Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America

We break down the first three episodes of FX and Hulu’s new miniseries about Phyllis Schlafly and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Side-by-side photos of Phyllis Schlafly and Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
Phyllis Schlafly and Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joan Roth/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and FX.

Mrs. America, the new FX miniseries from creator Dahvi Waller, tells the story of the women’s liberation movement through the compelling and contentious women who shaped it. The nine-episode historical drama, whose first three episodes are now streaming on Hulu, focuses primarily on the political struggle surrounding the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the unexpected backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative “sweetheart of the silent majority.”

The miniseries follows leaders on both sides of the debate, with Schlafly fighting against the amendment and National Women’s Political Caucus co-founders Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and Jill Ruckelshaus fighting for it. Weaving together multiple storylines, both personal and political, the show offers a nuanced portrait of the battles over the women’s rights movement in the early 1970s. However, as a disclaimer that introduces each episode notes: “Some characters in the program are fictional and some scenes and dialogue are invented for creative and storyline purposes.” So what’s real, and what’s invented? We consulted the history books to break down the series’s first three episodes.

Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett)

Just as in real life, Phyllis Schlafly, the show’s prim, blond antihero, built her career advocating for traditional women’s roles and mobilizing conservative opposition to the women’s liberation movement. As portrayed by Cate Blanchett, who is also an executive producer on the show, Schlafly proves a consistently underestimated, fearsomely intelligent character who’s full of contradictions.

When the show opens, the Illinois mother of six is preparing to go on a talk show to discuss a book she has written about national defense. Though not widely known, the real Schlafly, who died in 2016 at the age of 92, did indeed spend much of her early career studying and writing about issues related to national security. In her 1965 book Strike From Space, co-written with Rear Adm. Chester Ward, Schlafly notes that during World War II she worked as “a ballistics gunner and technician at the largest ammunition plant in the world.” She remained an active political voice on the Cold War and national defense throughout her life, though that part of her career was largely eclipsed by her role in holding back the women’s liberation movement.

Throughout her career, Schlafly had political ambitions, which the show references in Schlafly’s conversations with her husband. She ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1952 and again in 1970, though she lost both elections in her solidly Democratic Illinois district. Though she ran on conservative issues, was staunchly anti-Communist, and thought even Richard Nixon was too moderate on civil rights, Schlafly, it seems, didn’t become seriously interested in women’s issues until the 1970s. For most of the first episode, Schlafly appears to have little interest in the ERA or women’s liberation, saying “there are so many more important things … like national security.” This seems to be an accurate portrayal of the real Schlafly’s views up until 1970. According to her obituary in the New York Times, “Mrs. Schlafly hardly noticed the Equal Rights Amendment when it was first debated in Congress.” It wasn’t until 1971, when the amendment had already passed the House, that she took up arms against it, founded STOP ERA (as on the show, STOP was an acronym for Stop Taking Our Privileges), and appointed herself the chairwoman.

The show’s depiction of Schlafly’s rise to political power is also quite loyal to historical records from the time. With the publication of her conservative newsletter the Phyllis Schlafly Report, she begins a grassroots campaign to oppose the ratification of the ERA. She argued that the amendment would have hurt women rather than helping them, by eliminating such protections as the right to alimony and exemption from the draft. The show eventually acknowledges that much of this rhetoric was exaggerated fearmongering, but at times it seems to sand down some of her rougher edges in order to make her more sympathetic to modern viewers, such as when it depicts her discomfort with some of STOP ERA’s more openly racist members. In real life, Schlafly was among the “moral conservatives” who, at the Republican National Convention in 1960, opposed the party’s plan for “aggressive action” against segregation.

Fred Schlafly (John Slattery)

Mrs. America still of John Slattery as Fred Schlafly.
John Slattery as Fred Schlafly. FX

In the show, Fred Schlafly (John Slattery) is portrayed as the sort of benignly patronizing male figure that has become familiar from period dramas like Mad Men, in which Slattery also starred. He is handsome, successful, charming, self-interested, and condescending. Though Fred claims to be supportive of his wife’s political ambitions, he privately expresses reservations because he fears her work will interfere with her primary responsibilities as a wife and mother. In Episode 1, he all but asks her not to run for Congress again, claiming it would “break up the family,” and she acquiesces. It’s unclear whether this was indeed the private dynamic in the Schlaflys’ marriage, but, whatever the reason, it is true that she didn’t run for office again.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Schlafly’s daughter Anne Schlafly Cori claimed that the show’s depiction of her parents’ marital tension is entirely fictitious: “My father and mother had a really wonderful relationship,” Cori told Vanity Fair. “I think the joy that they had in marriage formed a lot of their viewpoint of the roles of men and women together. Their marriage was happy because it was a meeting of minds. Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, they were on the same page, and they complemented one another.”

The Note-Taking Incident

Early episodes depict Schlafly repeatedly being belittled, ignored, and harassed in her political dealings by men less qualified and knowledgeable than she is. At one point, she is asked to take notes in a meeting as though she were a secretary. While it’s unclear whether the specific details of these interactions are based in fact, the treatment does track with what we know of the culture around women in the workplace at the time.

Despite acceding to her husband’s wishes, Schlafly establishes significant political power through her grassroots campaigning and remains something of a contradiction. Certainly Schlafly’s detractors (including, as depicted in Mrs. America’s fourth episode, Gloria Steinem) accused her of hypocrisy, noting that while she was arguing that a woman’s place was in the home, she was hitting the road as a speaker, newsletter editor, and activist.

Alice (Sarah Paulson)

In the show, Schlafly becomes politically interested in the ERA after her friend Alice (Sarah Paulson), a housewife and homemaker, expresses fears that the amendment would eliminate benefits like alimony and Social Security and result in women being drafted into the military. Alice later becomes an animated supporter of Schlafly’s conservative campaign. While Alice does not appear to be based on any single historical figure, she can be seen as an amalgamation created to represent the fears and beliefs of many conservative women at the time.

The “Breadmakers” Campaign

Like her or not, Schlafly was an effective political organizer. Her grassroots campaign, composed largely of conservative women and homemakers, was unexpectedly successful in halting the ratification of the ERA. The show accurately depicts Schlafly’s campaign tactics, which relied heavily on letter writing and employed traditional symbols of the American housewife to inspire political support.

For example, in Episode 2, we see Schlafly and her legion of anti-ERA women flock to the lobby of the Illinois General Assembly to hand out homemade bread and jam. Unlikely though it may seem, that did in fact happen. Schlafly and her supporters gained notoriety for their stunts, which often involved bringing homemade foods (bread, jams, apple pies, and more) to state legislators with slogans like “Preserve Us From a Congressional Jam; Vote Against the ERA Sham,” “I am for Mom and apple pie,” and, as seen in the episode, “To the Breadwinners from the Breadmakers.”

Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne)

Side-by-side photos of Gloria Steinem and Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem and Rose Byrne. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ron Galella Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images and FX.

The miniseries’s second episode, “Gloria,” tracks how the charismatic and distinctively coiffed Steinem (Rose Byrne) became the spokeswoman for the women’s liberation movement. The real Steinem, who is still alive and active at the age of 86, remains one of the most recognizable leaders of the women’s rights movement. The miniseries is quite accurate in its depiction of Steinem’s political activism, including her early career at Ms. magazine, the feminist publication she co-founded, and its first issues, which featured a many-armed goddess (for the preview issue) and Wonder Woman (for the debut issue).

Episode 3 contains a flashback in which Steinem, a fierce advocate for abortion rights, recalls the illegal abortion she herself had at the age of 22—an experience that the real Steinem later spoke about widely. In 2015, she dedicated her book My Life on the Road to the doctor who performed her abortion, writing that he told her, just as dramatized on the series, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.” She concluded the dedication by saying “I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.”

The show also spends some time on Steinem’s conflicted relationship with Democratic candidate George McGovern, who, in the show as in real life, proved a fickle ally to the women’s movement. By the end of the 1972 primary, and the end of Episode 3, Steinem had declared her unenthusiastic support for McGovern, whom she did indeed call “the best white male candidate,” an endorsement the New York Times described as “praising him with faint damns.”

Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman)

Side-by-side photos of Betty Friedan and Tracey Ullman as Friedan
Betty Friedan and Tracey Ullman. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by B. Friedan/MPI/Getty Images and FX.

A founding architect of the women’s liberation movement, Friedan (Tracey Ullman) co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, and her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique is a landmark text of modern feminism and helped launch the second-wave movement. Friedan is depicted as an outspoken and somewhat bombastic figure, which tracks with historical reports, and she and Steinem were indeed famous rivals, a subject that returns in later episodes. In 1972, Friedan famously called Abzug and Steinem “female chauvinist boors.” The real Friedan died in 2006 at the age of 85.

Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba)

Side-by-side photos of Shirley Chisholm and Uzo Aduba as Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm and Uzo Aduba. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images and FX.

In Mrs. America’s third episode, “Shirley,” Chisholm, an extraordinary civil rights leader, the first black woman ever elected to Congress, receives long-overdue attention for her role in shaping the women’s rights movement and carving out a space for women of color within the predominantly white feminist agenda.

One of the plots that emerges early in the season surrounds the question of the women’s liberation movement’s support for Chisholm. In the show, Steinem and Abzug waffle between supporting Chisholm and supporting McGovern, whom they are less enthusiastic about but whom they believe has a better chance of winning the Democratic nomination. At one point, Chisholm confronts Abzug and Steinem about their support of McGovern and receives harsh words from Abzug while Steinem sits quietly by. The details of these fights seem to be fictionalized, but they are certainly based in truth: Chisholm was indeed abandoned by many of her feminist supporters during her primary campaign because they didn’t believe she would win.

The question of whether or not white feminists were supportive of Chisholm has been the subject of some lingering controversy. As recently as July 2019, an article in the Times Sunday Review claimed that Chisholm had been “abandoned by white feminists” in the early 1970s, specifically naming Steinem. In response, Steinem wrote a letter to the editor the following day refuting the claim and outlining how she campaigned for Chisholm in 1972.

Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale)

Side-by-side photos of Bella Abzug and Margo Martindale as Abzug
Bella Abzug and Margo Martindale. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images and FX.

“Battling Bella” Abzug was a civil rights lawyer turned congresswoman at the time of the ERA’s passage. During her terms in Congress, she lobbied against the Vietnam War and introduced what would have been the first federal law to protect gay people from discrimination. She is portrayed in the show as the matriarch of the liberation movement, a savvy powerhouse of a woman who shepherds Steinem into the political spotlight as the face of the ERA. The real Abzug certainly aligned herself with Steinem, and the two were often poised in conflict with Friedan. Like Friedan, it seems the real-life Abzug (who died in 1998) was every bit as colorful and clever as her television counterpart. Once, in response to Friedan’s criticism of her and Steinem, Abzug penned this retort: “Once again Betty Friedan is exercising her right to be wrong.”

Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks)

Side-by-side photos of Jill Ruckelshaus and Elizabeth Banks as Ruckelshaus
Jill Ruckelshaus and Elizabeth Banks. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images and FX.

Portrayed by Elizabeth Banks, the pro-choice Republican was appointed by President Gerald Ford to help push for the ratification of the ERA and was another co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She also served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Like Friedan, she comes more into focus in later episodes.

Philip Crane (James Marsden)

Side-by-side photos of Phil Crane and James Marsden as Crane
Phil Crane and James Marsden. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Denver Post via Getty Images and FX.

As in Mrs. America, Philip M. Crane represented Illinois’ 8th District in the House of Representatives, where he served as a Republican for 35 years and was an early supporter of Schlafly and the anti-ERA movement. Mrs. America’s early show-within-the-show, Conservative Viewpoint, is also straight from real life: In the early 1970s, Crane hosted the half-hour talk show, and in a May 1971 episode about “the crisis in America’s defense posture,” he brought on Schlafly, whom the Elk Grove Herald then described only as “an unsuccessful candidate for Congress.”

Read more:
What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 4
What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 5
What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 6
What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 7