The popular Hulu series Mrs. America is reinvigorating discussions on the women’s movement of the 1970s, the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the political legacy we continue to grapple with to this day. Like everyone watching this series, NOW staff and interns have strong opinions on the content and are sharing them through a series of blog posts on NOW’s website.
As a young feminist, I have a fairly fixed understanding of how conservatives view women’s issues. I have made angry calls, written letters, and stood on the front steps of too many conservative-bent government offices. This week in Episode 6 of Hulu FX’s Mrs. America, my understanding of who is and isn’t a feminist was challenged as we explored the story of Jill Ruckelshaus, a Republican co-founder of the Women’s Political Caucus and staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment.
We begin the episode with Jill’s appointment to run the presidential commission to advance women’s rights and push for the ratification of the ERA. What is most interesting about her appointment, and her whole story, are the ways she has learned to navigate the complex webs of power in a government run mostly by men. She accepts that she has to smile often, let them touch her back, and compliment them. Through a feminist lens, it is frustrating to see the constant effort women had to put forth just to be taken seriously. In 1975, when this episode took place, of the 535 members of Congress there were just 19 women in the House and 0 in the Senate. This episode illustrates the struggle of finding male allies who appear to not even respect the women with whom they must interact.
More than just the implicit ways sexism lingers in Congress is the other storyline of this episode: a lot of women on the Hill are being sexually harassed. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm is rightfully outraged to learn that several high-profile male senators are requiring sexual favors from their young female staff members. When Shirley asks Congresswoman Bella Abzug to help expose the stories, Bella becomes worried about upsetting the Democratic establishment in the middle of her run for Senate. While it seems like many of the details of this plotline were created for the show, it highlights the shift that took place in the 1970s as sexual harassment became more discussed. It seems common to hear these kinds of stories now, but the term “sexual harassment” wasn’t even coined until 1975.
This episode centers on the shifts happening within the Republican party. As the more moderate Republicans, like Jill Ruckelshaus, push for the Equal Rights Amendment and even pro-choice ideas, the more conservative, headed by Phyllis Schlafly, are making a power grab. Phyllis consolidates the power of anti-abortion women and conservative faith groups to get Reagan elected. By the end of the episode, we see the makings of the conservative agenda that would come to frustrate feminists and progressives for decades.
In all honesty, it is hard to find a silver lining lesson from this episode. As we get closer to the end of the series, it is clearer that this story does not have a happy ending. Moderate Republican women, like Jill, become overshadowed by the louder minority of ultra-conservatives. The ERA won’t get enough states to ratify until almost five decades from 1975. Sexual harassment is still rampant within government offices. If there is a silver lining, it is this – the fight for women’s equality is a long one. No one is handing power to the women who want it. We have to fight hard and sometimes it feels unending, but there is no other fight I would rather be in. This work is too important.
Jailyn Seabrooks is an Intern with NOW PAC.