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What is the real-life story behind Mrs America?

Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne and Uzo Aduba star in this 1970s period drama about the women's movement and the fight for the ERA.

Mrs America (BBC)
Published: Thursday, 2nd July 2020 at 1:53 pm

Airing on BBC Two, Mrs America charts the real-life decade-long battle for - and against - the Equal Rights Amendment, focussing on the major players in both the women's movement and in the 'Stop the ERA' campaign, led by conservative activist (and the series' anti-heroine) Phyllis Schlafly.


Each episode follows a different woman from either side of the ERA battle, from Cate Blanchett's Phyllis, to Rose Byrne as feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and to run for President of the United States.

But how closely did the Mrs America cast resemble their real-life counterparts? Who was the real-life Phyllis Schlafly - and did she stop the ERA? Read on for answers to all these questions and more.

Mrs America cast vs real life counterparts

How historically accurate are the on-screen portrayals, and did the cast resemble their real-life counterparts from the 1970s?

Phyllis Schlafly (BBC/ Getty)
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly (BBC/ Getty)

In any drama based on real-life, comparisons will always be drawn between the cast members and the real-life people whom they're playing.

While the Mrs America showrunners have previously revealed that they didn't consult any of the real-life versions on either side of the women's movement (so that the show was more free to depict imagined conversations and behind-the-scenes), it looks like they paid particular attention to ensuring that their cast looked the part - right down to Gloria Steinem's trademark glasses.

Costume designer Bins Daigler told Town and Country, "The idea was that we would stay realistic, so that the images [in the show] could be nearly from the time—more of a documentary style."

Gloria Steinem (BBC/Getty)
Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem (BBC/Getty)

When it comes to Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem - probably the most famous and photographed face out of the real-life players who inspired the show - the series charts her evolution over 10 years.

When the show starts in the 1970s, she's dressed in miniskirts. However, by the end of the show, she's wearing more relaxed and era-appropriate styles, with a wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts.

"I was never only about her [Gloria's] glasses," Daigler said, "it was about her growing up in her personality, getting older, getting more experienced."

Shirley Chisholm (BBC/ Getty)
Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm (BBC/ Getty)

She continued, "All these women, in the 10 years that we are depicting in our show, they grew up, they become more important. They become much more professional. They just learned what they want."

When it came to dressing Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, Daigler stuck to more '50s style modes of dressing, in keeping with real-life images of Schlafly from that time period.

Betty Freidan (BBC/Getty)
Tracey Ullman as Betty Freidan (BBC/Getty)

Who was Phyllis Schlafly and why did she oppose the ERA?

Phyllis Schlafly, married to Fred Schlafly, was a Radcliffe graduate and mother to six children, with a failed run at Congress under her belt by the time we pick up with her at the beginning of Mrs America.

Schlalfy was anti-feminist, and opposed the ERA as part of the feminist agenda. She organised a grassroots campaign that lobbied against the ERA, using arguably scaremongering tactics and suggesting that "equality" would actually rob women of their privileges rather than bestow them anything new.

For example, she argued that if the ERA passed, women could be drafted for the military, and bereaved housewives would no longer receive widows pensions.

What is the ERA and did it pass?

Cate Blanchett in Mrs America
Cate Blanchett in Mrs America BBC/FX/Sabrina Lantos

The ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) was first introduced in 1923, and proposed a 27th amendment to the US Constitution: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

In 1972, it seemed almost certain that the amendment would be ratified (aka made officially valid) by state legislatures, thanks to the prominence of leading feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who supported the ERA.

But the women's movement leaders pushing the amendment hadn't foreseen the grassroots campaign 'Stop the ERA' and demonstrations in the nation's capital, all led by Phyllis Schlafly.

In 1982, the ERA was defeated and Schlafly held a gala party, where the song "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead" was played by the band, according to a contemporary news story by The Washington Post.

When asked for her thoughts on the ERA supporters' plans to restart the whole process, Schlafly told reporters, "I'm going to laugh at them. The ERA's been dead for three years."


Mrs America is set to air in the UK on BBC Two from Wednesday July 8th at 9pm, starting with a double-bill. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.


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