From a public history perspective, the possibilities of a popular TV show like Hulu’s Mrs. America are thrilling: It’s an opportunity to introduce new audiences to the real-life dramas of women’s activism in the 1970s, bringing the stories that historians glean from dusty archives to life. But would the series’ manufactured drama oversimplify, or worse, misrepresent the past? Whose story would be told and whose lost on the cutting room floor? Might the show spark public interest in exploring these narratives in further depth—or will audiences move on to different topics after just exploring the tip of this iceberg?
In addition to preparing a series of primers of several of the activists featured on the show (here, here, and here) who are also featured in our exhibition Women March, we asked five historians who focus on women’s activism in the 1970s from a variety of perspectives to weigh in on their reactions to the show: Katherine Turk, Suzanne Kahn, Marissa Chappell, our own CWH fellow, Anna Danziger Halperin, and Chelsea Griffis. In this roundtable, we posed the following questions to our contributors: What social and political changes in the 1970s gave rise to reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and its opposition? Does the show accurately depict these broad forces? What role did women play in the conservative turn of the 1980s? What else—aside from the ERA—motivated feminists at this time? And what does a television series that focuses on an anti-feminist woman offer us today? Their responses reveal the myriad of ways that this story could have been told.
Mrs. America needs a prequel
Katherine Turk (associate professor of history and adjunct associate professor of women’s and gender studies, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)
Mrs. America is an insightful drama about women building power. They use and cultivate their moral authority, political clout, money, celebrity, charisma, and for most of them, whiteness. But the show’s chronology distorts history by depicting one side’s power on the rise and taking the other side’s for granted.
If Mrs. America had begun in the 1960s, the feminists would have been the ones seen gathered at kitchen tables, clustered in church basements, picketing government offices, and rallying in the streets. Their movement was robust, freewheeling, and marked by internal dissent. The ERA did not arrive on the brink of passage after languishing for decades because enlightened male lawmakers spotted its virtues. Women had spent years protesting, innovating legal arguments, and attacking the sexist and racist underpinnings of American culture.
When the series opens in the early 1970s, the feminists are insiders. They are icons, even, and their sway is evident in the elite spaces they inhabit. Congresswomen Bella Abzug (played by Margo Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) traverse the Capitol. Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) commands the Ms. headquarters and graces galas. Conservative Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) is an outsider who scraps and deals to gain influence. She starts out typing her modest newsletter and making cold calls from her home. Soon she is lobbying lawmakers and leading relatively polite protests. By 1980, Schlafly headlines a chic political banquet where presidential candidates court her favor.
With its timeline, Mrs. America obscures some basic facts about feminism. The creators should have begun the narrative a decade earlier by following their only figure whose power has already waned by the early 1970s: Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), the author of The Feminine Mystique and co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Friedan was no unblemished hero. Her masterpiece offered a narrow, exclusionary vision. Her abhorrent homophobia, forged in the crucibles of Cold War conformity, and her personal paranoia caused great suffering. But she played a crucial role in the feminism of the 1960s, when she inspired and worked with activists who built power from the grassroots and the margins. Together, they pressured male authorities to reshape American institutions on their terms.
The ERA was one among dozens of feminist priorities in 1970. By applying many forms of pressure, they nearly won it. Schlafly’s genius was to reframe the proposed Amendment as the fulcrum of a world in transition, convincing some feminists to defend it with ever-greater energy and focus. Entrenched patriarchal forces in industry and politics saw what a feminist mass movement had accomplished, and they united against it in their own self-interest.
If Mrs. America had traced the longer arc of feminism, the series would have better grounded its ending. The feminists’ power was fleeting because it was always precarious. At the show’s conclusion, all the women are outsiders. But that has been the starting point for everything that feminists have ever done.
Mrs. America needs a sequel
Suzanne Kahn (deputy director of the Great Democracy Initiative and Education Program, Roosevelt Institute)
With the final episode of Mrs. America, we see the election of Ronald Reagan and the lights going out on the second wave feminist era. Chisholm turns to Abzug and says, “There’s no room for us here now.” But, as the show itself suggests in its final moments, feminists were hardly done: the battle over feminists’ place in the Republican Party was still raging. I’m hoping for a season 2 that moves the viewer inside this intra-party battle.
In Mrs. America, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) is asked to represent the entire feminist wing of the Republican party. (Betty Ford’s influence is mentioned as well). It’s a good narrative choice, illustrating how at the start of the 1970s, feminist Republicans had much more institutionalized power than the grassroots anti-feminists Schlafly had mobilized. But Ruckelshaus had compatriots.
In the show’s final moments, we learn that despite the importance of Schlafly’s list of supporters to Reagan’s election, polling revealed a stark “gender gap” in Reagan’s support. If he is to win back women’s support, Reagan suggests, Schlafly can’t be in his cabinet. Instead, a pro-ERA Republican woman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, is named ambassador to the U.N.: the job Schlafly wanted.
Despite her absence from Mrs. America, Kirkpatrick was one of multiple, pro-ERA, Republican women who benefited from Reagan’s early efforts to win over women. Notably, he named Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court during his first year in office. And then there is Liddy Dole, a member of Reagan’s administration and eventually Cabinet, who offers the perfect counterpoint to Ruckelshaus and would be a great protagonist and foil to both Schlafly and Ruckelshaus in season 2.
Dole has much in common with the feminists portrayed in Mrs. America. She was a Harvard Law graduate like Brenda Feigen and had a longer career in Washington, D.C., than Jill Ruckelshaus. Originally a Democrat, Dole met her future husband, Republican Senator Bob Dole, in 1972, just as the National Women’s Political Caucus was founded. In 1975, Dole changed her party registration to Republican and married Bob. Eight months later, he was named Gerald Ford’s vice presidential nominee over Ruckelshaus’s husband, William Ruckelshaus—an incident depicted in Mrs. America.
The series intimates that Ruckelshaus’s outspoken pro-choice and pro-ERA positions cost her husband the vice presidential nomination—a suggestion that was also made at the time. What is odd about this rumor, however, is that Liddy Dole shared these positions. Although she later changed her mind on the subject, in 1976 she still embraced these feminist planks.
Unlike Ruckelshaus though, Liddy Dole successfully navigated the changing nature of the Republican Party. Reagan tried to fire Ruckelshaus from her role on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (a position to which Jimmy Carter appointed her), while giving Dole a prominent role in his administration. Indeed, Dole headed up Reagan’s Coordinating Council on Women in the early 1980s, which tried to keep the peace between GOP feminists and anti-feminists inside and outside of the White House.
Season 2 of Mrs. America could carry the fight over women’s role in the Republican Party into the 1980s and into the halls of White House—a sort-of mash up of season 1 and West Wing—and offer an abundance of female antiheroes. Dole was able to position herself such that by 2000, she was considered a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Meanwhile Schlafly continued to be a powerful outside agitator, but never made it inside the halls of power; Ruckelshaus faded from view. Their stories could help us make sense of the trajectory of the Republican Party: How exactly did it go from Betty Ford’s enthusiastic lobbying for the ERA to Melania Trump?
Where are the working-class feminists in Mrs. America?
Marisa Chappell (associate professor of history, Oregon State University)
Mrs. America offers a compelling argument that the 1970s battle over the ERA set the stage for today’s cultural, social, and political polarization. This contemporary relevance makes it all the more important to recognize the stories that don’t take center stage in the series. Alongside the “libbers” depicted in the series, poor and working-class women also mobilized in the 1970s. Their movements created a rich, multicultural feminism that placed economic justice and social citizenship at its very center.
Fleeting glimpses of Willie B. Reed (Novie Edwards), who keeps the Schlafly household running, bring to mind the long history of domestic worker organizing and its signal victories in the 1970s. Even as the civil rights and women’s movement opened new career opportunities, most women of color were confined to low-wage service sector jobs. In the first half of the 1970s, they used publicity, protest, and lobbying to win crucial state protections—such as inclusion in minimum wage, Social Security, and unemployment insurance—that had helped many white, male industrial workers win economic security and upward mobility in the postwar decades. As caregiving labor transformed over the next half century, new generations of caregivers, increasingly immigrants, continued to assert the value of their labor and their right to fair compensation and working conditions.
The scenes of Chisolm and the “libbers” at the 1972 Democratic Convention in episode 3 made me long to see Ruby Duncan and other representatives of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), who traveled to Miami to demand that the party support a $5,500 federally guaranteed income. A federation of local groups across the country that sought better treatment from caseworkers and higher welfare grants, the NWRO offered trenchant critiques of the sexism, racism, and ableism that kept single mothers poor. In a powerful piece published in Ms. Magazine in 1973, welfare rights activist Johnnie Tillmon asserted that welfare recipients’ fight for reproductive autonomy and self-determination was a fundamentally feminist fight. By denying poor women, especially poor women of color, access to an adequate income and by denying the value of their caregiving labor, the welfare system was a stick used to enforce dependence on a man or participation in an exploitive labor market. “Welfare,” Tillmon insisted, “is a women’s issue.”
Other examples abound. Black, Latinx, and Native American women whose fight against coercive sterilization and for access to healthcare broadened the concept of reproductive freedom. Clerical workers who battled employers and union leadership to assert the dignity of their labor and challenge the denigration, via feminization, of their work. The multiracial and class-conscious activists who formed the National Congress of Neighborhood Women in the mid-1970s, which brought together white women and women of color to battle interlocking oppressions by founding the first publicly funded battered women’s shelter in New York State, among other accomplishments. The African American single mothers who forced the state of Nevada to implement federally funded health screenings and other programs to benefit low-income children and families.
Activists from many of these movements attended the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977, depicted in Episode 8. They ensured that economic and racial justice were central to the Conference recommendations. Some of the more well-connected women featured in the series shared their vision. President Carter didn’t fire Bella Abzug because she demanded a longer meeting, as suggested in Episode 7, for example. He fired Abzug and Midge Constanza because they criticized his domestic spending cuts. They understood that remedying deep-seated inequalities in American society—and ensuring human rights and human dignity for all— required a robust, well-funded public sector.
These activists remind us that the ERA battle was just one front in a much larger battle and that legal equality was never meant to stand alone as feminism’s goal and legacy. Working-class women asserted a vision of society free of economic exploitation, one in which working people battle collectively for a fair share of political and economic power and in which a robust and active government provide the means for all to live in economic security and human dignity. That vision is as important today as it ever was.
What other stories could Mrs. America have told?
Anna Danziger Halperin (Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in women’s history and public history, Center for Women’s History)
All of us at the Center for Women’s History anxiously awaited each week’s episode to see how the drama—and public reaction—would unfold. The show’s narrative picks up on a significant battle in the history of women’s collective action that we focus on in our immersive exhibition, Women March (temporarily closed, the exhibition follows 200 years of women’s activism and organizing in commemoration of the 19th Amendment’s centennial). But, the advocacy and opposition around the ERA fills only a fraction of its corresponding chronological section, “Sisterhood is Powerful: 1963-1982.” Our curatorial choices carefully balanced more well-known stories—like the ERA—with lesser-known, but equally vital, facets of women’s activism in the period: the civil rights movement’s focus on getting women of color to the polls—and on ballots themselves; the diversity of issues motivating the women’s liberation movements (plural!), as well as specific events like the 1970 Strike for Equality; and the contentious debates among women’s activists across the political spectrum around sexual politics, reproductive justice, violence against women, and redefining work.
Viewers of Mrs. America would recognize Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Phyllis Schlafy (Cate Blanchett), and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) in our touchscreen biographies interactive that accompanies the exhibit, but might be surprised to see activists from the same period like Fannie Lou Hamer, Patsy Mink, Pauli Murray, Sylvia Rivera, Dorothy Bolden, Beulah Sanders, Dolores Huerta, Yvonne Wanrow, the Combahee River Collective, Madonna Thunderhawk, Grace Lee Boggs, Ella Baker, and Wilma Mankiller given equal billing. The stories of all of these women, and more, are critical to a fuller understanding of the decade: We need to understand the grassroots alongside the high politics. By focusing myopically on the ERA, Mrs. America presents the amendment as a panacea for redressing all of patriarchy’s ills—a stance too simplistic to capture the diversity and dynamism of women’s activism across the political spectrum. The ERA was just one of many priorities of women’s organizations, and not the only issue at the center of contentious debate.
One battle between feminist and conservative women that is overlooked in the show is the question of public support for young children’s care and education. The first episode of Mrs. America begins in 1971, following Schlafly’s decision to build her own grassroots network of housewives rather than run for office. Her ambitions suddenly shift after a humiliating meeting on Capitol Hill in which she is sidelined by the men in the room who fail to take her expertise seriously and instead ask her to take notes. Out of the corner of her eye, Schlafly sees Chisholm, Ruckelshaus, and others lobbying for the ERA, and takes up opposition to their cause as a path to follow her own ambitions. However, the same women that Schlafly mobilized against the ERA were also involved in other issues—including child care—during the exact same moment.
The same year that the show begins, bipartisan foment was building on the Hill and across the country for legislation that would create a universal child care program: the 1971 Child Care Development Act. Both Abzug and Chisholm were critical supporters of the bill, writing an early version themselves that aligned with feminist calls for increasing public support of child care as a path for women’s economic citizenship. Feminists argued that without child care, women would never be able to shift the status quo. Despite broad and bipartisan support for the bill, President Richard Nixon vetoed it in December of 1971. The language of the veto message was designed to signal acquiescence to the right-wing of his party, which had been threatening a primary challenge in the 1972 election, but had a much larger effect: it triggered a grassroots campaign that painted child care as an incursion into the sanctity of private life and generated staunch opposition to any further legislative attempts. While feminist activism continued at state and local levels (including a sit-in in New York Mayor John Lindsay’s office that we feature media footage of in Women March), conservatives fired up their phone trees and letter-writing campaigns. In 1975 an array of pamphlets and flyers sparked thousands of people to write to Congress every day, and with such vitriol, that senators on the committee debating the Child and Family Services Bill had to made an unprecedented request for more copies of the drafted bill and its background materials to be printed. Child care advocates were deeply unsettled by what they saw as a smear campaign: one politician, for example, declared “never in my 17 years as a Representative in Congress have I seen a more systematic, willful attempt to smear both me and my work.” The bill, unsurprisingly, failed to make it out of committee. Viewers might not have seen this drama unfold on Mrs. America, but it is no less important to our understanding of the pitched battles among women’s activists during the decade—and would have, in my humble opinion, served as just as compellingly as material for the script.
What do we lose in demanding loyalty?
Chelsea Griffis (associate lecturer in history, University of Toledo)
In the February 1972 edition of The Phyllis Schlafly Report that catalyzed the movement against the ERA, Schlafly wrote “Women’s Libbers Do NOT Speak For Us.” While feminists saw this newsletter as a joke, conservative women across the United States read it as a clarion call to protect their perceived privileges in the face of legislated equality with men. Schlafly forced feminists like Steinem, Abzug, and Feigen to recognize that sisterhood was not as universal or monolithic as ERA supporters believed.
Mrs. America uses the ERA ratification campaign to showcase the many boundaries that women were, and are, implicitly demanded to navigate and that formed the fault lines of the 1970s and 1980s culture wars. These boundaries of identity—including gender, race, class, and sexuality—separated liberal women from conservative women, and caused tension as both sides of the ERA debate dealt with their own internal differences. As the culture wars increasingly became binary and tribalistic, women had to carefully balance who they were as individuals against the needs of the many groups of which they were members.
Mrs. America displays women’s struggles over identity performance based on intra-group dynamics and political necessity. Chisholm, the first African American woman to serve in the House of Representatives, dealt with the tension and pain of balancing aspects of her identity based on a constantly changing context. She knew she was, on one hand, the voice for African Americans in a room of white feminist women, and, on the other, the voice for women in a room of African American men. Would she ever get to be herself? Ruckelshaus, the sole-portrayed Republican feminist, was pulled between her feminist politics and her husband’s wish that she perform her wifely support of his political career, two roles which culture warriors conceptualized as wholly separate. Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), a fictional conservative housewife composite character, was torn between her role as a conservative wife/mother and her fledgling feminism. Each of these women searched for a place they could be whole but were viewed as a person of color or a woman, conservative or feminist, but never both and, therefore, never fully themselves.
Schlafly made these lines of demarcation even less porous with her essentialist rhetoric of true womanhood. While Mrs. America’s portrayal of Schlafly is less than accurate—all evidence indicates that the Schlafly’s marriage was not as fractiously gendered as portrayed—the black-and-white nature of ERA opposition was based in historical fact. “Good” women opposed the ERA and “bad” women wanted equality with men. There was no in-between, and no space for a woman to chart her own path—other than for Schlafly, herself. Women had to state their loyalty, even if by doing so they abnegated a part of themselves.
That seems, in fact, to be an overarching question in Mrs. America: where do your loyalties lie? Modern day culture warriors still demand an answer of allegiance, even if through answering we lose our loyalty to ourselves.
Edited by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History