Yet the lengthy litany overlooks the book that clearly informed the docudrama by Dahvi Waller, which vividly chronicles the conflict between feminist and anti-feminist American women over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics,” by Marjorie J. Spruill, came out three years before the cable series and covers much of the same terrain and with the same narrative structure.
The brilliant production of “Mrs. America” — highlighted by Cate Blanchett’s pitch-perfect embodiment of Phyllis Schlafly, leader of the successful effort to defeat the ERA — should bring some of its captivated viewers to Spruill’s book.
Docudrama and historical scholarship exist in a sort of Venn diagram, necessarily serving the complementary purposes of entertainment and education. “Mrs. America” admittedly takes the liberties of inventing certain characters and altering the sequence of some events. Its interest in the sex lives of Schlafly, her major adversary Gloria Steinem and their respective mates falls well outside Spruill’s purview.
The many admirers of “Mrs. America” who have pondered its factual basis, though, will find great satisfaction in Spruill’s book. It may not be a page-turner, but it is a clear, compelling and deeply insightful volume. I can say this from the dual experience of having read the book for pleasure and then assigned it to my Columbia Journalism School class in nonfiction book-writing.
Now retired after a long career as a university professor and provost, Spruill recounted in a recent podcast how she was an undergrad in the mid-1970s when enactment of the ERA appeared to be assured with overwhelming bipartisan support. By early 1971, the House had passed it by a vote of 354-24 and in 1972, the Senate passed it by a vote of 84-8. By 1977, the amendment was within three states of the 38 whose legislatures needed to approve it.
As we now know, the anti-ERA campaign spearheaded by Schlafly reversed the tide. And, in Spruill’s book, the strife over the amendment reaches its apex in November 1977, when pro- and anti-feminists gather in Houston for competing rallies, each drawing tens of thousands of adherents. That spectacle of polarization — the federally funded National Women’s Conference on the left and in the center and the Pro Life, Pro-Family Rally on the right — also dominates the final portion of “Mrs. America.”
Several years after the Houston rallies, as a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, Spruill began searching into the untold story of the successful backlash. Initially, she delved into the records of the state-by-state conferences that were held as part of International Women’s Year, in 1975. At many of those conclaves, she discovered, Schlafly’s forces took feminists by surprise, disrupting the proceedings or even winning a majority of delegates’ seats.
Those local conflicts all fed into the dueling rallies in Houston, which featured not only a who’s-who of female activists — Schlafly, Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm — but the issues of abortion and gay rights that would come to permeate the culture wars. Assembling and writing that entire saga took Spruill 17 years.
“Without knowing it,” she writes, “the nation had caught a glimpse of its political future. Only later would the full implications of the schism that had developed between American women become clear.”
Spruill tells that story by toggling back and forth between the two contesting female coalitions several chapters at a time. (Coincidentally or not, “Mrs. America” employs the same pendular trope.) For Spruill, the headwaters of the Houston confrontation flow from the John F. Kennedy administration, when the young president created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which included Friedan as a consultant. Dissatisfaction among feminists with the subsequent pace of federal action against gender discrimination led them to found the National Organization for Women in 1966.
Support for the ERA from the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, though sometimes ambivalent, made its enactment look inevitable. Even such right-wing politicians as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond endorsed the measure.
But as Spruill’s book shows, and “Mrs. America” faithfully dramatizes, a counter-revolution was building outside the political mainstream. While Schlafly was still focused on a militant brand of anti-Communism — she had been a sympathizer, and quite likely a member, of the extremist John Birch Society — women such as Rosemary Thomson and Connie Marshner were already assailing the women’s rights movement from religiously conservative standpoints. In “Divided We Stand,” Spruill quotes Thomson calling a Nixon task force on gender issues an “attack of family life and the moral values of America’s spiritual heritage.”
Schlafly, Spruill points out, was “an experienced leader with uncommon organizing skills and a large network of admirers who were political activists and ready to respond to her call.” The coalition of conservative women she forged managed to unite traditional theological foes from the Catholic, Mormon and evangelical Christian camps. The male-led Moral Majority, an integral factor in Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, simply appropriated Schlafly’s formula.
Similar to the cable series, Spruill’s book leaves one struggling to reconcile Schlafly’s intelligence — Phi Beta Kappa, master’s from Radcliffe, law degree from Washington University — with her talent for demagoguery. In its epilogue, though, “Divided We Stand” has no doubt about her lasting effect on the Republican Party and the nation as a whole.
“The rally was about religion,” Spruill writes of the Pro-Life, Pro-Family event, “but it was also about politics. In fact, it was about the need to support politicians who had no qualms about combining religion and politics.”
In Schlafly’s heyday, the figure who did so was Reagan, elected with the mobilized support of Christian conservatives. And shortly before dying at age 92, Schlafly made her final political endorsement: Donald Trump.
Divided We Stand
The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics
By Marjorie J. Spruill
Bloomsbury. 436 pp. $33