FX’s new original show Mrs. America takes on the Equal Rights Amendment (the ERA), painting an intimate portrait for the very real lives of the women who fought for and against it. Names like Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and even Phyllis Schlafly are tossed around as giants who shaped our culture and history, but the reality is that they’re real people with real passions, frustrations, love lives, egos, and shortcomings, just like any of us. One of the things Mrs. America does best is show just how deeply personal these conflicts – even among people on the same side – really were, and how often important choices were driven by personal experience.
The show itself comes with a disclaimer that it’s based on truth, but that some conversations have been made up or characters have been merged to aid in telling the story. By and large, however, Mrs. America is a faithful telling of a pivotal time in American history, when the conservative movement consolidated under the religious right just as women, LGBTQ people, Black folks and others were trying to be heard in meaningful ways. In every episode there are numerous references to important political figures, realities of life in the 1970s, and aspects of the feminist movement. We’ve done our best to go through the episodes and annotate them so you can learn a bit more about these figures, this time period, and how it still impacts us today.
Mrs. America Episode 1 – Phyllis
The Equal Rights Amendment, also known as the ERA, is a proposed amendment to the US Constitution to make women equal to men, in the same vein as the 14th Amendment. The ERA was first introduced in 1923. Yes, you read that right: 1923. We’re kicking it First Wave, baby!
It was written by feminist suffragest co-founders of what became the National Women’s Party Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman. Paul was a hunger striker and political prisoner who also worked on the gender aspect of the Civil Rights Act. Eastmen was a lawyer, socialist and co-founder of the ACLU and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
In October of 1971 and then March of 1972, the ERA was approved by the House and then the Senate, respectively. As they say in the first episode, everyone from Kennedy – as in Teddy – to Wallace – as in George – is in favor. At the outset, only Barry Goldwater opposed the ERA. Remember, this is before “family values” Republicans – in fact, Schlafly and her ilk are credited with ushering that era in. The ERA was widely supported by both parties, both houses of Congress, and multiple presidents: Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
That being said, some people did oppose it, namely organized labor. Unions, which were largely male-dominated, thought it would undercut them. Some working women also opposed it, since they thought it would strip their hard-won safety protections, like preference to not have to work at night. Eleanor Roosevelt is perhaps the most famous (and surprising) opposition other than Schlafly. There was a perception among many that the ERA was purely symbolic, and among some women that it would only serve the needs of white, middle class women and leave working women and women of color behind, an issue the feminist movement has had to contend with its entire existence, and still reckons with to this day.
Per article five of the US Constitution, any amendment requires ¾ of all states to approve via their legislature, meaning 38 out of 50 states. A deadline of March 22, 1979 was set for 38 state legislatures to ratify in order for the ERA to be enacted, and then it would come into force two years from that date.
Setting the scene – with sexism
Early in the first episode, Phyllis stops by her husband’s office so he can sign a “charge card” – aka credit card – application for her. That’s because in the United States, women weren’t able to get credit in their own name yet – no bank acct, no credit card, NOTHING – until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974. Even so, many women were denied credit unless they had a husband’s signature for years after the Act’s passage, including Hillary Clinton.
Roger Sterling – I mean, Phyllis’s husband, talks about how a successful man would never remarry with Rosemary, but with a much younger woman – “it’s biology!” Ah yes, because successful men are entitled to ever-younger women.
Someone says to Phyllis, “These are delicious. Have you ever thought about starting a baking business?” Thankfully she replies flatly , “No. I’ve never thought about that.” It’s hard not to read any and all references to women, politics, and baking through the lens of Hillary Clinton and cookies. When Bill was running for president, Hillary famously said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” That infused a stay at home mom vs. working mom dynamic to her public presence – and resulted in the Family Circle Magazine Presidential Cookie Poll – not unlike the dynamic presented in Mrs. America. While Hillary Clinton has tried to reclaim the quote, there’s no denying that it has haunted her, and neatly encapsulates so much of the sexism she has encountered.
Mr. Phyllis Schlafly has to invite the wives to a meeting so Phyllis can come to a meeting…concerning her own political future.
When we first meet Phyllis Schlafly, she already has a reputation. She had run for office twice and lost, attending the RNC as a delegate, and self-published her book A Choice Not an Echo.
If Phyllis Schlaflly is reminding you of Serena Joy from The Handmaid’s Tale….there’s a reason for that. Word on the street is that Serena Joy was inspired by two women: televangelist Tammy Faye Baker and Phyllis Schlaflly.
It’s wild to look at now, but Phyllis Schlalfly really was against a lot of the prevailing Republicans at the time, speaking out against Nixon, stuffing flyers about Kissinger. She really shifted the focus and the future of the party at a critical time in US history. As we see with Jill Ruckelshaus in this episode, when the ERA was proposed, Republicans not only supported it, they were the first ones to do so!
There are a few shout-outs to anti-Communism, which was also part of Schlafly’s agenda.
Behind the scenes/Miscellaneous
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck directed four of the nine episodes, including the first two. Boden and Fleck have made films like Half Nelson and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but they are perhaps most famous for directing Captain Marvel, a feminist superhero movie.
Barry Goldwater gets a shout-out here, and continues to be important throughout the series. Goldwater is known for voting against the Civil Rights Act. He won the Republican nomination and went up against Lyndon B. Johnson. Considering that one of those names likely sounds much more familiar to you than the other, you can probably guess who won.
Phyllis was a major supporter of his Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid – millions of copies of her self-published book were distributed as part of his campaign. Much like the Phyllis we see in the show, her book has no problem taking down other Republicans she disagreed with, including Goldwater’s opponents.
It’s implied here that Phyllis was a Goldwater Girl (the sexist nickname for women who supported him), but she wasn’t the only one! Back when Hillary Clinton was a young Republican at 16-17 years old, she was a Goldwater Girl.
Sexism in the home…
There are a number of patriarchal dynamics at play in the Schlafly home. We see son Phil with no chores, while the girls do homework and mind the small child. Her husband refuses to move to Washington DC if she wins the election, saying she would be “splitting up the family” by going, and that it’s different for a woman to go to Congress than for a man to go. He withholds information from her, making her wait and beg for it just because he can, all while acting like she’s ridiculous for caring.
And then, when she returns from DC, there is a scene that amounts to marital rape. Phyllis clearly isn’t interested in having sex with her husband but he won’t let it go; he keeps pawing all over her. The conccept of marital rape (and the fact that just because you’re married doesn’t mean that either spouse is entitled to sex on-demand, ad infinitum) is a relatively recent addition to the cultural lexicon. Marital rape wasn’t against the law in any states until 1975, and didn’t make it to all states until 1993. Even now, there are marital rape loopholes in eight states.
Even though Phyllis looks shaken here, it’s highly doubtful that she would classify what happened as a violation of consent or ever consider seeking help or support over it. Remember that a major goal of this era of 2nd Wave Feminism was seeking relief, protection, support (and eventually) justice from straightforward cases of physical spousal abuse, or “wife batterers” as they were often called at the time, so more nuanced issues like financial and emotional abuse, coercion, or the distinction between consent vs. someone who relents/freezes but never says yes to sex, were not on the public agenda yet to reach people like Phyllis, even if they were being discussed by some.
…And on Capitol Hill
It’s pretty clear that real-life Illinois Congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden) is interested in more than just policy with Phyllis, which is why he pushes her for drinks, and if not drinks then dinner, and why can’t she stay the night, etc. etc. He clearly thinks she’s smart, but he also makes sure to dangle the carrot of meetings with well-connected people in an attempt to manipulate her. More to come on him…
Phyllis opens with policy and is asked to take notes. Just like that, she loses the room. Sadly, we all know this continues to this day, with women – especially young women – more likely to be asked to do various “workplace chores” like taking notes, cleaning up the kitchen etc, preventing them from being able to get their actual work done.
Already the concept of being “just a housewife” and the housewife/stay-at-home mom vs. working woman tension is clear. Feminism has long had to battle a perception of denigrating women who do anything more traditional – wear makeup, raise their children, etc. On the other hand, Phyllis and friends are blaming Gloria Steinem and “the Libbers” for men’s misogyny when they only acknowledge working women, while mocking members of the Women’s Lib Movement for not wanting to stay home and do chores all day.
When Phyllis’s friend drops off ERA materials, there’s a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, the book effectively started modern (also known as second-wave) feminism. (For reference, first-wave feminism refers to those who fought for women’s suffrage.) We’ll learn more about the book’s genesis in a later episode, but perhaps the most famous concept from it is that Friedan finally put words to “the problem that has no name” – namely, that women were unhappy, in spite of the fact that they had done everything to fulfill their supposed feminine purpose as housewives and mothers.
When Phyllis goes to DC, she passes then-congresswoman Shirley Chisholm talking about ERA. Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress. Throughout her career, she used the slogan “unbought and unbossed” and wore trademark glasses like the ones Uzo Adubo is wearing. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (who happens to represent this writer) uses Congresswoman Chisholm’s former office.
Spoiler alert for nearly 40-year-old history: Congresswoman Chisholm eventually runs for president, the first Black woman to run for a major party’s nomination, and the first woman period to run for the Democratic nomination.
It’s also worth noting that Shirley Chisolm is the only Black character we see (other than maybe a few background extras) who isn’t working quietly in the background of a white setting, like the Schlafly home.
The National Women’s Political Caucus
In a very quick introduction, we hit a bunch of important issues: The Gloria Steinem/Betty Freidan leadership tussle, the so-called lavender menace, the overall lack of Republicans in their ranks (or surprising inclusion of one at all, depending on how you look at it), and Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for president. More on all of that soon!
The women we meet are Ms. co-founder and possibly the most visible movement leader Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) republican Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and Ms. co-founder and lawyer Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (Ari Graynor). More about each of these fascinating women soon!
Mrs. America Episode 2: Gloria
At this point in her career, Gloria Steinem was an established journalist and activist, covering an abortion speak-out and interviewing John Lennon for Cosmo, hence her remark about going to the convention with her press pass. One of her most famous pieces was “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.”
When Clay Felker, the money man, says a crappy thing about giving Gloria her first “serious” byline, it’s true. She wrote a major story for him at Esquire about contraception and how women have to choose between marriage and a career, which came out a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Throughout the episode, multiple people both imply that because Gloria is beautiful, she isn’t serious or doesn’t work as hard, and attempt to get her to use her beauty in exploitative ways for the movement. Sometimes they’re the same people, in the same conversations! Women activists have certainly weaponized their appearance, from suffragists using their perceived innocence for advantageous PR in hunger strikes and police altercations to Pussy Riot and PETA’s whole deal. Gloria even did herself sometimes, like with her big Playboy bunny expose, but others don’t seem aware how degrading and offensive it is when someone other than Gloria herself is in control.
Gloria’s boyfriend keeps bringing up marriage, a thorny proposition in the movement. The common conception is that all feminists hate it – the show will certainly explore that. Gloria very famously opposed it. For a while, anyway…
Playboy is a drag
Walking the red carpet outside the launch party, a male journalist asks Gloria, “Isn’t it as one dimensional as Playboy?” To which she deadpans, “Is that a serious question?” He responds, “Isn’t it kind of a drag?” She tells him “I think Playboy’s a drag.” and walks away.
Aside from simply showing an obnoxious perspective, this is a reference to “A Bunny’s Tale,” one of Gloria’s most famous pieces of writing up until that point, her Playboy expose for Show magazine. Gloria went undercover as a Playboy bunny for a month and learned about the exploitative working conditions firsthand. Unfortunately, even though the piece was great work and is considered the first piece questioning public objectification of women, she had trouble getting work afterwards.
Hopefully you all know that Ms. magazine is real and still in existence today. Gloria Steinem founded Ms. Magazine along with several other characters here, including Brenda Feigen-Fasteau. Ms. was the first national magazine for and by women to focus on issues like equality, rights, and politics rather than husbands, cooking and cleaning. The name, of course, refers to the honorific for women that doesn’t pertain to marital status, since Mr. does not either. Little wonder why this show is call Mrs. America.
It’s also a pretty well known bit of trivia that Wonder Woman was on the first cover – well, the first cover once they were out from under the New York umbrella. (The Kali cover issue we see in this episode is referred to as a “preview issue.”) Wonder Woman is great, but as Gloria points out, she’s not a real woman. At the time, Wonder Woman had been de-powered in the comics, which Steinem called an outrage in her letter about Wonder Woman in the issue. A year later, Diana’s powers were restored and she was forever more seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and sisterhood.
This episode gives us a closer look at “Battling” Bella Abzug, seen here with her famous hats and a…questionable New York accent that sounds more like a bad Boston accent. She was a laywer who supported gay rights (she introduced a gay rights bill in 1974!) and advocated ending the Vietnam War. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives” or its variants, give credit to Bella. It was her campaign slogan!
Bella is actually Congresswoman Abzug at this point, not that you’d know it from the show. Some of that is due to her informality and traveling back to her district in New York, but they don’t really make it clear until much later in the series that she’s an elected member of Congress.
Gloria pushes Bella that she’ll be the NWPC spokesperson if they will force a vote on abortion on the DNC convention floor. Part of why Bella continually sides with dominant power structures is that, as a member of the US House of Representatives, she is now part of that power structure. (Shirley Chisholm doesn’t seem to have that problem, though.)
Betty vs. Gloria
The show alluded famous fracture between Betty Friedan and…well almost everyone else in the entire feminist movement at the end of the first episode when it introduced the National Women’s Political Caucus. Here we see it again with Friedan giving not-so-nice quotes in the press. That said, she’s not the only one who accused Gloria Steinem of being a little too into the glitz and glamor.
Friedan has tension with the movement she is said to have birthed for the rest of her life (she died in 2006, at the age of 85.) Who should be spokeswoman was an ongoing debate. Up until the NWPC held a formal vote, it had been up to the loose semblance of the movement, the media, and various other organizations like NOW to push forward whoever they thought should be the spokesperson for “Women’s Lib.”
Stylistically, Betty haranges McGovern while Gloria is more strategic. The latter picks a specific thing – abortion – and goes for it. When McGovern insists he can’t come out publicly in favor of abortion, Gloria supplies a politically expedient alternative, “reproductive freedom” which is broad enough to apply to repeal of birth control laws, law on sexual orientation, forced sterilization laws, and it covers concerns of men, as well as women.
Which brings us to…
The Lavender Menace
This will play a bigger role in future episodes, but the early days of the feminist movement were not particularly welcoming to LGBTQ folks. In 1969, as the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Betty Friedan notably famously referred to Lesbians as “the Lavender Menace.” There were many in the movement who feared that being seen like man-hating lesbians would be Bad for the Brand.™
Obviously queer women started organizing under the name, and now you can buy tshirts with it, there’s a band called Lavender Menace, and other tongue-in-cheek, Very Gay responses to trauma and ostracism. But as the show will continue to explore, feminism’s history with intersectionalism is bumpy AF.
Roe v Wade – the case that makes abortion legal – is coming soon, but isn’t here yet. One of the women says that won’t be enough, and if you’ve read Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nuanced criticism of Roe or seen the news in 50 years since, you’ll know that they’re right. Going through the courts rather than the legislature has left abortion rights exposed and fragile.
This episode serves as an incredibly beautiful, moving meditation on abortion not only as dark secret, but as liberation. When the woman who lives in Gloria’s building asks her to sign the first issue, she wants her to sign a famous article “We Have Had Abortions.” It was signed by 53 famous women in America, including Nora Ephron, Dorothy Pitman Hughs, Billie Jean King, Susan Brownmiller, Anais Nin, and Susan Sontag. Remember, at the time this was against the law, and abortion is still so taboo that most movies and TV shows won’t even say the word.
It’s sadly not surprising to hear the nurse at Gloria’s abortion asking judgmental questions. What’s more surprising is the doctor’s words: “You must promise me two things: that you’ll never tell anyone my name, and that you’ll live your life how you want to.”
Gloria dedicated her 2015 memoir to him.
It’s rough to see it, but once again Phyllis’s win is undermined by another woman, the member of Congress who said she just got lucky. It turns out she was right.
Phyllis and friends work to the tune of the Hair soundtrack here, the song they found catchy in spite of protesting the musical.
Vietnam is in the background, but the reality is that the feminist movement grew out of other protest movements, especially anti-Vietnam and the Black Power movements. Women did much of the organizing in both, yet they found that the mic was never passed to them. Or when it was, it was taken away quickly. They found themselves relegated to making flyers and running logistics – you know, the actual work of organizing – while the men took all the glory. Women have been not only involved, but the engine of every major progressive movement in this country.
Mrs. America Episode 3: Shirley
As Chisolm, the history-making peoples candidate, Uzo Aduba carries herself with the no-nonsense ideals and strategic smarts of the woman herself, “unbought and unbossed” in every scene. Shirley Chisholm was an educator and then a member of congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional District. When she was first elected, she was the first woman in her class of first-term members. Like Betty Friedan and 26 other women, Chisholm was a founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women.
In this episode, it’s mentioned that “she bristles at the suggestion that she step aside, lest she draw votes away from another progresisive candidate” – which feels all too familiar. Shirley points out that the men haven’t. Instead she wants to bargain to get legalizng abortion as an offical policy plank or a possible VP spot, in a shrewd move.
Just like it’s depicted here, the Congressional Black Caucus did not back her, instead supporting a white man who seemed more likely to win. It would not be the first or last time (see also: Michael Capuano vs. Ayanna Pressley.)
Life in the Movement
This episode has a bunch of great small nods to how the feminist movement really functioned at the time. They’re singing “The Battle Hymn of Women” a real protest song to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s actually not the first time the song has been adapted for revolutionary (and feminist) causes. Learn more here. Oh how I miss good old fashioned protest songs and protest theatre.
There’s also a sign for childcare while they protest and the previous episode mentioned a “tot lot” at Ms. headquarters. While that may seem surprising (it feels like only the most lefty groups provide it now), both the Black Panthers and the feminist movement prioritized childcare as part of their organizing.
Shirley’s right hand woman in the cowboy hat, sunglasses and fringe vest is real-life activist Florynce Kennedy. She’s wearing her trademark outfit, as well as a NOW pin, but she also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. She lived one helluva life! As a lawyer she represented Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker’s estates. As an activist, she worked in feminism, racial justice and civil rights spaces.
Flo was part of the infamous Miss America protest, which is how the media started the false bra-burning rumor. There’s a reference to a famous line that’s often attributed to her: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” by having Gloria ask her about it. Instead, Gloria (correctly) asks her what their taxi driver said.
McGovern, the DNC and White Feminism
There are a couple references in this episode and the previous one to Shirley Maclaine cutting the wording out
Like so much of this episode, Demcratic presidential candidate Jim McGovern moving to the center as he gets the nomination feels like a lesson to us all.
But it gets worse.
The turn of events at the DNC was perhaps even more soul crushingly brutal than as it seems in the episode. In a turn of events that wont be surprising to Black women, the white women sold out Shirley for an empty promise. They got absolutely nothing in return. Gloria and Bella sold out Shirley Chisholm, their day 1, for a chance at the more palatable candidate, who supposedly had their best interests at heart, all evidence to the contrary. In the end, he screwed them over and then didn’t even manage to win. So what was it all for?
This episode owes a debt of gratitude – and frankly, a writing credit – to Nora Ephron’s fantastic reporting on the Miami DNC that originally ran in Esquire. Betty’s “You really play both ends, don’t you?” line was taken right from the article, though, in keeping with the rest of the series, the writers have made Betty look better by aiming it at Gloria rather than Ephron’s original record, which has her asking that and yelling “What kind of black are you anyway?” at a Black woman.
Schlafly’s gets a name, a mission, a goal, and a national launch. They also have to deal with the fact that their followers are racist. I’ll give you zero guesses how this goes.
At the Stop ERA meeting, they mention Women only talk to 4 men in their adult life – father, husband, son and priest. This feels eerily reminiscent to Mike Pence’s rule against spending time alone with women, except the oppressed version instead of oppressive.
This episode is directed by Amma Asante, who you might know from her work on season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale and the fantastic movie Belle, a British period piece in the vein of Jane Austen’s work starring a Black woman that’s inspired by a real woman.
Nothing is as perfect as Betty friedan walking over a “sisterhood is powerful” sign.
Watergate and Vietnam are chugging along in the background. It’s interesting to see women’s history foregrounded to this extent – has any other period piece ever relegated those events so thoroughly to the background?