Mrs. America — how the ERA was lost

Two smiling women hold Stop ERA signs behind a woman in a white coat with a STOP ERA button.
Phyllis Schlafly (foreground) leading a picket outside the White House February 1977. PHOTO: Public domain
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Mrs. America, a critically acclaimed miniseries streaming on Hulu, is a brilliant historical flashback with women center stage. It dramatizes the decade-long effort to pass the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) in the 1970s, in a period piece saturated with the debates, music, and tobacco smoke of the era.

The riveting, nine-episode drama presents a lesson for our times: the perils of ignoring the far right. Creator Dahvi Waller (a Mad Men producer) tells the story of the two combating camps.

The anti-ERA forces are upper-middle-class homemakers led by Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) of Illinois. They live in a world where sexist jokes are the norm and men are the providers who must sign credit card applications. They oversee Black maids who toil long hours. They always wear dresses.

The series is a reminder of why feminism was so necessary. Sadly contradicting the efforts of the traditionalists are battered wife Pamela (Kayli Carter), forced to bear child after child, and despairing spinster Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn), cruelly discarded as a nobody.

In contrast, the pro-ERA camp, centered in New York City, is diverse and vibrant, awash in controversies over racism, lesbianism, abortion rights. It is populated with queers, Latinas, and Black feminists including Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash), Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first African American and first woman to run for President — in 1972.

But the stars are liberal white feminists: Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) of Ms. Magazine; Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), author of The Feminine Mystique; and U.S. Representative “Battling Bella” Abzug (Margo Martindale).

Breakthrough and backlash. The ERA is the radical concept that equality of the sexes should be added to the U.S. Constitution — which omits women. It was first proposed in 1923 by suffragist Alice Paul and socialist feminist Crystal Eastman. But it wasn’t until 1972 that the proposal passed both houses of Congress and went to the states for ratification, needing 38 to adopt it by 1979.

The ERA surged forward, winning 35 states by 1977, then hit the brick wall of Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum, her “Stop ERA” troops.

Schlafly was an arch-conservative, anti-Communist who thought Republican President Nixon too liberal. She ticked all the boxes: anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-“libber” and anti-racial equality, although her racist beliefs are muted in Mrs. America. Blanchett portrays her as intelligent, ambitious and ruthless. Limited by sexism, she turns her powerful organizing skills to an acceptable woman’s domain — countering the ERA.

Schlafly joined Southern segregationists and anti-abortionists to form a national pressure campaign that appealed to misogynist Christian fundamentalists, Mormons and Orthodox Jews. Before Trump ever dreamed of it, she used inflammatory fear-mongering that was loose on facts. She warned of “daughters in foxholes, unisex bathrooms, and the loss of alimony” should the amendment pass. The series underscores how the ascendancy of the religious right in the Republican Party began on the backs of women’s rights.

How could the ERA lose? ERA backers made a classic liberal mistake. In 1973 (Episode 4) when Schlafly is just getting started, Steinem recommends ignoring her, saying, “We don’t want a cat fight.” With nothing to stop her, Schlafly creates an ultra-conservative wave that not only kills the ERA, but moves the Republican Party far to the right, and stalls Second Wave feminism.

There were other factors contributing to the ERA’s defeat, not covered in Mrs. America. Labor and much of the Left opposed the ERA, calling it divisive and fearing it would eliminate laws to protect women from workplace abuse. The liberal ERA leadership by-and-large failed to address these objections, ignored the concerns of working women and women of color, and denied the ERA would advance queer rights.

The show omits the voices of socialist feminists like Radical Women who mobilized for the ERA and expanding protective legislation to men and stood strong for LGBTQ+ liberation.

Interestingly, the series also doesn’t name the National Organization for Women (NOW), the main organizational force for the ERA. This gives the impression that the moderate figureheads in Mrs. America were the women’s movement, not just its most well-known faces.

NOW was and is deeply tied to the Democratic Party whose approach to women’s rights is solidly pro-Establishment. The show reveals how Democratic Party feminists watered down their demands to secure the presidential nomination for George McGovern, the liberal, anti-war hope of 1972. Party hack Abzug bullies everyone to get behind the “electable” candidate and presses Chisholm to abandon her bold run. She and Steinem agree to a pathetically weak statement on abortion that McGovern ensures isn’t adopted.

Ultimately, the ERA lost because liberal leadership failed to build a multi-issue movement to counter Schlafly’s far-right pressure campaign. The single-issue approach of prioritizing middle-class concerns at the expense of women of color, lesbians and working-class women, and their reliance on the Democrats, was — and is — a losing strategy.

For all its omissions, Mrs. America is like no other TV drama: respectful of feminism, it is a gripping account of a battle whose outcome affects us still. It is an appeal to a new generation of feminists to learn from the mistakes of the ’70s and to finish the fight for the rights of all women.

Want to learn more about Radical Women? Contact the national offices:

• United States: 206-722-6057. radicalwomenus@gmail.com
• Australia: 03-9388-0062. radicalwomen@optusnet.com.au
• Website: radicalwomen.org

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