From the Heart of America: Phyllis Schlafly

By Dissident Teacher

“Mrs. America,” now showing on Hulu, presents a fascinating look at Phyllis Schlafly, her opposition to the ERA and the second wave feminist movement. It’s a stellar production, led by Cate Blanchett, that entertains us with true-to-life views of the 1970s and motivating factors behind those for and against the ERA. The series shows how brilliantly Mrs. Schlafly used her political skills to round up opposition to the ERA.

In the end, ERA proponents failed to get 38 states to ratify the ERA, largely because they were outsmarted by the other side. Rose Byrne plays Gloria Steinem as a smooth and capable leader, kind and sympathetic in her approach. Younger than Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug, she was able to bridge the gap between many factions within the pro-ERA group, including lesbians, black feminists and Republican women. Black Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972, was also in the group. Of all the feminists, Shirley seems the most honest—not willing to compromise ethics for agenda.

The series of 9 episodes devotes considerable attention to character profiles. Those who are looking for one side to be all good and the other side all evil, as is the rule in today’s political practice today, will be disappointed. Then and now, I find Gloria Steinem a very likeable person. I heard her speak while in college and read Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, but wasn’t convinced about either feminism or the ERA. At that time, Phyllis Schlafly was not as visible to college students. It’s likely that she and her volunteers were working in the background, while the feminists and ERA supporters made the nightly news reports.

Sorting Out the Facts from the Fiction

Although Schlafly’s daughter, Anne Schlafly Cori, believes the portrayal of her mother was too cold and misses the warmth of her personality, the series does not portray her unfavorably. Above all, she was incredibly smart, organized and strategic. It appears as if Schlafly was able to rally southern Evangelical women behind her mainly because they were upset about the abortion issue, as she was. It’s clear that she was deeply conservative on all issues and a fervent anti-communist. She had six children, including a gay son and a daughter who is embarrassed by her cause as a student at Princeton (not sure if this is true).

Some reviewers deem the historical records as accurate, but personal events written for dramatic flair. The story takes a bow to the #MeToo movement, suggesting that an exaggerated number of congressmen back then expected sexual favors from staff. The portrayal of handsome Congressman Phil Crane as flirty with Phyllis was not accurate.

“Mrs. America” shows quite a few fictional subplots. The followers of Phyllis Schlafly were inventions the writers used to fit into the context of the time.  Sarah Paulson’s “Alice” goes into a drug-fueled bender at the women’s convention in Houston.  The racist “Mary Frances” from Louisiana didn’t exist, although it would not have been surprising to hear her remarks from the Deep South at that time. Eagle Forum’s leaders from Louisiana were Charlotte Felt and Marilyn Thayer.  Charges of racism against Phyllis Schlafly were based on an allegation from Betty Friedan, who said she wanted Phyllis “burned at the stake as a witch.”

The film seems to miss some important developments, such as when Eliza Paschall, a Georgia activist and co-founder of National Organization for Women (NOW), switched sides and came out against the ERA in 1978.  

According to her daughter, Phyllis and Fred Schlafly (wonderfully portrayed by John Slattery) had a very good marriage and partnership, much like Ruth and Marty Ginsburg.  Her daughter felt that the series unfairly suggested that there was tension in the marriage.  Fred Schlafly liked to say, “I regret that I have but one wife to give to my country.”  In short, he was extremely supportive of all that she did.

What about the ERA Now?

Our policymakers and politicians need to have a balanced view of what it’s like to struggle. The solutions were not found in the ERA. It is curious that the ERA proponents, like “Mrs. America,” were well-educated and upper middle class. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which I read as a teen, and Sheryl Sandler’s Lean-in, are meant for educated, well-to-do women. Neither Phyllis Schlafly nor Betty Friedan spoke for poor and working women, who generally did not support the ERA because they would have lost some protections afforded by their unions.

Did Phyllis Schlafly understand their predicament? As told in “Mrs. America,” Phyllis Schlafly’s mother worked outside of the home every day during the Depression, because her father lost his job. (In fact, Phyllis worked her way through college at Washington University, graduating at age 19.) I think Schlafly imagined a better, more affluent life in which the American woman would not have to work so hard. We’re not there. Life will always be hard.

When I went home with a college friend back in the ’70s, I met the friend’s mother who was a pro-ERA lawyer. It was was the first time I had heard of Phyllis Schlafly–because my friend’s mother was upset with her.  I asked her why she was for the ERA. She told me about women in court who were left by their husbands for younger women, after 25 years of marriage. I asked her what the ERA would do for that and she replied, “Well, maybe it will make people more aware of the problem.”  I don’t think it did a thing for the conscience of the nation, because this problem still happens.  Interestingly, this friend did not emulate her hard-charging career mom, and chose to stay home with her child and not to have a career at all.

In the end, I believe passage of the ERA would have done nothing to help women, men or America. Some of the things Schlafly warned against — shared bathrooms are here, with or without an ERA.  Today, many colleges have dorms with fully integrated bathrooms, and then we wonder why there’s a problem with sexual assaults on campus. 

Schlafly also warned that daughters would be drafted.  Recently, an advisory panel recommended that women be required to register for the draft.

Many children who grew up in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have suffered with addiction issues, perhaps because too many women have valued their life outside of the home at the expense of giving their children security. 

Dissident Teacher graduated from a Big Ten university and has been a college lecturer for 25 years. She took time off of work for her children.

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