became another battleground in the fight over the ERA. Some were disrupted by opponents wielding whistles and bullhorns. At the Illinois meeting depicted in “Bella,” ERA opponents marched out of a meeting singing “God Bless America.”
As the state meetings were growing increasingly chaotic, Abzug was also plotting a run for mayor of New York City — a fact that is largely overlooked in “Bella,” perhaps for the sake of focusing the narrative. She lost in a crowded primary to Ed Koch during a notoriously awful year in the city’s history.
FX on Hulu limited series ‘Mrs. America’ brings the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment to life with Cate Blanchett as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
No, Schlafly did not attend the Illinois IWY meeting
In “Bella,” Schlafly is a no-show at the Illinois state IWY meeting, disappointing her followers and allowing keynote speaker Abzug a moment of triumph. According to “Divided We Stand,” rumors had been circulating that Schlafly would attend the meeting. An article published by the Gannett News Service in May 1977 hyped up the potential drama, saying that “the scene is being set for a national battle between opposing titans of the women’s movement.” Schlafly “is considered likely to attend her home state’s conference,” it said.
In her keynote address, Abzug likened women who opposed the ERA to those who had opposed suffrage and argued that homemakers would benefit from the amendment’s passage. She was met with loud applause as well as occasional boos, according to reports at the time. (Meanwhile, Steinem was delivering the keynote in California.) Though she traveled across the country speaking against the ERA, Schlafly did not ultimately attend, which may have raised eyebrows. But it’s safe to assume her decision to stay away had little to do with food poisoning — or hot flashes. Later, Schlafly said conservative women would have done better at the meeting but they “didn’t want to leave their families for an entire weekend and spent it with a group of lesbians.”
“Mrs. America” does accurately capture the way that Schlafly inspired many homemakers to cultivate professional skills used outside the home — and effectively became “working girls,” as Abzug puts it. In “Divided We Stand,” Spruill writes about how many of the women who became involved in the movement against the ERA “discovered unknown talents” and how Schlafly trained them in speaking to the media and lobbying lawmakers.
Did Schlafly’s daughter disagree with her mother politically?
The writers of “Mrs. America” seem to have taken some creative license when it comes to their depiction of Schlafly family dynamics.
Liza, formerly known as Phyllis and the fourth of the six Schlafly children, did change her name while attending Princeton in the late ‘70s — the height of the pitched ERA debate. But there is not a tremendous amount of evidence suggesting she and her mother disagreed politically.
In a 1983 interview, Phyllis said that her children “generally” agreed with her views and she wasn’t bothered by Liza’s decision to change her name. “I really think she changed it because she is a good writer. She had summer jobs at two newspapers, with bylined articles, and wanted to have her own name,” she said at the time.
A review of the stories published under the byline “Liza Schlafly” doesn’t settle the issue. She wrote a story for the Atlanta Journal Constitution in 1980 about the effect of divorce on children, hinting at a shared interest in the role of the family. It opens with an image of a distraught, newly divorced mother meeting with a family therapist because she is “sagging under the triple demands of breadwinning, rebuilding her social life and self-esteem, and supervising her grief-stricken child.” But Liza also wrote an admiring review of a biography of the bisexual French writer Colette, “who combined great talent with utter defiance of bourgeois moral conventions.” (She also wrote about Americans’ love of bubble gum and a profile of a prolific bird-watcher.)
The younger Schlafly studied economics at Princeton and also wrote for the college newspaper, attended law school at the University of Virginia and married in 1981. According to a 2006 New York Times profile, Phyllis spoke “with bemusement” about Liza’s decision to leave her partnership at a St. Louis law firm after her children were grown. “She stuck it out through all the difficult years when the children were young, and then she decided to leave … I’ve never told my children what to do.” Unlike her sister, Anne Schlafly Cori, Liza serves no official role with the Eagle Forum, the organization her mother founded.
But the details Phyllis shares about her own childhood are accurate. Her father, a sales engineer for Westinghouse, lost his job during the Depression, and her mother, who had two college degrees, had to work jobs as a librarian and sales clerk to support the family. “Things were very grim,” she told the Times in 1978.
Also accurate? Liza’s older brother studied at Berkeley, but it doesn’t seem that he absorbed the school’s famously liberal politics.
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Did Phyllis Schlafly make and distribute “mix tapes” of scary quotes from feminists?
No, but Dianne Edmondson, an anti-ERA activist from Oklahoma, did, and they played a crucial role in mobilizing conservative women in Oklahoma and elsewhere to attend state IWY meetings. Spruill, who learned about the tapes from Schlafly herself, wrote extensively about them in her book, “Divided We Stand.” Edmondson was a member of the John Birch Society as well as Stop ERA and Lottie Beth Hobbs’ group Women Who Want to be Women, and produced and distributed a tape intended to frighten conservative listeners, particularly fundamentalist churches. Full of quotes from the era’s more radical activists and including warnings about Abzug’s support for gay rights, the tape “painted a portrait of a demonic and powerful feminist enemy,” Spruill wrote.
Edmondson’s tape was crucial in mobilizing the ERA opponents who staged a hostile takeover of the Oklahoma state IWY meeting in June 1977. The tape became famous in conservative circles, Spruill discovered, and was used to motivate conservatives elsewhere to attend IWY meetings in their states.
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