How accurate is ‘Mrs. America’s’ take on Phyllis Schlafly’s role in Reagan election?
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 STOP ERA movement against a formidable band of feminists 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 writers conducted extensive research into Second Wave feminism and the rise of the new right in the 1970s.
Like most works of historical fiction, “Mrs. America” takes liberties, particularly when it comes to conversations that took place behind closed doors, offering a speculative take on highly polarizing figures such as Schlafly, whose family and supporters have been critical of the series.
In the series finale, Abzug is fired as the presiding officer of President Jimmy Carter’s women’s advisory committee, spurring the mass resignation of other members. Meanwhile, Schlafly prematurely celebrates the defeat of the ERA and helps usher Ronald Reagan into office but is passed over for a post in his Cabinet.
Here’s a look at fact versus fiction in the limited series final episode, “Reagan.”
“Mrs. America” depicts the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. We’re fact-checking its historical accuracy, episode by episode.
First things first: Did Phyllis Schlafly really wear a wig to take the bar exam?
As outlandish as this might seem, it is true. The opening scene of “Reagan” is lifted almost verbatim from a March 1979 article in the Chicago Tribune in which Schlafly, confronted by a reporter and photographer, “reluctantly” admits to having just taken her Illinois bar exam and says she plans to practice constitutional law. According to the piece, which sadly lacks a byline, “When asked if this wasn’t contradictory to her beliefs, Schlafly responded, ‘I’ve raised six kids and I can do what I want ... I’ve always said that women can do whatever they want.’ As for the wig, she explained, ‘I didn’t have time to do my hair.’”
Why did Jimmy Carter fire Bella Abzug, and did everyone on her commission really resign in protest?
In “Reagan,” Bella Abzug’s firing and the resignation of the members of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Women is a dramatic incident used to signal the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the waning political influence of the women’s movement in the 1980s.
While the story behind the so-called Friday Night Massacre is complicated and the episode takes clear dramatic liberties, the broad strokes are accurate, according to accounts in “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics” by Marjorie Spruill and an oral biography of Abzug published a decade after her death (and formidably subtitled “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”).
A bit of context: After the National Women’s Conference in Houston, Carter formed an Advisory Committee on Women. Abzug was named co-chair of the group, whose members included columnist Erma Bombeck and future Texas Gov. Ann Richards — but not Gloria Steinem. By late 1978, a year had passed since Houston and feminists were increasingly frustrated with Carter’s alleged inaction on their agenda.
In a major blow to the movement, Midge Costanza, a target of social conservatives (played in the series by Annie Parisse), resigned from her job as an advisor on women’s issues in August 1978. Within the administration, there was concern that Carter, who had won support from both evangelicals and feminists in 1976 and had struck a difficult middle ground on abortion, was alienating religious voters by aligning with divisive figures such as Abzug.
The committee members asked Carter for a meeting and, as seen in “Reagan,” were initially offered a 15-minute slot the day before Thanksgiving. Against Abzug’s objections, they decided to cancel at the last minute.
The meeting was rescheduled for January — for half an hour, not two hours as portrayed in “Reagan” — and the committee was given just a week’s notice to prepare. With Abzug traveling, the committee met to discuss the agenda for the meeting. They released a press statement critical of Carter’s plans to cut domestic spending and boost the military budget. The move angered Carter, who felt that defense spending was not a women’s issue, and his advisors, who told him he looked weak and needed to take action. Firing Abzug would “take care of someone who was really sticking it to us,” as an unnamed Carter advisor told the Washington Post.
After weighing the options, Carter decided the best course of action was to fire her after the meeting, which by most accounts was tense if not overtly combative. Carter was said to be visibly angry and red in the face — committee member Eleanor Smeal said she felt that the group had been “read the riot act” by the president — while Abzug’s allies claim she spoke forcefully but respectfully.
The meeting was followed by a conciliatory press conference in the Rose Garden, where Abzug made nice for the cameras. Afterward, White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to meet in private. (In “Reagan,” this happens as Abzug and other committee members are walking on the streets of Washington, D.C.) He and the president’s counsel, Robert Lipshutz, broke the news, citing the rescheduling of the committee’s meeting with Carter and the press release. Abzug objected, saying she’d been scapegoated. “Next you’ll be saying we fired you for being Jewish,” Lipshutz reportedly responded. When Abzug asked if she could resign to save face, Jordan told her the press had already been notified.
As depicted in “Reagan,” Abzug’s humiliating dismissal sparked a mass resignation by many — though not all — members of the committee. Accounts vary, but between half and two-thirds of the group’s 40 members ultimately tendered their resignation, starting with co-chair Carmen Delgado Votaw (who is played in the series by Andrea Navedo). In the episode, they hand over their resignation letters one after the other, but the truth was somewhat less dramatic: Most resigned over the phone, thought Votaw did so in person at the White House. Those who did not resign included Bombeck and Richards.
In a turn of events that will sound extremely familiar, the firing sparked discussion in the media about “expectations of women in politics,” Spruill writes in “Divided We Stand.” “Some said Abzug’s fall from political grace was a warning about what happens when a woman is seen as overly ambitious, aggressive, or outspoken.”
The incident turned many leading feminists against Carter, whom they supported tepidly in 1980; Smeal described it as “the beginning of the end of Carter’s reign.” For his part, Jordan said that when Reagan won the election, feminists got “what they richly deserved.”
One person who celebrated Abzug’s firing? Phyllis Schlafly, who sent Carter a telegram — just as depicted in “Mrs. America.”
Did Schlafly attend a gala to celebrate the “death” of the ERA? And was there a bomb threat?
Yes and yes.
Much of the action in “Reagan” takes place at a splashy gala celebrating the defeat of the ERA and honoring Schlafly for her work against it, a real event that was held in Washington on March 22, 1979 — the original deadline for the ratification of the amendment. By 1979, the ERA had been granted a three-year extension, making the party a tad premature, but Schlafly believed the extension was illegal, vowed to fight it in court, and pronounced the amendment dead “morally and constitutionally.”
At the gala, Schlafly and about 1,100 guests celebrated the end of an “era of conservative defeats.” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah played the role of emcee for the night’s program, which included sketches brutally lampooning feminists. The entrance to the ballroom was decorated with floral wreaths draped with sashes reading “Rest in Peace ERA,” reported the New York Times.
Guests “had to leave the ballroom midway through the evening” when Hatch announced there had been “two telephoned bomb threats and threats on Mrs. Schlafly’s life,” according to an account by a UPI reporter that you can read here. But after a half-hour break, the celebration resumed.
The incident prompted jokes from Schlafly, who remarked that “the only way they can win ratification is to blow up everybody in this room,” and Sen. Jesse Helms, who said that “Bella’s bombers failed.”
According to Carol Felsenthal’s Schlafly biography, “The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority,” the bomb threat interrupted a portion of the program called the “ERA Follies,” which featured Stop ERA members impersonating Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug — a detail which seems to have inspired the scene in “Reagan” where Rosemary Thomson (Melanie Lynskey) dresses up as Steinem and sings a ditty called “Two Little Feminists.” (One of the parodies from the real-life skit featured lyrics written by Schlafly and included the line “I want a person, just like the person who married dear old parent.”)
Another memorable detail from the episode — Schlafly’s gown with its crazy harpy wings — is accurate but anachronistic. She wore a dress in that style in 1982, but opted for a red silk suit at the gala, according to the New York Times.
“Mrs. America” shows how Phyllis Schlafly stopped the ERA. For a lifelong feminist, it’s a tough watch. It’s also one of TV’s most important.
But did young Roger Stone and Paul Manafort meet with Schlafly at the 1980 convention?
Probably, but there is little in the public record to confirm it and the meeting portrayed in “Reagan” appears to have been invented by Waller as a way to draw a connection between the elections of 1980 and 2016 — and Schlafly’s pivotal role in both conservative victories.
As Tanya Melich recounts in her book, “The Republican War Against Women,” Schlafly and her supporters were actively involved in drafting the GOP party platform that year, which for the first time in 40 years rejected the ERA and also cemented the party’s opposition to abortion. Manafort and Stone were young up-and-coming Republican operatives who had formal roles in Reagan’s campaign and had just founded a political consulting firm known for its hardball tactics. Manafort was involved in negotiations over the party plank on the ERA, which would almost certainly have brought him into contact with Schlafly. Meanwhile, Stone “played a major role in linking the Republican Party with the New Right,” according to Melich, making it likely he would have met Schlafly at some point on the campaign trail.
Worth noting: Earlier this year, Stone was honored by the Eagle Forum with the Phyllis Schlafly Eagle Award for his role in electing Trump and for fighting “front and center against the attempted coup by Robert Mueller and his Deep State minions.”
Did Schlafly want a position in Reagan’s Cabinet?
Yes, most definitely, though she was not exactly consistent about it — at least not in public.
In “Reagan,” Schlafly bails on her longtime ally Rep. Phil Crane (James Marsden) to become an early and enthusiastic backer of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign and is crestfallen when she is passed over for a job in his administration.
In “Divided We Stand,” Spruill maintains that Schlafly and other women in the “pro-family” movement were behind Reagan from the beginning of his campaign, while a 2016 Times article by Carter biographer Randall Balmer claims that Schlafly initially backed Crane, who was the first Republican to enter the race, because she was not entirely convinced of Reagan’s conservative credentials — just as we see in “Mrs. America.”
Regardless, Schlafly soon came around to Reagan “and evidently believed that her advocacy on his behalf entitled her to a plum appointment in his administration,” Balmer wrote. (As for that stuff in the episode about Crane participating in a threesome, there were rumors the archconservative and his wife, who was known as an enthusiastic drinker, had bragged about inviting another man to join them in the bedroom.)
By the time Republicans gathered for their convention in July 1980, there was already “hopeful speculation among the New Right” that Schlafly — whom they called their “First Lady” — would land a Cabinet post, according to the Boston Globe. She told the paper she wanted to be secretary of defense to “restore the United States to a position of military superiority” but also seemed to pre-empt the possibility by saying,” “I’m sure it’s going to a man for that post.”
After Reagan defeated Carter in a landslide in November — a win Schlafly eagerly took credit for and called a great victory for women — she publicly hinted she was under consideration for the job, saying “a lot of people are interested in defense for me,” but in typical Schlafly fashion also stated her belief that the job should go to a man and expressed concerns about living in Washington.
During the campaign, Reagan had vowed to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, and many feminists feared that Schlafly would be awarded with a lifetime appointment. When asked, she said she would like to be considered. (Reagan kept his promise, appointing Sandra Day O’Connor — a moderate who supported the ERA.)
Behind the scenes, Schlafly had powerful conservative backers pushing to get her a Cabinet post.
Balmer said that even before the results were in on election night 1980, beer magnate Joseph Coors wrote a letter of recommendation to the Reagan-Bush transition team. Schlafly biographer Donald Critchlow also wrote that figures such as Amway Founder Jay Van Andel supported her for secretary of defense or education, noting that that she had traveled to 15 states in support of Reagan and written letters to her followers on his behalf.
As we see in “Mrs. America,” Schlafly did not end up in Reagan’s Cabinet, which was generally stocked with more moderate figures. Reagan was sensitive to her polarizing effect even within his own party; he’d left her off his campaign’s pro-family advisory board because she was “well-known and reviled,” according to Spruill.
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