By the late 1970s and early 1980s, neither the ERA movement nor the STOP ERA achieved victory.
Mrs. America Episode 9 ” Reagan” ends with none of the women getting what they want. Virginia is the third state to ratify the ERA in 2020, finally, but since the Republican Controlled Senate won’t budge, we still don’t have the Equal Rights Amendment in the Constitution. Phyllis Schlafly and the STOP ERA movement may have delayed the ERA’s ratification, but Schlafly never gained the power she wanted.
The women activists unravel because their male politician’s allies turn on them. Jimmy Carter disrespects the National Advisory Commission for Women by setting a meeting two years after the National Women’s Conference. The meeting is set, so Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus can tell him about the Women’s Bill of Rights. Steinem and Jill are outraged because Carter only agreed to a fifteen-minute meeting. The Feminists point out to Bella that the meeting sounds more like a photo op. They decide to publish a press release stating that Carter is not taking the women who helped get him elected seriously.
After Abzug meets with the President, Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan fires Bella from her leadership position for her lack of “loyalty” and aggressive nature — the same aggressive outgoing behavior that got her the job in the first place. Bella deflates in front of our eyes as Jordan dresses her down. She begs him to fire her quietly so she can save face. Abzug asks if she can resign from the National Advisory Commission for Women, but the chief of staff snidely tells Bella that he already told the press about her firing.
Gloria Steinem, Jill Ruckelshaus, Midge, Jean O’Leary, Audrey Rowe Colom, and the rest of the women resign from the National Advisory Commission for Women in protest Carter treated one of the Mothers of the second-wave feminist movement. Gloria tells Jordan that the President can no longer expect the ERA movement to vote for him automatically. Jimmy Carter needs to give the Feminists something in the form of policy or political appointments. Both Liberal and Conservative men in authority can be sexist and disrespectful to women, especially older ones who have helped their parties for generations.
The ERA movement weathered a lot in 1979, but Phyllis Schlafly suffers a much bigger fall. At the start of “Reagan,” Phyllis feels like she is on top of the world. She has just taken the Illinois Bar Exam, meaning she no longer needs Fred to bring her legal clout.
Before her political demise, she was at her highest peak of power. Two years prior, Phyllis had hosted a successful “Pro-Family Rally” in Houston to counter-act the National Women’s Conference, so now all of the Republican Presidential Candidates want her endorsement. They know that with Schlafly’s mailing list, they could reach a significant number of potential supporters. She cannot even be brought down when her best friend Alice Macray shows up after not coming to STOP ERA meetings for a year and questions her on the factual accuracy of her newsletters. Schlafly lying about the number of attendees to her rallies reminds me of a particular Republican President.
During the Pro-Family Gala honoring Phyllis, we witness how much she has morally compromised herself so she could have so many supporters. Schlafly has Rosemary Thompson and another STOP ERA member dressing up as Abzug and Steinem to do a satirical dance and song number kicking the two Feminists while they are down. Phyllis gives an inflammatory, sexist, religious, pro-life, and homophobic speech catered to please the Evangelical Christians. Alice Macray silently judges her friend for shifting from merely trying to protect stay-at-home homemakers to pandering to the hateful majority.
When Ronald Reagan’s campaign advisors wish to talk to her, Schlafly has won the political clout that she had always craved. Schlafly endorses Ronald Reagan thinking she would be the first woman to get a Presidential Cabinet appointment. She gives him her whole mailing list. She believes she would finally earn a seat at the table.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan won the election. Phyllis is ecstatic, especially when Reagan calls her personally. Reagan graciously thanks her for the mailing list, saying he would have never succeeded without her, but that he cannot appoint her to any Cabinet positions. The political battle that got her a phone call from the President-Elect made her too polarizing. The Feminist movement would go after him if Phyllis were in the administration. Instead, a Pro-ERA Republican named Jeanne Kirkpatrick became the first woman to serve as a U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.
The series ends with Phyllis Schlafly stiffly telling her husband that she will make dinner. All of her moral comprises, and hard work did not earn her the respect of the men in Washington, D.C. Schlafly walks to the kitchen puts on an apron and starts to make an apple pie. Phyllis transforms back to being a powerless housewife, something that she fought the “right” to be an ironic punishment for a conservative, traditional woman who wants to be in the boy’s club.
As the finale end titles state, the legacy of the 1970’s ERA fight is a polarized country split between Liberals and Conservatives. The genuinely hopeful part of Mrs. America is when Republican and Democratic women work together for the common good. Hopefully, one day we all find a way to all respect one another no matter our political beliefs because we can agree on what is morally right.