Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America’s Episode About Bella Abzug

Did Phyllis Schlafly really accept support from the Klan? Was she really hit with a pie? We break down “Bella.”

Bella Abzug and Margo Martindale.
Bella Abzug and Margo Martindale. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Library of Congress and FX for Hulu.

In the most recent installment of FX and Hulu’s nine-part series Mrs. America, Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) steps into the limelight as the national face of the pro–Equal Rights Amendment movement when she is chosen by President Jimmy Carter to preside over the first-ever National Women’s Conference. Working with Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and gay rights activists to unify factions within the women’s liberation movement, Abzug makes arrangements for the conference while Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative opposition struggle to coordinate a response.

The episode also contains a number of more surprising details. Did Schlafly really collaborate with the Ku Klux Klan? Did Jimmy Carter really have a closeted lesbian as an adviser? Below, just as we did for the first six episodes, we break it all down.

Phyllis Schlafly Gets a Pie in the Face

Phyllis Schlafly and Cate Blanchette, both after getting a pie in the face.
Phyllis Schlafly and Cate Blanchette. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mwcaro/AP Photo and FX for Hulu.

Episode 7 opens with a scene in which Schlafly gets a pie thrown in her face by a stranger at an event. Though this moment seems nearly too slapstick to be true, this did, in fact, actually happen. According to the Associated Press, which captured the aftermath in a photo, the real Schlafly was “pied” while at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Saturday, April 16, 1977. The show’s depiction matches the scene described almost exactly, with one small difference. In the show, the pie appears to be a cream pie whereas, in reality, it was apple.

The man responsible for throwing the pie was Aron Kay, a left-wing activist who made a name for himself by flinging desserts at famous people whose politics he disagreed with. Over the course of his pie-throwing career, Kay’s victims included such prominent figures as former CIA Director William Colby, William F. Buckley, and Andy Warhol. Kay told the AP that he targeted Schlafly because of her anti-ERA efforts and chose an apple pie because “It was in the tradition of motherhood and apple pie.”

Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale)

Abzug takes center stage in this episode as the former U.S. representative, fresh off a failed Senate campaign, takes on a new role as the leader of the National Women’s Conference. Both the Senate campaign (she lost narrowly in the primary) and the ensuing appointment by Carter are true to life. As the show suggests, Abzug was a natural choice to run the conference as she had introduced a bill proposing federal support for such a conference the previous year.

The show also makes reference at times to Abzug’s somewhat brash behavior, including in a moment when Gloria Steinem chides her for throwing coleslaw at a colleague. While I was not able to verify the coleslaw story, I did find a different story about Abzug nearly throwing a different food at Betty Friedan. In a 2007 oral history of Abzug, her friend and fellow activist Barbara Bick recalls:

I saw Bella pick up her dish—it was heaped with chewed-up chicken bones—and she was slowly rising. We all went silent because she was going to throw it. Betty went white. Finally I was able to get my hand on Bella’s arm and make her sit down.

Rosemary Thomson (Melanie Lynskey)

Rosemary Thomson and Melanie Lynskey.
Rosemary Thomson and Melanie Lynskey. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Denver Post via Getty Images and FX for Hulu.

In this episode, Rosemary Thomson steps up to bat in the effort to derail the National Women’s Conference. As the show depicts, Thomson was a close friend of Phyllis Schlafly’s and also served as the head of the Illinois chapter of the Eagle Forum. Early on in Episode 7, the leaders of the Eagle Forum devise a plan to get conservative delegates elected to participate at the conference by establishing a new organization that they hope will act as a cover. The result is the International Women’s Year Citizens’ Review Committee, presided over by Thomson herself. In the end, Abzug and Steinem see what they are up to, but the organization is successful in rustling up support from Christian women, and they manage to win delegates in a number of states. All of this roughly matches up with what really happened. According to the book Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, the Citizens’ Review Committee was established in March of 1977, just a few months before the convention, and as news of it circulated, “conservative groups, working in loose coalitions that varied from state to state, managed what were called ‘takeovers’ of several conferences including Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, Nebraska, and Utah.”

Schlafly’s No-Show

In a surprising moment in this episode, Schlafly—who has until now been the fearless leader of the conservative anti-feminist coalition—appears to back down from a chance to confront her pro-ERA opponents. While it is unclear whether Thomson and the other Eagles had expected Schlafly to appear at the Illinois meeting, it is true that newspapers wrote that she was “considered likely” to appear, touting the bout as a “Battle With Bella,” as one headline put it. She never showed.

Margaret “Midge” Costanza (Annie Parisse)

Midge Costanza and Annie Parisse.*
Midge Costanza and Annie Parisse.* Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the National Archives and Records Administration and FX for Hulu.

A new character in this episode is Midge Costanza, a representative from the Carter administration who arrives early on to offer Abzug the position of presiding officer of the National Women’s Conference Commission. This matches up with history, as do the show’s references to Costanza’s biography. The real Costanza was indeed a top assistant to President Jimmy Carter and, as the show mentions, was the first woman to hold the title of assistant to the president. In this episode, we see her advocate for the inclusion of lesbian and gay rights in the conference agenda. The real Costanza, who died in 2010, was a strong advocate for gay rights and one of the first politicians to argue on behalf of the National Gay Task Force within the Democratic Party, even as she herself remained closeted. (More on that later.)

Jean O’Leary (Anna Douglas)

Jean O’Leary and Anna Douglas.
Jean O’Leary and Anna Douglas.* Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bill Peters/The Denver Post via Getty Images and FX for Hulu.

Early on in Episode 7, we see the pro-ERA team sitting around a conference table discussing their plans for the National Women’s Conference. Abzug suggests that they appoint Betty Friedan as a commissioner and several other women, including Gloria Steinem, express their doubts about this idea, citing Friedan’s lack of support for the lesbian community. One woman pushes back especially hard on the proposition, saying, “If Betty is on that stage, it’ll send a message that we’re not welcome. I’ll resign.” This is our introduction to Jean O’Leary who, like nearly everyone on the show so far (setting aside a few of Schlafly’s fellow Eagles), was indeed a real person. The real O’Leary, who died in 2005, was a prominent gay rights activist who was the co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force and later helped to found National Coming Out Day. In this episode, she joins forces with Midge Costanza to advocate for the inclusion of lesbian and gay rights in the conference agenda. All of this matches up with historical records. According to the 2016 book American Women on the Move: The Inside Story on the National Women’s Conference, 1977, O’Leary was indeed responsible for ensuring that the “sexual preference” resolution was included in the broad array of recommendations proposed at the conference. Also in 1977, O’Leary made history when she led the first-ever delegation of gay activists to the White House to meet with President Jimmy Carter’s staff. (Costanza was integral in arranging the meeting.)

Midge Costanza and Jean O’Leary’s Secret Romance

As the episode moves along, we learn that Costanza and O’Leary are in a relationship that they feel forced to keep hidden from the public. The two women were in fact together at the time of the conference, though, since Costanza was still in the closet, neither revealed the relationship for many years. In an interview on the podcast Making Gay History, O’Leary discussed Costanza’s decision to keep their relationship a secret, saying, “She knew, at least for much of her career, that she could never have done what she did, could never have been Jimmy Carter’s adviser, and could never have invited gay activists to the White House if anyone knew that she was gay.”

The Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society

In this episode, as Phyllis Schlafly and the anti-ERA movement gain traction among Christian groups, we begin to hear rumors of their getting support from members of the Ku Klux Klan. These echo references in earlier episodes to the controversial far-right group the John Birch Society. In both instances, Schlafly denies any association with the groups, though her disavowal of them comes off as somewhat lukewarm, and despite pressure from Alice (Sarah Paulson), she appears hesitant to denounce them fully. In reality, it’s true that the stop-ERA movement stirred up interest from members of the KKK, particularly surrounding the National Women’s Conference in Houston, even as the Catholic Schlafly could never comfortably embrace the anti-Catholic Klan. As this episode suggests, the Klan was particularly roused by the inclusion of gay and lesbian rights on the conference agenda. A New York Times article from November 1977 quotes Robert Shelton, then the so-called imperial wizard of the Klan, saying that Klansmen planned to attend the conference in order “to protect our women from all the militant lesbians who will be there.”

At one point in the episode, Gloria Steinem references a Mississippi delegate being the wife of the “grand dragon” of the KKK. This, too, is true. Dallas Higgins, wife of George Higgins, was one of 20 Mississippi delegates to attend the conference, though she told the Clarion-Ledger that she was not there to represent the Ku Klux Klan, adding, “If we (Klan members) were going to disrupt the convention, we would have done it in Mississippi (at the July IWY conference in Jackson).” Her own husband, however, sang a different tune. George Higgins boasted about the Klan’s influence to Florida Today, saying, “We controlled the [meeting] in Mississippi.”

Whispers about Klan involvement in the anti-ERA movement quickly spread. Both Steinem and Abzug made public statements in which they referenced Klan involvement in the anti-ERA movement. Abzug claimed, “In some states there were disruption attempts by the ultra-right, like the Ku Klux Klan, who still want to keep their women home washing the sheets.” Such comments prompted Schlafly to publish a statement in her Eagle Forum Newsletter emphatically denouncing the allegations. In her book Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, University of South Carolina historian Marjorie Spruill Wheeler quotes Schlafly’s denial: “This is not only false—it is ridiculous! Of course all eagles know that there has been NO contact between any of us and the KKK, and that the KKK has done NOTHING to defeat ERA.” However, Wheeler also quotes Schlafly describing herself as “tolerant” and as saying, as she does in the episode, “I let people be against ERA for the reason of their choice.”

In the end, it is not entirely clear to what extent the stop-ERA movement was supported by the KKK, if it was at all. In Arizona State University historian Donald T. Critchlow’s book Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, he concludes that the claims of collusion “appear unfounded.”

As for Schlafly’s alleged ties to the far-right John Birch Society, these, too, have been a subject of dispute for decades, and there is certainly enough evidence to raise eyebrows. Though Schlafly publicly denied ever having been a member of the fringe group, she also said in one interview in 2011, “I think they’re fine people.” More convincing are personal letters quoted in a recent article in the Daily Beast, which suggest that both she and Fred Schlafly may in fact have been members themselves back in the 1950s. The article states that, in a letter, Schlafly wrote, “The John Birch Society is doing a wonderful work, and my husband and I both joined promptly after the Chicago meeting.”

Phyl Schlafly (Lucy Margey)

As the battle over the ERA intensifies, tensions within the Schlafly family also appear to heighten. In this episode, friction emerges between Phyllis and her eldest daughter, “Phyl” (short for Phyllis), who has recently started college at Princeton. Eventually it is revealed that Phyl has decided to change her name to Liza in an effort to distance herself from her mother’s reputation. This anecdote is taken directly from history. According to The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, Carol Felsenthal’s biography of Schlafly, the young Phyllis changed her name to Liza shortly after starting college, because “on many campuses, her mother was Public Enemy No. 1” (this phrase is used verbatim in the episode). It seems that the new name stuck. The Schlaflys’ fourth child still goes by the name “Liza” and is even referred to as such in Phyllis Schlafly’s biography on the Eagle Forum website.

Read more:

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America’s First Three Episodes

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

Correction, May 13, 2020: Due to a production error, the photos of Midge Costanza and Annie Parisse were originally misidentified as Jean O’Leary and Anna Douglas, and vice versa.