"Mrs. America" and the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment

"Mrs. America" and the fight over the ERA
"Mrs. America" and the fight over the ERA 07:25

The battle for the ERA, the Equal Rights Amendment, has been waged for nearly a century. And in January, before COVID-19 brought the country to a halt, many saw signs the battle was finally coming to end, as Virginia became the 38th state to pass the ERA

But the country has been here before.

"Mrs. America," a limited TV series, takes a look back at the 1970s when the ERA almost became a reality.

"I think the only reason to delve back into history is to understand where we are today," said actress Cate Blanchett, who produces and is one of the stars of "Mrs. America." "It was literally like 'Groundhog Day.' Same-sex bathrooms and women in the military and the draft and all of these things are all coming up now, even the Equal Rights Amendment itself."

mrs-america-fx-cate-blanchett-rose-byrne-620.jpg
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly and Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem in "Mrs. America," a new series about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment.  FX Networks

The ERA was passed by Congress in 1972. But three-quarters of the states had to ratify it to make it law. That seemed all but certain, with feminists like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm behind it – until they ran into another woman just as passionately opposed to it: Phyllis Schlafly, who said, "The women's liberation movement is basically a very negative attitude toward life." 

"The series really does break apart this notion that all women think the same," said Blanchett, who plays Schlafly, a conservative Illinois lawyer who founded the STOP ERA campaign. "She felt that the virtuous woman was the cornerstone of society. So, if we start leaving the family, then the whole fabric of America is going to collapse."

"This is a complicated thing," said Rose Byrne, who plays Steinem, one of the most recognizable leaders of the pro-ERA movement. Both Steinem and Schlafly grew up in the Midwest, and Byrne said they had more in common than Schlafly would admit.

"She would travel all over the country, leaving her family with help, leaving her children, fighting for this thing," said Byrne. "That's the dirty secret about Phyllis Schlafly, is that she's the biggest feminist of all of them, really."

gloria-steinem-phyllis-schlafly-620.jpg
Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly. CBS News

Margo Martindale (who plays the formidable Congresswoman Bella Abzug) says Schlafly was shrewd; she referred to herself as 'feminine' rather than 'feminist,' and played the game as well as her opponents: "She was a politician. And she knew what she could get done. I found that fascinating about her – smart as a whip. But every one of these women are smart as a whip."

Of Abzug, Martindale said, "She was loud, she was outspoken, she was an activist from the moment she came out of her momma's womb." 

Tracy Ullman plays Betty Friedan, the bestselling author of "The Feminine Mystique" and co-founder of the National Organization for Women. She said, "She had a fantastic education, and then she felt stifled by being a mother with three small children and no opportunity to be in the workplace."

Elizabeth Banks co-stars as the lesser-known but powerful Republican feminist, Jill Ruckelshaus. "The movement was bipartisan back then," Banks said. "And equal rights and human rights should be bipartisan, of course that's the goal of it."

cast-of-mrs-america-620.jpg
The cast of "Mrs. America": (front) Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Cate Blanchett and Uzo Aduba; (rear) Elizabeth Banks, John Slattery and Tracy Ullman. CBS News

Uzo Aduba plays Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to run for President. "I knew her as an African American hero, Africa American female hero," Aduba said.

The battle lines were drawn between those who welcomed the ERA as an opportunity, and others who saw it as a threat. 

Sarah Paulson plays a composite character called Alice who was a follower of Schlafly's and a member of STOP/ERA. "She couldn't look around and see anyone, any woman that sort of confirmed that she had value, based on what she wanted, which was not to be in the working environment, but to be working in her home and taking care of her children," Paulson said.

John Slattery on playing Phyllis Schlafly's "... 01:37

The series includes some of the memorable skirmishes in the battle, as in an uncomfortable TV appearance with Betty Friedan.

Byrne said Steinem herself seemed determined to avoid these spectacles: "And that was smart, you know? She didn't wanna give [Schlafly] any more air time than she was already having."

But in the end, Schlafly and her STOP ERA did exactly that. In the early '80s, after activists failed to get enough states to ratify the amendment, the movement stalled and disappeared from headlines, until recently, when women's marches and #MeToo seemed to breathe new life into it.

Carol Jenkins, co-founder and CEO of the ERA Coalition, said, "America wants this. Over 90% of everyone says, 'Women should have constitutional equality.' it's just a matter of time before women and girls have equality in the playbook that we all live by in this country: our Constitution."

But in fact, the issue is as unsettled as ever. Opponents argue that the January vote in Virginia to ratify the ERA came too late, well after a deadline set by Congress.

And so, the fight continues, now in the courts. Aduba hopes that a series like "Mrs. America," which provides a look back, can help Americans find a way forward. "I think we have the unique opportunity now to correct as we progress towards hopefully a resolution of some kind, a bringing together of some kind," she said.

To watch a trailer for "Mrs. America" click on the video player below:

Mrs. America | Official Trailer | FX by FX Networks on YouTube

      
For more info:

        
Story produced by Mary Raffalli and Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Steven Tyler.