Conservative crusader Phyllis Schlafly is the figure driving “Mrs. America.” Creator Dahvi Waller dreamed up the show thinking former secretary of state Hillary Clinton would be well established in the West Wing by the time it aired, and a show about Schlafly would be a study of a vanishing force in U.S. politics.
Clinton’s unexpected loss, however, created a series in which the anti-hero is the conqueror.
Foregrounding Schlafly, while a compelling choice, skews focus away from the shared grievances of women across the political spectrum. In the “Bella” episode, Bella Abzug’s best exchange got to the heart of the matter. “Where is your queen?” she asked Schlafly collaborators when she did not show up at the Illinois state meeting leading up to the National Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977. The show could easily have focused on Abzug or the parallel activism of the two women. In many ways it’s a tale of an equally matched Ms. America vs. Mrs. America, both of whom thought women belonged in politics.
In the 1960s and ’70s, American women of all political stripes grappled with their precarious social and economic status as the U.S. economy faltered. Deindustrialization, stagflation and globalization ended decades of postwar economic growth. It was becoming clear the single-breadwinner, nuclear family model was no longer sustainable — even though it had always been more an ideal than reality, as many women had remained in the workforce after World War II.
This shifting, unbalanced economic climate, along with the ongoing Vietnam War, a dividing suburban-urban landscape and the surge of progressive rights movements, compelled both Schlafly — the anti-communist traditionalist — and Abzug — the Popular Front leftist-turned-feminist — to run for Congress in 1970, believing their expertise and perspectives were missing in politics. While they had vastly different visions, both foregrounded how women had, for too long, been — as both Schlafly and Abzug noted — “merely doorbell pushers” in party politics.
This shared focus on gender parity in politics, and the potential for 1970 to be a “Year of the Woman,” did not go unnoticed. Nor did the candidates’ women-centered gimmicks. Schlafly handed out aprons adorned with elephants and eagles at Illinois county fairs, as Abzug blanketed Manhattan streets with “Carry Bella Abzug to Congress” shopping bags. Journalist Margaret Scherf picked up on these parallels, watching the two races unfold at “the opposite extreme of the political spectrum.”
Schlafly lost, while Abzug blazed into Congress. She became an instant political celebrity, dishing out autographs as much as she bellowed about the nation’s best future.
“Mrs. America” underplays not only Abzug’s impact and style, but also the degree to which she and Schlafly had been circling each other for years on the political scene. In 1963, for instance, they were on opposite sides of the nuclear arms debate, lobbying congressmen on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In 1964, when Schlafly wrote “A Choice, Not an Echo” in support of Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, Abzug made her first appearance before the Democratic Platform Committee at the convention.
Abzug recognized women letter writers and canvassers were the backbone of the grass-roots movement that propelled Goldwater to the Republican nomination. She called on women peace activists, and progressives writ large, to create a counterforce on the left within the Democratic Party. She understood social movements were the key to political might and representation in government would augment their power. By 1968, progressives were a presence, demanding an open convention where their voices could be heard and votes would count.
In 1971, Abzug helped co-found the National Women’s Political Caucus to ensure women would have a surer path to join her in Congress. While this political action group was nonpartisan, Abzug’s focus was on leading a “new politics” progressive wing in the Democratic Party. This faction challenged the party establishment of Southern Democrats and Cold War liberals and promoted a policy agenda addressing issues including human rights, environmentalism, executive oversight, consumer protection and civil liberties. Pushing for an end to seniority determining power and greater transparency in governance, it helped change the party’s structure to be more open and inclusive.
Abzug believed the United States was on the verge of a political realignment, and she wanted it to skew progressive and make women’s rights a centerpiece concern.
The ERA, Abzug thought, could be an umbrella issue to bring diverse women together. The trick, effectively executed, would be to convince the predominantly male Congress to act. The ERA is the “most important business before Congress,” Abzug told her new colleagues during floor debate in 1971. But she understood the amendment’s limitations. In fact, as a labor lawyer she had opposed it until 1964 because it would undercut labor laws protecting women.
Only after Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act included sex discrimination, rendering these provisions moot, did Abzug swing behind the ERA. Even then, she reminded that women’s economic disparities persisted, and legal protections were needed, including a guaranteed minimum income.
Abzug sought to bring “protest to power,” but she was a pragmatist, a point her character on “Mrs. America,” played by Margo Martindale, makes clear. She set out to be “a maverick without becoming a pariah” in Washington. But she was not a quintessential liberal feminist.
A socialist at heart and labor Zionist since her youth, she wanted to bring the United States closer to the social democratic mold of European democracies and her beloved Israel. She advocated for laws to protect LGBT civil rights alongside women’s rights, and prevent workplace discrimination against LGBT people. She urged blue-collar workers to adapt to an inclusive workforce, as she developed ideas for how to retool for a green economy while protecting industrial workers’ jobs. Most of all, with Rep. Shirley Chisholm, she shepherded through Congress the Comprehensive Child Care Act — a law that would have fundamentally equalized the balance of work and parenting — only to have it vetoed by Richard Nixon.
Abzug had her blind spots and made her calculations. For example, she chose not to endorse Chisholm’s 1972 presidential run because she believed NWPC should not back “just any woman.” Abzug also encouraged women entering electoral politics to “avoid running against male incumbents who are good on our issues.” But Chisholm was not just any woman and such decisions divided rather than united feminists.
Schlafly capitalized on these divisions and turned Abzug into a leading villain. One of Abzug’s final congressional acts was to help secure $5 million to fund the National Women’s Conference, the U.S. response to the United Nations International Women’s Year initiative. Schlafly cast Abzug’s crowning achievement as “Bella Abzug’s Boondoggle.” Abzug had to wade through “Go Home Bella” signs with increasing frequency in the months before the Houston conference in November 1977.
The conference marked the moment when Schlafly’s star ascended, and Abzug’s faded. After Abzug lost her New York Senate primary bid in 1976 to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, she and New Politics Democrats lost footing.
But it is important to remember that theirs was a contest of equals — and neither questioned that women’s place was in politics. While Schlafly helped boost the modern conservative movement, Abzug’s brand of progressivism paved the path for the recent Sanders-Warren-Ocasio-Cortez insurgence. Just as their political careers were intertwined, so too are their legacies, and recognizing this connection helps us understand why more women in politics, while a good thing, is not a straight path to the social democratic future Abzug envisioned.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the name of the senator who beat Bella Abzug in a 1976 primary. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, not Patrick Daniel Moynihan.