Shirley Chisholm: What is ‘Mrs. America is right and wrong

If you have watched any of the “Mrs America“, the star-studded miniseries about the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, you might be wondering how accurately it captures this divisive chapter in American political history.

The nine-part drama pits conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her supporters against a group of feminist stars led by Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), who are subject to heated internal debates. Creator Dahvi Waller and her team of writers conducted extensive research in second-wave feminism and the rise of the New Right in the 1970s.

Like almost all works of historical fiction, “Mrs. America” ​​takes some liberties, especially when it comes to private conversations behind closed doors, and offers a necessarily subjective view of very polarizing personalities such as Schlafly. But when it comes to events in the public record, “Ms. America” sticks to the facts, often quoting verbatim from feminist leaders and their critics.

“Overall, they did a pretty good job,” said historian Marjorie Spruill, author of “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values ​​That Polarized America.”

Episode three explores the thorny intersection of race and gender on both sides of the ERA debate. Representative Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first black woman elected to Congress, makes a historic run for president in 1972 but faces skepticism from the women’s movement and other black politicians. Meanwhile, Democrats are fighting for abortion and ERA opponents are grappling with racism within their ranks.

Here’s a look at fact versus fiction in episode three, “Shirley”:

Uzo Aduba portrays Shirley Chisholm in “Mrs. America.”

(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

Shirley Chisholm was stung by the lack of support she received from the women’s movement and black politicians


As the convention approaches, Chisholm, one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, faces pressure to ditch her supposed allies – including Rep. Ron Dellums (Norm Lewis), co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, who tells Chisholm that they question whether she is “the candidate for blacks, or just for women”. She also struggles with the hesitant support of her NWPC peers, Abzug and Steinem.

As a pioneering black woman in politics, Chisholm was used to having her loyalties questioned. When declaring her candidacy at an event in Brooklyn in January 1972, she declared, “I am not black America’s candidate, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement in this country, although I am a woman and am also proud of it. During a campaign stop in Los Angeles, Chisholm faced doubts about her candidacy in the black community – “Few black people can truly believe that a black person, who also happens to be a woman, can become president of this country” — and also answered questions about why she chose not to wear her hair in a natural look.

Indeed, as Barbara Winslow writes in her book “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change”, Chisholm was viewed with skepticism – and in some cases anger – by leading black politicians of the time because they believed that she would be considered the women’s candidate. . And she was heartbroken when Dellums, her longtime supporter, bailed her out at the last minute to endorse McGovern – as seen in “Mrs. America.”

Similarly, Chisholm received only “lukewarm support” from leading feminists, according to Winslow. Abzug never formally endorsed her, while Steinem’s support was nuanced by her naming McGovern “the best of the male nominees”. Chisholm actually confronted Steinem on a Chicago TV show about his “half-approval.” Years later, Steinem expressed regret over the matter.

Another “Mrs. America” ​​detail that stands up to scrutiny? According to Winslow’s book, Chisholm received multiple death threats and received Secret Service protection. The FBI also investigated a racist smear campaign against her. involving fake press releases written on stolen campaign stationery from Hubert Humphrey.

Rose Byrne plays Gloria Steinem in "Mrs. America."

Rose Byrne plays Gloria Steinem in “Mrs. America.”

(Sabrina Lantos / FX)

There was a battle over abortion at the 1972 Democratic Convention. And, yes, Shirley MacLaine helped keep the issue off the party platform


At the Miami Democratic Convention in 1972, the NWPC became a political force. Women made up 38% of delegates, down from 13% in 1968, and some wanted to use their newfound influence to get the party to support reproductive choice at a time when abortion was still illegal in much of the country. (The Supreme Court would issue its decision in Roe v. Wade about six months later.)

In “Shirley”, we see Steinem and Abzug meet with George McGovern’s campaign manager Gary Hart (John Palladino) and McGovern’s delegate Shirley MacLaine (Vanessa Smythe). Using an arcane convention rules mechanism, Steinem promises McGovern 100 California delegates in exchange for a floor vote on a reproductive rights board. But when it looks like the measure might pass, Hart panics and fires a switcheroo delegate, resulting in a bitter loss for abortion rights supporters — especially Steinem.

That’s basically what happened. In her colorful dispatch from the convention for Esquire magazine, Nora Ephron wrote, “The fight for the abortion plank – which was called the human reproduction plank because it never mentioned the word abortion – produced the world’s most emotional ground fight. convention.” She describes a tearful Steinem calling Hart a liar and a bastard, and Abzug “screaming at Shirley MacLaine.” For her part, the actress defended her role in the incident in a New York Times article, explaining her pragmatic opposition to the plank despite her personal support for abortion rights.”It seemed to me that a strong plank on abortion would harm not only George McGovern — but the problem itself,” she wrote. ‘era.

The show’s portrayal of Steinem as idealistic and more grounded Abzug is fair, Spruill said. “Steinem hates political compromises. And Abzug is also concerned with economic and racial justice as well as gender. But she is also a politician who deals with the world of what is possible and understands it better. She feared they would get McGovern elected first.

Phyllis Schlafly probably turned a blind eye to racists in her movement


In the same episode, Schlafly’s sidekick Alice (Sarah Paulson) confronts Louisiana Stop ERA member Mary Frances (Melinda Page Hamilton) about her racist language. Schlafly steps into the dispute and brings in Mary Frances to lead her state organization, but reminds members to stick to approved talking points. “It better serves our cause that everyone uses the same language,” she says. In other words: it’s okay if you’re racist, but don’t advertise because it makes us look bad.

While the specific storyline appears to have been fabricated by the writers of “Mrs. America,” the dynamic it portrays is accurate, according to Spruill, who has interviewed Schlafly on several occasions.

“She said to me, ‘I am an opponent of ERA equal opportunities, and any group that opposes it, for whatever reason, is welcome to work with us,'” Spruill said. In his research, Spruill also found that a “significant number” of prominent Stop ERA members were affiliated with far-right organizations such as the John Birch Society and segregationist groups, including Women for Constitutional Government, which has was founded in opposition to the integration of Ole Mademoiselle.

Helen D. Jessen