Brooke Gladstone: The Equal Rights Amendment first proposed to Congress in 1923, sought to enshrine in the constitution equal legal rights for all citizens regardless of sex, to end the legal distinctions drawn between genders in matters of divorce, property, employment, and so on. It never won the support of enough states needed for ratification. The last really big push, the headline-grabbing effort was in the early '70S, a moment that saw the rising influence of what's called second-wave feminism, a movement and a set of ideas that took off in the early '60s and seemed to both seep into the culture and to peter out, sometime in the '80s.
Dahvi Waller's the creator, showrunner and executive producer of Mrs. America that showcases the political fight over the ERA between the mothers of the movement Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm and its fiercest opponent, the veritable Mrs. America, Phyllis Schlafly. It's a brilliant and accurate piece of work currently airing on Hulu. I'm really glad through the miracle of Zoom that I got the opportunity to see you because now I know that you are not of my generation.
Brooke Gladstone: You were previously a writer on AMC's Mad Men. Now you've done Mrs. America. Why is this era so interesting to you?
Dahvi Waller: I think I'm really drawn to eras as social upheaval and disruption because there's always so much fallout and in the fallout lies a lot of drama. Particularly the backlash to the women's liberation movement.
Brooke Gladstone: Backlash to everything that was going on in the '70s.
Dahvi Waller: Into everything. The fact that I was so excited to write for Mad Men speaks to my interest in this time period and particularly the gender dynamics. What excited me about Mrs. America was bringing the women, the Jones, and the Peggys to the forefront of the story and really centering it on them. There really isn't, I don't think one scene in Mrs. America that doesn't have a woman in it. The other big difference is of course it's a true story. I learned very quickly that writing a true story, even though you're fictionalizing and imagining a lot of the conversations is a whole other ball game.
Brooke Gladstone: In your depiction of the fight over the ERA and the fight for women's rights in general, in the 1970s, you don't start with Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, you start with Phyllis Schlafly.
Phyllis: I am not against women succeeding. I am not against women working outside the home. That's their choice. What I am against is a small elitist group of northeastern establishment liberals, putting down homemakers.
Dahvi Waller: So many shows and films about social movements are told from the point of view of the leaders of the social change movement, never from the point of view of the leader of the opposition to it. The other reason that I really was committed following the 2016 election to telling the story from Phyllis' point of view, even though it had its challenges was because I realized following the election that this story was about much more than the Equal Rights Amendment Battle. It's a much broader story about how this country took a sharp turn right at the end of the '70s and the ascendancy of the new right.
Brooke Gladstone: It is true that as you tell the story, it's clear that for Schlafly and for the nation, it wasn't solely about women's rights, but about the fight over the soul of the Republican party and the solidifying of the conservative movement and the future direction of the nation.
Speaker 4: You've been trying to get a far-right candidate into the White House since Goldwater. Reagan challenges Ford, and suddenly you're growing your power base, forming alliances with other conservative churches, Mormons.
Phyllis: Well, with the direction of the country is going, I think I need all the help I can get.
?Speaker 4: I think that you are using the fight over women's equality to build a mailing list of women who would support a conservative presidential candidate, like Reagan.
Dahvi Waller: Barry Goldwater, who Phyllis wrote a biography of and she was a huge fan of his, and he had that stunning defeat in 1964, he said in an interview in the late '60s that the far-right of the country, the conservatives are in a minority in both parties. They needed to take over one party if they were ever going to have power. This really is about the right-wing of this country amassing power and Phyllis Schlafly story dovetails into that. She raised a grassroots army that became foot soldiers in the Reagan revolution.
Brooke Gladstone: Was there a scene that was particularly hard to convey?
Dahvi Waller: All those scenes where we had to depict the ERA ratification process were very challenging.
Speaker 5: Yesterday the Equal Rights Amendment sailed through the Senate.
?Speaker 4: Hawaii ratified by less than 30 minutes after the Senate vote, Delaware and New Hampshire will have it ratified by tomorrow.
?Phyllis: We get seven years, but we'll get it done in one.
Dahvi Waller: It's not an easy process to understand, how are we going to explain to audiences without it sounding like we're laying pipe, what exactly this crazy process is you have to go through to get an amendment into the constitution?
Brooke Gladstone: That is totally not the answer I expected to that question, but I figured that it might be the complexity of the character of Phyllis Schlafly because she's fiery, she's educated and she rises by fighting the kinds of policies that would have afforded more opportunities to women like her. She never wrote a memoir, as you say. You get to see her in her public life, but you depict her at home, a really compelling balancing act between submission and domination, and love and resentment.
Dahvi Waller: There is a ton of footage of Phyllis Schlafly. She kept copious videos of every public appearance she made. There isn't that much footage of her and her private life, although there are some old films that she took in her house in the '50s. One of her biographers, Carol Felsenthal wrote a really intimate biography of her and spent time in her house with her children, with her sister-in-law and her husband, and interviewed all of them. She came on as a consultant of the show and I spent a lot of time talking with her, and that really gave us a glimpse into her private life in a way that the video footages can't.
At the end of it, it is invention. You can't ever know what conversations happened behind closed doors or can't get inside her head. No one can, not even her children can get really inside her head or know what she was feeling. That's the work of the writer. The reason I didn't bring it up as the hardest scenes to write is because those complexities are what bring me joy as a writer.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think that the ERA meant to women on both sides of the argument back then?
Dahvi Waller: For progressive women, suffrage had given them the vote but had not given them equality in the law. There was still rampant discrimination. There still is today in the workplace, in marriage laws and family law.
Brooke Gladstone: I certainly was alive and working at a time when wives couldn't apply for their own credit card.
Dahvi Waller: I know. Even as far as 1971, which is so insane to think about. For young women in the early '70s, the ERA was a chance to rectify that, to say, once and for all that, "In the constitution, men and women are equal under the law, which means that no law can discriminate on the basis of your gender." The truth is that equality for women under the law shouldn't be threatening to anyone really.
Brooke Gladstone: Well, it did start as a bipartisan idea, which might surprise some people.
Dahvi Waller: Republican supported and Democrats, Nixon endorsed it. It was looking to get ratified, they thought within a year or two. What Phyllis did was she tapped into anxieties that a lot of traditional conservative women had about becoming invisible in a society where women are entering the workforce, and being a stay-at-home wife and mother is no longer the feminine ideal, by taking the ERA and saying, "It's going to make your husband leave you for someone younger and you'll be without any financial support. You're going to be forced into the workforce and forced to work even though your only skill is taking care of your house." This terrified these women.
They began to see the Equal Rights Amendment as very threatening and I have sympathy for that. Ironically though, Phyllis, in the course of this ERA battle, empowered these women to become political activists and gave them many skills that would help them become very successful in the workforce.
Brooke Gladstone: I think a lot of people would be surprised that Schlafly was dedicated to issues of national security. She was worried about Soviet aggression.
Phyllis: The US delegation has naively been telling the Russians, "Peace is wonderful. Try it, you'll like it. It's like life cereal," but I think they're going to get the last laugh because the only country that's going to comply with the pact is the United States.
Speaker 6: They don't comply we'll know, won't we? The experts maintain we have the most advanced satellite technology systems in the-
Dahvi Waller: Phyllis had a 20-year career in defense policy. She got her master's in Harvard. She studied military strategy and nuclear policy, and she was very terrified of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Russians. In 1971, '72, when the ERA is making its way through Congress,she's very focused on Nixon signing the SALT treaty she felt this would be a disaster. When she was interviewed during this time period, people would interview her about the Equal Rights Amendment, and she always said, "Well, I hope this thing is settled soon, so I can get back to defense policies."
Brooke Gladstone: The stories that occur in the series, housewives who become working women in launching the Eagle Forum like Alice played by Sarah Paulson, we see her go through a transition.
Alice: I wanted to ask why we're opposing all of the feminist resolutions. We're not anti-employment or education or minority women. I'm not saying that we shouldn't fight for what we believe in, but shouldn't we try to find consensus about something?
Brooke Gladstone: I assume that that is a story arc that you created for the series
Dahvi Waller: Well, her specific arc was created for the series. Two of the real women that inspired her competent character were neighbors of Phyllis. One of her neighbors was a member of NOW and really couldn't stand Phyllis, and would have NOW meetings in her home just to upset Phyllis. Another neighbor came at the movement much later and said, "For 25 years I did exactly as Phyllis had prescribed for me. I polished my silver, I washed my floors and I waxed everything, and it wasn't enough."
I'm paraphrasing her. She ended up joining NOW in the late '70s and she opened up a pro-ERA headquarters right across the street from Fred Schlafly's law firm. There were a ton of women, even conservative women who ended up joining NOW, and we felt that that was worth exploring. We had the freedom to do so because unlike the real-life characters, we can actually have an arc for Alice, have her go on a journey. In many ways for a lot of audiences she is the audience's way into Phillips's world.
Brooke Gladstone: Another great character, brilliantly cast Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus. She is the Republican force behind the passage of the ERA. Her environment is Capitol Hill.
Jill: Do you know what I had to do to get my commission funded? I had to let more than a dozen congressmen put a hand on my arm, my hip, my backside. More than dozen demanded to see my pretty smile before they agreed to sign on. I had to say, "You'd be our hero and you have so much clout more times than I can remember." That is nothing compared to what those secretaries in the Hill are dealing with on a daily basis.
Brooke Gladstone: You didn't speak to Jill, but she wrote a book about this.
Dahvi Waller: What I really loved about Jill Ruckelshaus is she came to the women's movement in a way that felt really relatable, that she was a housewife, she had five kids, she was maintaining the home and she read The Feminine Mystique. There's an every-woman quality to her, which I really loved. Ultimately we wanted to tell a story of the battle for the soul of the Republican party through her eyes and Phyllis' eyes. The party that she loved to be a part of and was so proud of, let her down. Given that I had no idea there were feminist leaders who were staunch Republicans I was fascinated to learn about her.
Brooke Gladstone: One of the scenes in your series that really got to me is when Schlafly and her husband debate a feminist couple, a man and woman on The Tomorrow Show. She makes up a court case.
Phyllis: Under our current system in case of a break of a marriage, the mother gets the children. Now, who wants to try that in for so-called equality whereby each parent gets one child?
Speaker 7: The ERA does not say that in the case of divorce, each parent gets one child.
Phyllis: Oh, yes, it does. It says the courts would decide as they did with a recent Washington DC case where three children were given to the father and the mother had to pay child support.
Speaker 7: What was the name of the case?
Phyllis: [crosstalk] said that was an advance for women, but then the larger issue is that the ERA erodes the institution of marriage not in just in divorce.
Speaker 7: Cite the case.
Phyllis: The case? Well, I'd have to look it up, but the point is-
Speaker 7: You don't know the name of the case?
Phyllis: Well, there's so many cases we don't have time to-
Dahvi Waller: She and Fred would bring up court cases in that debate that didn't actually relate to what they're discussing or didn't actually support their arguments. The actual case that she brings up was invented in our writer's room. We simplified it because that debate is an hour long and we only had five minutes of airtime, but I think more damaging is taking facts and then distorting them in such a way that they appear or seem to be true or sound true, but aren't.
Brooke Gladstone: Oh, you mean like her version of deep fake when she literally takes the remarks of Bella Abzug and edits them to make her say things she hasn't actually said.
Speaker 8: Those people realize that most women are working to destroy their home, family and religion.
Speaker 9: That's not exactly what she said in her speech.
Phyllis: Yes, but she said those words.
Speaker 9: Yes, but in a different way. You're just taking them out of context.
Dahvi Waller: The horribles tape is a real tape. It wasn't Phyllis who actually mixed it together, but she was the one who passed it along and basically contributed to going viral through the churches. We couldn't get our hands on the actual tape, but what we read about it is that they would pull together sermons from evangelical ministers and then they took feminists speeches out of context and strung them together to terrify women across America to join their cause.
Brooke Gladstone: Max Boot wrote in The Washington Post about your series. He is a Bush-era conservative who has now become quite liberal in the Trump era. He writes that Mrs. America doesn't actually show how extreme Schlafly's own views were that she was in fact, a John Birch Society member until the mid-'60s. Were you trying to temper Schlafly in any way?
Dahvi Waller: No, I was not trying to temper Schlafly. We have a whole legal team at FX that's vetting everything. We have to make sure that if we say something on the show that there's evidence, especially that kind of allegation. We did not come up with anything that could confirm without a shadow of a doubt that she was a John Birch Society member. It was a very right-wing anti-communist organization, and many of its members were very active in the backlash against the civil rights movement and it was comprised of many segregationists.
Although by all accounts, it appears that she, Fred and Eleanor were Birchers, to have it come out of her mouth you have to be very sure and have the evidence. We show this in the episode entitled Bella, she never denounced the clan either. If you truly find them important, you don't just deny association with them as she did, you would denounce them.
Brooke Gladstone: Before the final credits there comes a montage with some updates about the ERA and the feminist movement. It says, "The leaders of the women's movement continued to fight for gender equality, but they never again reached the political influence they had in the early '70s." Would we have the moment we're having now if we didn't have the moments back in the '70s?
Dahvi Waller: You notice I said "political influence", not cultural influence because I do think that their cultural influence was vast. If you look at, culturally, where this country is, they won, and all the things that Phyllis tried to get everyone fearful of if you pass the ERA happened anyway. Gay marriage, women combat, unisex bathrooms, but legislatively, I don't think they ever had the advances that they had in that short time period from 1970 to 1973.
You look at what they did in Congress in those two years and Roe V. Wade in the courts, and we still don't have a female president 50 years later. Shirley Chisholm runs in 1972, they're all saying like, "Well, it's a little too soon, but definitely by 1980, we'll have a female president and Congress will be half women." Now they seem crazy for thinking that but in many ways the backlash was very successful.
Brooke Gladstone: Let me ask you a little bit about the race divide in the movement that never went away either. There still are arguments about priorities among feminists of different races.
Dahvi Waller: There are still many problems today in terms of intersectional feminism. I think I was surprised at the blind spots that existed in the '70s. Intersectional feminism wasn't even a term then, but I don't see how you can even make an argument that you can talk about sexism without talking about racism. That you can talk about sexism without talking about homophobia. Even though we still grapple with these issues today, I do think as a movement they have come a long way.
Brooke Gladstone: There are many people who say that the advances on racism that America set in motion in the '60s never really bore fruit. You might be able to say that about sexism as well, depending on how you measure progress. As you say, if there's a cultural change, sometimes political change lags by a generation or more. Where do you think things stand today?
Dahvi Waller: I definitely think things are better in regards to sexism. For no other reason we're all hyper-aware of it in a way that the casual sexism that no one even paid attention to is just so pervasive, and so in the fabric of everyday life that you wouldn't even note it. Now we pick up on all the microaggressions. There's definitely been progress. My biggest takeaway working on the show is that it's not as fast as I would like and it's not linear. That we take a step forward and there's a setback. The more we can learn about when the backlash happens, how it happens, maybe the next time there's a backlash we can anticipate it better and it won't have the same effect.
Brooke Gladstone: Dahvi, thank you so much.
Dahvi Waller: Thank you, Brooke. Stay safe.
Brooke Gladstone: Dahvi Waller is the creator, showrunner and executive producer of Mrs. America airing on Hulu and FX.
Brooke Gladstone: Hope you liked the pod extra. Thanks for listening. You can check out the big show on Friday, sometime around dinner time. Bye.
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