The end of the first episode of the Hulu drama Mrs. America paints a picturesque scene of the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States Senate. However, the episode is tinged with the threat of a growing opposition to the ERA, led by Phyllis Schlafly. While Schlafly is clearly the “protagonist” of the series in the most traditional sense, the show makes it obvious that her claims of never experiencing discrimination as a woman are untrue. Every defamatory thing Schlafly says about the ERA is undercut by the men in her meeting talking over her and asking her to take notes, or by her husband ignoring her reluctance to have sex after a long day.
As we gear up for the next episode, let’s take a look at the historical accuracy of episode one. The show opens with Schlafly modeling an American flag bikini during a 1971 fundraiser for Rep. Phil Crane, who served in the House of representatives from 1969 to 2005. The scene transitions and we see Schlafly on Conservative Viewpoint, being interviewed by Crane. He introduces her by saying she first came to the public’s attention when she wrote “A Choice Not an Echo” in 1964, a book supporting Barry Goldwater’s run for president – which is true.
Crane is interviewing Schlafly about national defense and nuclear warfare, which makes sense since she co-authored books on these topics and was very involved in this conversation before she began her ERA opposition movement. After the talk-show, Crane asks Schlafly if he’ll “see her on the campaign trail,” and she says she doesn’t know since she’s already lost twice. This does follow the timeline of her life, as she first ran for Congress in 1952, and then ran for the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women in 1967, but lost both races.
Then, we see Schlafly speaking to a woman named Alice in a hair salon – who doesn’t seem to be based on any specific historical figure – about her concerns with the ERA. Alice claims it’ll get rid of alimony, and “ship our daughters off to Vietnam.” This isn’t accurate in terms of what the ERA would actually do, but it is a common misconception, even today. In reality, the ERA wouldn’t get rid of alimony, it would only make these policies use sex-neutral language, such as saying “primary caregiver” instead of “mother.” Regarding the draft, the fact is that the lack of an ERA in the Constitution does not protect women against involuntary military service, but having the ERA would help provide women equal access to military career ladders and provide protection against sexual discrimination, harassment, and assault.
Next, Schlafly travels to D.C. to attend a meeting with Crane and Goldwater and discuss the nuclear arms race with Russia, but ultimately the meeting shifts to the ERA. Schlafly claims the women’s liberation movement has already been “given enough”, such as the Pay Equity Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th amendment. It’s historically correct that these policies exist, but what’s inaccurate is Schlafly’s claim that they eliminate all discrimination against women, which they certainly do not.
As the episode begins to wrap up, we see Schlafly consoling her sister-in-law, Eleanor, about being unable to find a husband. Schlafly tells Eleanor she has a wonderful life and essentially that she doesn’t need to be married to be happy. Later in the episode, Schlafly hosts a luncheon where she voices her opposition to the ERA and makes fun of women’s liberationists by saying they are just childless women who no one wanted to marry. It’s clear that Eleanor takes offense at this, and I’m sure this will become a point of contention in the following episodes.
We then see Schlafly typing and mailing the next edition of her newsletter, The Schlafly Report, the topic of which is her opposition to the ERA, and which signifies the start of her organizing against it. Finally, the episode closes with the announcement of Shirley Chisholm’s bid for president and the passing of the ERA in the Senate, both of which did happen in 1972. We see Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and other feminist members of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), celebrating the ERA victory.
For current feminist and ERA activists, this moment was bittersweet. Abzug exclaims “We have seven years but we’ll get it done in one,” with regard to getting the 38 states needed to enshrine the ERA in the Constitution. As we know, the ERA received it’s 38th ratification just this year, in 2020, in Virginia. The episode ends with the women of the NWPC writing off Schlafly as irrelevant to their work, not knowing what a big threat she poses to this important feminist legislation.
Ultimately, the premier of the show leaves me hopeful that Mrs. America will give viewers an accurate understanding of the Equal Rights Amendment and its history, without implying that the movement for the ERA is over by any means.
Liyanga de Silva is an intern in NOW’s Communications Department