FX’s new streaming miniseries Mrs. America stars Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, and Uzo Aduba, among others, and dramatizes the pivotal fight over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. Many of figures featured onscreen are based on real-life titans of that era including Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Bella Abzug. They also happen to be women who figure prominently in Women March, the immersive New-York Historical exhibition about 200 years of women’s activism and organizing. While the Museum is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, we’re committed to sharing the ideas of Women March from afar. So as you settle in for Mrs. America, here’s a primer on everything you need to know about the history behind the series.
Rep. Bella Abzug began wearing the hats she became known for early in her legal career. According to one account, she explained she was often mistaken for a secretary: “When I was a young lawyer, I would go to people’s offices and they would always say: ‘Sit here. We’ll wait for the lawyer.'” The hat gave her an air of authority to counter gendered assumptions of the 1950s that systemically sought to sideline her professional contributions.
Few would fail to take Abzug seriously now: the legendary politician is not only being portrayed by Margo Martindale on Mrs. America, but she was also the subject of a single-actor off-Broadway play Bella Bella starring Harvey Fierstein last year. As biographer Leandra Ruth Zarnow puts it, Abzug is “a visionary for our times as much as hers.” Brought to power by the social movements of the 1960s, Abzug’s dynamism was both loved and reviled, but impossible to ignore.
Born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants, Bella Abzug began her career as a civil rights and labor lawyer. She took cases that others may have deemed politically risky or even physically dangerous. For example, she defended clients accused of Communist activities in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. While pregnant, she traveled to Mississippi and endured death threats from white supremacists for her defense of a black client, Willie McGee.
Abzug was drawn into politics and international activism by Women Strike for Peace in 1961, and served as the group’s legislative director for almost a decade. Older than most of her fellow 1960s activists, Abzug was, as Zarnow describes her, a “generational bridge” who “helped the protest energy of the 1960s mature into a demand for power through public office, legal action, and institutional control.” Her radical politics reflected and drew from the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements.
In 1970, Abzug successfully ran for federal office as a Democrat, touting the slogan “This woman’s place is in the House—the House of Representatives.” As a congresswoman, she represented parts of Manhattan and the Bronx from 1971 to 1976, serving as one of only 15 women, and was the first woman to hold a whip position in either party. She fought for social and economic justice and women’s rights, leading on a diverse range of issues including child care, health care, pay equity, urban revitalization, gay rights, and environmental protections. She was also a staunch anti-war advocate; invited to a White House reception, she took the opportunity to tell President Richard Nixon to his face that her constituents demanded an end to the Vietnam War.
Abzug left the House to run for the New York Senate seat in 1976. Fierstein’s play depicts Abzug on the night of the primary election, pacing back and forth in a hotel bathroom waiting for the results to come in as her mood shifts from confident to despondent. She lost by less than one percentage point to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had served in multiple presidential administrations before running for the seat. (He would ultimately win the general election and continue to hold the office for more than two decades.) She subsequently ran for mayor of New York City, but lost in that primary as well, coming in fourth behind Ed Koch (who won the final election), Mario Cuomo, and the incumbent Abraham Beame.
Abzug’s career did not end after that failed campaign, however. She continued to advocate for women’s rights and other progressive causes after leaving Congress. For example, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed her chair of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, and in that capacity she served as chair of the National Women’s Conference. She was a leader in international feminist movement as well, serving a prominent role in international conferences, including the 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, and founding the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) in 1990.
Abzug knew her reputation was polarizing. In her own words at the height of her political career, she admitted “I’ve been described as a tough and noisy woman, a prizefighter, a man hater, you name it…There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am—and this ought to be made very clear at the outset—I am a very serious woman.”
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History