Is ‘Mrs. America’s’ portrayal of Shirley Chisholm accurate?

Presidential candidate gets lukewarm support from feminists and Black politicians

Uzo Aduba stars as Shirley Chisholm in the FX series, “Mrs. America.”
SABRINA LANTOS/FX/TNS

BY MEREDITH BLAKE
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

If you’ve watched any of “Mrs. America,” the star-studded miniseries about the battle of the Equal Rights Amendment, you may be wondering how accurately it captures this divisive chapter in American political history.

The nine-part FX drama pits conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her followers against a band of feminist all-stars led by Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), who are prone to spirited internal debates.

Creator Dahvi Waller and her team of writers conducted extensive research into Second Wave feminism and the rise of the new right in the 1970s.

Some liberties

Like nearly all works of historical fiction, “Mrs. America” takes some liberties, particularly when it comes to private conversations behind closed doors, and it offers a necessarily subjective take on highly polarizing figures such as Schlafly.

But when it comes to events in the public record, “Mrs. America” hews close to the facts, often quoting feminist leaders and their critics verbatim.

“Overall, they have done a very good job,” said historian Marjorie Spruill, author of “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized America.”

Fact vs. fiction

Episode 3 explores the thorny intersection of race and gender on both sides of the ERA debate. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first Black woman elected to Congress, makes a historic run for the presidency in 1972 but faces skepticism from both the women’s movement and other Black politicians.

Meanwhile, Democrats fight over abortion and ERA opponents grapple with racism in their ranks.

Here’s a look at fact vs. fiction in Episode 3, “Shirley”:
As the convention approaches, Chisholm, one of the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, faces pressure to drop out from her supposed allies — including Rep. Ron Dellums (Norm Lewis), co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, who tells Chisholm they question whether she is “the candidate for Blacks, or just for women.” She also struggles with wavering support from her peers in the NWPC, Abzug and Steinem.

Candidate for all

As a trailblazing Black woman in politics, Chisholm was used to having her loyalty questioned.

When she declared her candidacy at an event in Brooklyn in January 1972, she said, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement in this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.”

During a campaign stop in Los Angeles, Chisholm confronted doubts about her candidacy in the Black community — “Not many Black people can really believe that a Black person, who also happens to be a woman, can become president of this country” — and also fielded questions about why she chose not to wear her hair in a natural look.

Faced skepticism

Indeed, as Barbara Winslow writes in her book “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change,” Chisholm was viewed with skepticism — and in some cases anger — by the leading Black male politicians of the time because they believed she would be viewed as the women’s candidate. And she was heartbroken when Dellums, her longtime supporter, bailed on her at the last minute to endorse McGovern — as depicted in “Mrs. America.”

Likewise, Chisholm received only “lukewarm support” from leading feminists, according to Winslow.

Abzug never formally endorsed her, while Steinem’s support was qualified by the fact that she named McGovern “the best of the male candidates.” Chisholm actually confronted Steinem on a Chicago TV show about her “semiendorsement.” Years later, Steinem expressed regret over the issue.

Another “Mrs. America” detail that stands up to scrutiny? According to Winslow’s book, Chisholm received multiple death threats and was given Secret Service protection. The FBI also investigated a racist smear campaign against her involving forged press releases written on stolen Hubert Humphrey campaign stationery.

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