The popular Hulu series Mrs. America is reinvigorating discussions on the women’s movement of the 1970’s, 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.
The third episode of Hulu FX’s Mrs. America focuses on Shirley Chisholm and her run for president in 1972. This episode foregrounded some of the racial tensions in both the women’s liberation movement and in Phyllis Schlafly’s movement against the Equal Rights Amendment.
The episode opens with Schlafly’s group trying to find a name for their organization, ultimately deciding on “Stop Taking Our Privileges (STOP) ERA.” The women of STOP are on their way to their first national convention in St. Louis, where they will be electing state leaders and discussing strategy. In Washington, D.C. the women of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) are similarly gearing up for the Democratic National Convention.
The Democratic primaries have just ended, with Shirley Chisholm winning one percent of the vote and George McGovern set to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Chisholm refuses to drop out of the race, causing a rift in the NWPC and highlighting the racial tensions and inequities in the two-party system. In a scene that I felt eerily parallels our last two Democratic primaries, Bella Abzug urges Chisholm to end her campaign for the sake of maintaining “party unity.”
The episode really grapples with intersectional feminism and its place in U.S. politics. Everyone tells Chisholm to appreciate what she can get, which she calls “crumbs” from men in power. She’s tired of achieving symbolic victories and wants to see a revolutionization in the way our society thinks about women, Black people, and other marginalized groups. As a young woman of color, this was apparent to me once again in the 2020 election cycle as female candidates and candidates of color had to drop out one-by-one because they didn’t have the situational support to continue.
Unfortunately, Chisholm is just too progressive for the Democratic party in 1972 – although I might argue that even today, she’d be too progressive for the majority of voters to throw their support behind – and releases her delegates to George McGovern. Mrs. America does a fantastic job of making this issue three dimensional. Why should “party unity” have to mean supporting the most politically moderate candidate? It’s clear, through the obvious sabotaging of Steinem’s floor vote on abortion, that the Democratic party has inequities sown into its fabric.
Meanwhile, STOP ERA is dealing with a similar issue as Mary Frances, a follower from Louisiana, shares a number of racist and racially charged sentiments at their convention. Schlafly and her right-hand woman, Alice, think Frances’ willingness to share such racist ideology will look bad for STOP, so Schlafly pushes Alice to confront her about it. The confrontation goes badly, as expected, and ultimately Schlafly decides to appoint state leaders, rather than holding a vote, in order to appease Frances and her supporters.
As much as Mrs. America might try to give Schlafly one good trait through this scene, it’s clear that she doesn’t have a problem with the racist claims themselves – she just feared it would look bad for STOP and would distract from their goal of taking down the ERA. The unfortunate parallels between STOP’s racism and the more systemic, subtle racism of the Democratic party, emphasized the need for more intersectional feminist leaders in our society.
In a particularly memorable scene where Chisholm finds herself having lost the endorsement of the Black Caucus, delegate Ron Dellums tells her that “Some of the brothers question whether you’re really the candidate for Blacks or just for women.” Chisholm’s firm response is “I don’t look Black to you?” Her loyalties questioned at every moment, Chisholm was doing a lot more than just running for president – she was exposing the sexism and racism that runs rampant in our political system.
Liyanga de Silva is an intern in NOW’s Communications Department