In the sixth episode of Mrs. America, Republican Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) takes center stage as one of the leaders of the feminist movement, going head-to-head with Phyllis Schlafly in a battle for the party’s support. Up to this point, the Hulu and FX series has mostly showcased the clash between pro–Equal Rights Amendment Democrats on one side and anti-ERA Republicans on the other, and “Jill” offers a more nuanced look at the battles being fought within the parties themselves. Below, just as we did for the first five episodes, we break down which parts are straight from history and which are artistic license.
Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks)
One of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Jill Ruckelshaus had a unique position in the debate surrounding the ERA as she was both a leading proponent of the amendment and a Republican. Episode 6 opens with Ruckelshaus shaking hands with President Gerald Ford as she accepts the position of chairwoman on a national commission “to honor women and urge ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” This event really did happen, and it was indeed held in celebration of something called “International Women’s Year,” which was a formal title given to the year 1975 by the United Nations. And yes, Ruckelshaus really was appointed by Ford as presiding officer of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year.
Following the ceremony, Betty Ford takes Ruckelshaus aside and says, “You should be front and center, Jill. Who better to prove feminism isn’t a dirty word? A Midwestern married mom of five … you’re as American as apple pie.” It is true that, as a clean-cut, married, and fiscally conservative woman, Ruckelshaus challenged the dominant cultural stereotypes around feminists and the pro-ERA movement at the time. A 1983 Washington Post article described her as “the kind of woman some women envy: aggressive and articulate, always maintaining her femininity. She can easily be described as pretty. She has Windex-blue eyes.” And yes, she did raise five children, two of them from her husband William’s previous marriage. When she married him, he was recently widowed and had infant twin daughters, something she references later in the episode in conversation with Phyllis Schlafly.
William Ruckelshaus (Josh Hamilton)
One of the episode’s main storylines involves William Ruckelshaus being short-listed to be Ford’s running mate. The couple spend several days preparing William’s acceptance speech and envisioning possibilities for the future, but in the end he is overlooked for the position. The show suggests that Ruckelshaus may not have been socially conservative enough for the Republican party leaders and that his association with Jill—whose feminist ERA advocacy would upset the “Reaganites”—may have done him in. The real William Ruckelshaus, who had served as director of the FBI and as Nixon’s deputy attorney general before resigning during the Saturday Night Massacre, was indeed a finalist for the 1976 vice presidential nomination, though in the end Ford went with Bob Dole. While it is unclear why, exactly, Ford chose Dole, the New York Times reported at the time that Ford made the decision after consulting with Ronald Reagan, who was particularly supportive of Dole. Ruckelshaus remained independent-minded until the end, endorsing Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election and criticizing Trump’s treatment of the Mueller investigation in 2018 before dying in 2019.*
Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond)
In this episode, we see Schlafly join forces with a right-wing Christian group called Women Who Want to Be Women, or WWWW, which is headed up by an extremely conservative fundamentalist woman, Lottie Beth Hobbs. Over the course of several meetings, Schlafly courts Hobbs to join the board of the Eagle Forum in an attempt to gain access to the WWWW mailing list, which will allow her to broaden her reach among conservative women. All of this tracks more or less with history. WWWW was in fact an early anti-feminist group that helped bring about the rise of the Christian right. Hobbs, a Fort Worth, Texas, woman who was fiercely anti-abortion and anti–gay rights, did team up with Schlafly to build a national conservative alliance against the ERA. (More on this in later episodes.) She went on to become a member of President Ronald Reagan’s Council on Family Values, and, like Schlafly, she died in 2016.
Betty Ford (Lori Hallier)
The episode’s opening scene also shows Betty Ford talking about her work in support of the ERA. Unlikely as it may seem today, the Republican first lady was, in fact, a major lobbyist for progressive women’s rights policy throughout her career. In Jeffrey Ashley’s 2003 biography Betty Ford: A Symbol of Strength, he notes that “Betty was actually perceived by anti-ERA forces as being such a threat that Phyllis Schlafly of ‘STOP ERA’ requested that Betty provide an accounting of how much federal money was being spent on the endorsement.” Though her work was eventually slowed by her fight with breast cancer, it did not go unnoticed on either side the aisle: After the first lady revealed her diagnosis, Betty Friedan wished for Betty Ford “the energy and power of the women’s movement,” saying, “She’s done so much good for the movement, speaking out as she has for things like the Equal Rights Amendment, [we] hope some of our strength can flow back to her.”
A particularly chilling moment in this episode comes when Phyllis confesses, weepily, to her priest that she fears her son is “a pervert.” This moment reveals a side of Schlafly’s character that, while hinted at throughout the show, we haven’t seen displayed so nakedly until now: her deep and religious conservatism. The real Schlafly, who was a devout Catholic, did in fact refer to gay people as “perverts” on several occasions, including on Good Morning America.
A subplot of Episode 6, which centers on a series of allegations about powerful male senators sexually assaulting their female secretaries, will likely give modern viewers a frustrating sense of déjà vu. In the show, the conversation around the sexualization of congressional secretaries is prompted by the then-famous Elizabeth Ray sex scandal, in which Rep. Wayne Hays of Ohio was found to have been keeping his mistress on his taxpayer-funded payroll. (Hays resigned.) Chisholm then explains that more secretaries were reporting having to perform “sexual favors” for congressmen. In the episode, Chisholm urges Bella Abzug to help her break the story and force the lecherous congressmen out of office, but, concerned about upsetting Democratic Party leaders, Abzug declines.
While many of the specific details of this plot arc seem to have been invented for the show, it accurately reflects a larger cultural shift that was taking place in the mid-1970s, as greater awareness of sexual harassment began to emerge. Certain details also track with what we know about the time. In addition to the Ray scandal of May 1976, there was another scandal that same summer in which Rep. John Young of Texas was accused of paying a young aide a premium salary in exchange for “sexual favors.” While all too familiar to us now, these types of allegations were, at the time, still quite rare. According to Time magazine, the term sexual harassment was only officially coined, by a group of Cornell University researchers, in 1975. Around the same time, the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment also began receiving more media attention. A widely read article in the New York Times in 1975 cited a Cornell-funded survey which “indicated that more than 70 percent of the 155 respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment.” And as the show suggests, Chisholm was indeed active and outspoken in her advocacy for the rights of women and people of color in the workplace. In recent years, Chisholm has received some belated recognition for her role in establishing the groundwork for women’s fight against sexual harassment, and she has been cited as a foremother of the modern #MeToo movement.
In the show as in reality, when asked about the issue of workplace harassment, Phyllis Schlafly was, unsurprisingly, quick to blame the victim. “Sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women, except in the rarest of cases,” she claimed to a Senate committee on sexual harassment in 1981. “Men hardly ever ask sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is no. Virtuous women are seldom accosted.”
Correction, May 6, 2020: This article originally misspelled Robert Mueller’s last name.