The final episode of Mrs. America paints a complicated portrait of the fate of the women’s rights movement at the end of the 1970s and the dawn of the Reagan era. In the finale, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Jill Ruckelshaus leverage their combined power in an effort to influence the fading Carter administration. Meanwhile Phyllis Schlafly tries to cash in on her successful work stalling the Equal Rights Amendment to secure a position under incoming President Ronald Reagan.
But was Schlafly really on Reagan’s shortlist? Was Bella Abzug really fired by Jimmy Carter, and did that really inspire a Spartacus-esque series of dramatic resignations? And did Schlafly really meet the then–up-and-coming Paul Manafort and Roger Stone? Below, just as we did for each of the previous eight episodes, we separate what’s true from what’s artistic license.
Bella Abzug’s Firing
Early in the episode, we find Bella Abzug and other members of the National Advisory Committee for Women preparing for a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. However, when they hear that the president has only agreed to a 15-minute meeting, they decide to play hard ball and cancel, demanding to be taken more seriously. A 1979 New York Times article confirms that the committee indeed canceled their original meeting with Carter “when they discovered that only 15 minutes had been allotted in the President’s schedule.” As in the show, the tactic worked and a longer meeting was subsequently scheduled for a later date.
However, as the show references, just a day before the meeting, Abzug approved a press release expressing criticism of the Carter administration’s efforts on women’s issues. The press release, which angered White House staffers, led to the decision to fire Abzug from the committee. On the show, Abzug is brought into the office of Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s chief of staff, where she is unceremoniously fired from her position as co-chairwoman of the committee. Though it may seem shockingly backhanded, it is true that Abzug was dismissed just minutes after meeting with the president, and that the decision was made, on Jordan’s recommendation, hours before the meeting.
The Dramatic Resignations
As the show depicts, Abzug’s firing also incited a wave of fury and retaliation. Abzug’s co-chairwoman, Carmen Delgado Votaw (played on the show by Andrea Navedo), resigned in solidarity with Abzug, as did another 22 women (a majority of the 39-person committee), all of whom protested Abzug’s dismissal. The show depicts this in a fashion that seems very Hollywood, with each woman marching into Hamilton Jordan’s office one by one and handing him their resignations. While I wasn’t able to confirm whether it actually happened that way, many women did express their anger at the president’s decision openly and harshly, including Gloria Steinem, who questioned the president’s “rationality” and referred to the event as “the Friday afternoon massacre.”
The conservative STOP ERA movement did, in fact, host a 1979 event to celebrate Schlafly and what the Washington Post called “the ‘End’ of an E.R.A.” Officially called the Pro Family Gala honoring Phyllis Schlafly, the dinner was held at the Shoreham Hotel in New York City and saw Schlafly and her allies declaring the amendment “legally, morally and constitutionally dead.” The event depicted in the episode bears a strong resemblance to historical descriptions of the gala. According to the Post, the event was attended by about 1,200 conservatives from across the country and included something called the “ERA Follies of 1979,” a series of performances aimed at mocking liberal pro-ERA leaders. (While I could find no evidence of the specific musical parody performed on the show, the “Follies” included songs with titles like “Who’s Laughing Now.”) The Post also described the crowd having “hissed at the mention of Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, and the numerous references to Bella Abzug.”
As depicted in the show, the evening was temporarily interrupted by a bomb threat, and one woman even reportedly said, as Schlafly does in the show, “It’s the liberals” and “They try to wreck everything.”
Paul Manafort and Roger Stone
At another gathering of conservatives later in the episode, Schlafly is approached by a young Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, who ask her about her support for Reagan. It is true that these two future Trump advisers and convicted felons had, at the time of the episode, recently formed an infamous consulting group—Black, Manafort & Stone—that worked for Reagan’s 1980 campaign. However, while the meeting between them and Schlafly seems plausible, we weren’t able to find a record of any such meeting, so we asked Mrs. America showrunner Dahvi Waller where it came from. Waller says:
For the most part, we only chose to include cameos of famous people if we ran right into them in our research. Shirley MacLaine was at the meeting between the women’s caucus and Senator McGovern, and wrote about it for the New York Times. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also invited to the meeting at Justice with Stan Pottinger that Gloria and Brenda were invited to. Dick Cheney was deputy chief of staff for President Ford when Jill was appointed to run the commission, so it’s plausible that he would be in the White House for that first scene at the top of “Jill.”
The only exception to that rule was Manafort and Stone. While we know they helped run Reagan’s campaign, we do not know if they crossed with Phyllis in 1980, or whether they were in Illinois for the primary election. But it was a shorthand way to dramatize the parallels between the 1980 election and 2016 for audiences who grew up after 1980, who have no idea what Reagan meant in 1980.
Schlafly’s Relationship With Reagan
As conservative enthusiasm for Reagan swells, Schlafly declares her support for the charismatic California governor and is seen campaigning on his behalf, pinning a Reagan 1980 campaign button to her lapel that reads “Let’s Make America Great Again.” It’s true that Trump borrowed his notoriously divisive 2016 campaign slogan from Reagan, though, as Slate’s Seth Stevenson noted at the time, he tweaked it “to be both less inclusive and more bossy.”
In the show, Schlafly believes her efforts in the campaign will earn her a prestigious position in Reagan’s administration, a belief that ultimately leads to disappointment, and this, too, largely matches the historical record. However, she seemingly had her eye on different appointments. In the episode, Schlafly mentions her interest in the position of ambassador to the U.N. In real life, according to a 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times, “Schlafly had her eye on a Cabinet post as secretary of Education or a senior position in the Defense Department.” The article notes that she even “organized a letter campaign on her behalf,” with endorsements from the president of Coors and the co-founder of Amway. When she didn’t get any of these positions, she didn’t give up, trying to get herself appointed instead as the first woman on the Supreme Court. Ultimately, that position, too, went to another, more moderate woman. Like U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had supported the Equal Rights Amendment.