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‘Mrs. America’ Exec Producer on How the Equal Rights Amendment Helped Shape the Series’ Narrative (Guest Column)

Mrs America FX TV Show
Courtesy of FX

Like so many other women, I have uttered the phrase, “I’m not a feminist, but …” When I was younger, the word had been politicized to mean so many other things — man-hater, ballbuster, b—h. A friend of mine cured me of my ignorance, and by the ’90s I was a proud feminist reading Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” and listening to riot grrrl bands. I was vaguely aware of Phyllis Schlafly, but when I saw a segment about her in a PBS documentary, during the summer before the 2016 election, I began to think about telling the story of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment.

There have been many projects about the women’s movement, but none from the perspective of its spoiler. We began this project, “Mrs. America,” with the idea that our nation was on the brink of having its first female president. There is a direct link between the anti-ERA housewives and the women who felt disrespected by Hillary Clinton asking if people expected her to “stay home and bake cookies.”

When Clinton lost the 2016 election, the FX on Hulu series also became a look at how we got here from there. The deeper we got into telling this story, the more we saw how relevant the issues of the series are to our current political landscape — and the more I realized that I had a lot more to learn about the complexities of the battle to ratify the ERA.

First of all, I realized that Shirley Chisholm should be much more famous. She was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress as well as the first woman to pursue the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. She ran a fearless campaign on issues that we are still grappling with today but did not have the endorsement of either the black caucus or the women’s caucus. Both backed the more centrist candidate, George McGovern, who they felt had the best chance of beating Nixon. He lost in a historic landslide.

Next I discovered that intersectionality was a ’70s thing. Black, Latino, queer and poor women were leaders in the feminist movement long before Kimberlé Crenshaw provided the framework and definition for intersectionality. The leaders of the movement constantly pushed back against an exclusively white, heterosexual, privileged mainstream and toward intersectional representation. At the 1977 National Women’s Convention in Houston, the 26 adopted planks included minority women, rural women, homemakers, sexual orientation, reproductive freedom and, of course, the Equal Rights Amendment. There were many strong, brilliant and passionate personalities among the movement leaders, and they all had very different points of view. Healthy debates among accomplished women are disturbingly still called “catfights.” When men debate and differ, it’s just called a “debate.”

It blew my mind that there used to be Republican feminists, and they were the mainstream. First lady Betty Ford, Jill Ruckelshaus and Audrey Rowe Colom, all of whom are represented in our show, fought hard for the ratification of the ERA and were pro-choice. By 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party began its tack to the far right.

Less of a surprise was learning that the insurance industry hates the ERA. Ellie Smeal and Gloria Steinem have often spoken of the influence of the insurance industry lobbyists working against the ratification of the ERA, because it would do away with gender-based price discrimination. For decades they treated being a woman as a preexisting condition. It was not unexpected to learn that W. Clement Stone, the Illinois insurance billionaire, was among Schlafly’s political backers when she made her congressional bid. 

In 1970, “Battling Bella” Abzug, (the brilliant feminist activist and co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus with Steinem, Chisholm and Betty Friedan) ran for Congress at the same time as Schlafly. They used the same slogan: “This woman’s place is in the House … the House of Representatives!” Abzug won. Schlafly lost her race. But that does not diminish the fact that she was a marketing genius. She was also a best-selling author, who turned the mailing list for her newsletter into a political juggernaut that created one of the first grassroots conservative movements. She understood the media and made sure to be seen nationally on mainstream daytime shows like “Donahue” and “The Mike Douglas Show.” She rebranded her movement from the movement of the anti’s — “anti-ERA” and “anti-choice” — to the pro’s: “pro-family” and “pro-life.” She was a trailblazer in both branding and organizing.  

Finally, it is utterly incomprehensible that enshrining these simple words — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” — in the Constitution is still so controversial. 

Hollywood veteran Stacey Sher is the executive producer of FX on Hulu’s new series “Mrs. America,” which stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly and begins airing April 15.