TV show highlights beginning of polarizing politics

Historian, author Marjorie Spruill tapped as expert as 'Mrs. America' dramatizes ERA fight

In the first episode of FX’s Mrs. America — the dramatization of the battle over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s — leaders of second-wave feminism, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, are depicted celebrating the overwhelming passage of the ERA by a bipartisan vote in Congress.

The women, portrayed by a star-studded cast, spout what they see as realistic timelines for the U.S. having a woman president, an African American president. With the 50 years of recorded history since that moment, it’s clear those pronouncements were overly optimistic.

For University of South Carolina historian and professor Marjorie Spruill, the dramatization of events that she has studied — and witnessed firsthand — is an extraordinary convergence of fact and fiction.

“I remember that time. I remember what that feeling was like — I was in college at the time —the feeling that victory had been won and that the future looked bright. That, for the women’s rights movement, there was no turning back,” Spruill says.

Author of Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics, Spruill speaks each week with writer and filmmaker Laura Boersma on the She’s History podcast about what the show Mrs. America gets right and where it takes dramatic license. She also provides podcast listeners with the historical context for the events depicted in the series created by Dahvi Waller and airing on the Hulu streaming service.

“I think they have taken some dramatic license, but by and large, I don’t see any major factual errors,” Spruill says. “It’s pretty much following the way I describe this history in my own book.”

One point of contention for Spruill is the depiction in the TV show of tension between anti-ERA ultraconservative Phyllis Schlafly and her husband, Fred, over her participation in the political arena.

“I think Fred and Phyllis Schlafly were two peas in a pod when it came to their religious and political views,” Spruill says. “And since he didn’t have any political ambitions, he seemed pleased to support her in her endeavors.”

Because of Phyllis Schlafly’s mobilization of conservative and religious women against the ERA, the ratification process for the amendment in the states dragged on and ultimately the amendment failed, three states short of the 38 states needed to become part of the U.S. Constitution. 

“I was teaching at UNC-Greensboro when North Carolina became a battleground state,” Spruill says. “I took my class to Raleigh to listen to public hearings where the anti-ERA people were speaking. All of my students were shocked to hear the things being said by the ERA opponents and that’s why I took them there. In those days their anti-feminist views were so surprising to hear.”

While such conservative viewpoints were rare in the 1970s, they are commonplace today and Spruill says, much of today’s divisive politics traces its roots back to that era and to Phyllis Schlafly, who died in 2016. She was one of the first members of the conservative Christian movement to endorse Donald Trump in that year’s presidential race.

“Many conservatives today still see her as wonderful and an iconic figure who turned the country around and helped lead it in the right direction and helped change the direction of the Republican Party,” Spruill says.

One issue brought up by the Mrs. America series is racism within the movement against the ERA. Spruill, who interviewed Schlafly for Divided We Stand, says Schlafly denied that their policy positions and supporters were racist.

As a historian, I was interested in learning about and explaining what did people think, how did they act and why did they think and act that way at this particular point in history.

Marjorie Spruill

“Phyllis was very indignant when the feminists implied that she was working with the Ku Klux Klan,” Spruill says. “She denied being a racist and knew it was very damaging to be associated with the Klan.

“But at the same time, particularly in the South there were women working with her to fight the ERA who were members of Women for Constitutional Government, an organization founded in the 1970s to keep James Meredith out of the University of Mississippi.

“Their positions were to protect national sovereignty and protect states’ rights and try to preserve the South that they had grown up in. They had fought against the civil rights movement and in the 1970s started fighting the women’s rights movement.”

Spruill’s book also makes the connections between Schlafly’s arguments against the ERA and the modern Republican drumbeat of “take our country back.”  

“That was a phrase they used quite a lot,” Spruill says. “They meant that they wanted to take back control from moderates and liberals in government that they thought were caving in to the demands of the feminists.”

Spruill was part of the feminist movement and supported passage of the ERA, but she says, that did not color her coverage of the ERA battle.

“When I was researching and writing the book, my goal was to understand all points of view.” Spruill says. “I didn’t try to disguise my own identification with the feminist movement, but as a historian, I was interested in learning about and explaining what did people think, how did they act and why did they think and act that way at this particular point in history.

“Both sides seem to think that I was fair to them. So that indicates to me that I did a good job.”

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