On April 15, the new star-studded miniseries Mrs. America premieres on Hulu. Starring Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, among others, the drama is based on real events in recent women’s history and follows 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.
Watch the trailer:
The first episode focuses on Phyllis Schlafly (played by Blanchett), the prominent conservative anti-feminist who spearheaded the campaign to defeat the ERA. The clash between Schlafly and the “women’s libbers,” as she called them, forever altered the political landscape of America. It not only foreshadowed the conservative ascendance of the 1980s, but also directly challenged the legal groundwork and cultural legacy of the feminist movement.
The battle over the ERA did not begin in the 1970s, however. It had been simmering since the suffragist Alice Paul originally introduced the amendment in 1923. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified 1920, prevented states from depriving women of their right to vote. Paul believed this was not sufficient: to cement women’s citizenship, women needed a constitutional amendment declaring that “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The amendment would create a legal basis for fighting sex discrimination, counteracting state laws that disadvantaged women in the workplace and in the home. In 1943, the Alice Paul Amendment was reworded to read, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The explosion of the women’s liberation movement into the national consciousness in the late 1960s amplified these earlier calls for a constitutional guarantee of women’s equality. Congresswomen Shirley Chisolm and Bella Abzug of New York dedicated their freshman terms to boosting the ERA. Their efforts quickly bore fruit. In 1972, Congress approved the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. By 1977, 35 of the required 38 states had ratified it.
Soon afterwards, the ERA rapidly lost momentum, largely due to the opposition rallied by one woman in particular, as Mrs. America depicts.
Phyllis Schlafly (born Phyllis Stewart in St. Louis, Missouri in 1924) presented herself publicly as a modest suburban housewife doting upon her husband and six children. In truth, she led a dynamic public life. She spent most of the 1960s as a high-level organizer within the National Federation of Republican Women. In the following decade, she earned a degree in constitutional law while trumpeting the importance of “family values.” Schlafly interpreted the ERA and the women’s liberation movement as imminent threats to the “family values” she held dear.
According to Schlafly, state-backed gender equality enshrined in the ERA would force women to abandon their traditional roles as wives and mothers. The privileges and protections some women enjoyed as dependent spouses would be stripped from them. They would be compelled to join the paid workforce and endure the same drudgery as men. An organization called S.T.O.P. ERA— an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”— summarized Schlafly’s warnings about the threat she believed ERA posed to women’s well being:
“ERA will invalidate all state laws which require a husband to support his wife. ERA will impose on women the equal (50%) financial obligation to support their spouses (under criminal penalties, just like husbands). ERA will impose on mothers the equal (50%) financial obligation for the financial support of their infant and minor children. ERA will deprive senior women, who have spent many years in the home as wife and mother, of their present right to be supported by their husbands and to be provided with a home.”
“ERA will make women subject to the draft on an equal basis with men in all our future wars. ERA will make women and mothers subject to military combat and warship duty.”
“ERA will deprive women in industry of their legal protections against being involuntarily assigned to heavy-lifting, strenuous, and dangerous men’s jobs, and compulsory overtime.”
“ERA is a fraud. It pretends to improve the status of women but actually is a big takeaway of the rights women now possess.”
Schlafly’s opposition to the ERA was unique for its aggressive disdain for feminism and its political savvy. But it revealed an older tension that gripped women’s organizing since the late 19th century. Before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment, many feminists wondered if legally mandated equality actually served poor and working-class women since these measures could potentially undo hard-fought protections that acknowledged women’s disadvantaged position in the workplace and the home.
Schlafly’s attack proved devastatingly effective. Congress extended the ratification deadline to 1982 in the hope that three more states would approve the ERA. None did. Some, such as Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky, Idaho, and South Dakota, actually rescinded their approval although the Constitution contains no procedure for rescinding a ratification. Ultimately, the ERA fell short of the three states needed by the 1982 deadline.
Some regarded the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment as the collapse of the women’s liberation movement. Phyllis Schlafly certainly did. Though a major plank was undeniably splintered, the women’s movement marched onward. Undeterred, women across the nation continued to organize publicly to defend their victories and press new demands for equality. The most visible sign of this indefatigable spirit were the large marches consistently held over the next three decades, including the Million Woman March (1997), the March for Women’s Lives (2004), and the record-shattering Women’s March (2017).
Phyllis Schlafly died in 2016. Since that time, three formerly reticent states have come forward to pass the Equal Rights Amendment: Nevada in 2017, Illinois in 2018, and Virginia in 2020. Legal obstacles continue to block full ratification. But due to the relentless marching and organizing since 1982, the resuscitated Equal Rights Amendment stands a fighting chance once again to become the law of the land.
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History