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Mrs. America Is a Show for Illinois Political Nerds

From Rep. Giddy Dyer to W. Clement Stone, the FX on Hulu series puts forgotten Springfield operatives back into the spotlight.

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America   Photo: FX/Hulu

Mrs. America, the new FX on Hulu miniseries about the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, isn’t just a flawless reproduction of American life in the 1970s — it’s a near-flawless depiction of Illinois politics in that era. The show gets our state as well as any Hollywood production in decades, going all the way back to 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln.

It’s June of 1972, and Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist from Alton, Illinois, played by Cate Blanchett, is leading a group of anti-ERA housewives to the state capitol in Springfield. They hand out loaves of homemade bread to state legislators, with tags labeled “From the Breadmakers to the Breadwinners.” The ERA, a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal legal rights to all Americans regardless of sex, has just been defeated in Oklahoma. But Schlafly thinks that beating it in Illinois — a less conservative state, and the birthplace of the STOP ERA movement — will be a much more significant achievement.

The vote to ratify the ERA failed in the Illinois House that year, but not because of Schlafly’s bread. In the show, as Schlafly is celebrating back home in Alton, her sister-in-law reads from a newspaper.

“It looks like we should also be toasting Mayor Daley,” the woman says.

“What do you mean?” Schlafly asks.

“It says here Rep. [Eugenia] Chapman, the woman who sponsored the ERA, says the mayor had an ax to grind with her, so he went and told his people to vote against it. That’s why seven Democrats from Chicago switched their votes from yes to no. Lucky.”

“A win’s a win,” Schlafly says.

That’s pretty much how it went down. Rep. Chapman, a suburban do-gooder Democrat from Arlington Heights, had alienated Da Mare by supporting Adlai Stevenson III over him to head the Illinois delegation at the 1972 DNC. Daley got back at her by pulling just enough votes to sink ERA. The final vote was 82-76 in favor, but it needed 89 votes to achieve the three-fifths majority Illinois requires to pass a constitutional amendment.

Daley’s desire to punish a political opponent trumped his desire to see the ERA passed. Like Schlafly, the mayor was a devout Catholic. According to the Tribune, some legislators worried the amendment would give way to gay marriage and adoptions (which ended up happening anyway, even without the ERA). Nonetheless, a number of Chicago Machine Democrats voted for it, including current House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Mrs. America features other real-life legislators during Schlafly’s trips to the Capitol. Her biggest supporter is Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, then the state House Majority Leader. A cigar-smoking operator in a three-piece suit, Hyde suggests Schlafly pack the galleries with ERA opponents. (She does, which gives way to the bread handout.)

Soon after helping defeat the ERA, Hyde was elected to Congress, where he earned a reputation as a stalwart defender of conservative sexual values. He was the author of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds for elective abortions. He also chaired the House Judiciary Committee that approved articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. (During the Clinton impeachment, it came out that Hyde had had his own extramarital affair with a woman in the 1960s, leading to her divorce.)

The real-life Phyllis Schlafly and other STOP ERA organizers at a hearing in Kansas City. Photo: Associated Press File Photo
 

In another scene, on the way into the Capitol, Schlafly’s husband Fred suggests they stop by “the Den” for a bowl of chili. That would be the nickname of the Chili Parlor, a Springfield institution since 1945. On the way out of town, Phyllis has a confrontation with two ERA sponsors, Chapman and Rep. Giddy Dyer, a Hinsdale Republican. Chapman scolds Schlafly for her appearance on The Phil Donahue Show, which at the time was filmed in Dayton, Ohio, but moved to Chicago in 1974.

“When you go on Donahue, do you know what you’re saying has no basis in fact, or do you just not know what the hell you’re talking about?” Chapman asks.

“Oh, I think the majority of American women know exactly what I’m talking about,” Schlafly says. “And, I might add, the majority of the Illinois state legislature.”

(That bit the show got wrong. The majority of the state legislature did support the ERA. It passed the state Senate in 1972, and always won a majority in the House; its downfall was that its sponsors couldn’t get it over the three-fifths hurdle.)

Schlafly tried to portray herself as a simple Midwestern housewife. In the show, during a debate with feminist Betty Friedan at Illinois State University, she begins by thanking her husband “for letting me be here today.”

In reality, Schlafly was a wealthy, educated woman with a long record of involvement in conservative and anti-communist causes. As the series begins, she’s just lost a race for Congress against U.S. Rep. George Shipley of Olney, who served in Washington for 20 years but is today remembered only for beating Schlafly. “A woman can’t win Downstate,” Schlafly complains after her defeat.

Later, U.S. Rep. Phil Crane of Wauconda invites Schlafly onto his talk show, Conservative Viewpoint, and eventually brings her to Washington to lobby Sen. Barry Goldwater against an arms treaty with the Soviet Union. Crane is portrayed as a glad-hander who can’t keep his mitts off of Schlafly. After the meeting, she’s planning to fly home to Alton, but he invites her to stay in Washington for a drink.

“I don’t drink,” she says.

“Well, you can watch me drink.”

That’s another Easter egg: Crane was a self-confessed alcoholic whose consumption escalated to ten Heinekens a night. He finally got sober in 2000, when he was hoping to win the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee, but his colleagues decided he was too louche and lazy for the job.

At the onset of the series, before she becomes the face of the anti-ERA movement, Schlafly is thinking about running for Congress again in 1972. The new map is more favorable to Republicans, so Phyllis and Fred have dinner with a donor named Clem.

In real life, that was W. Clement Stone, the Chicago businessman who founded the Combined Insurance Company of America, which merged with the Ryan Insurance Group to form Aon Corporation. Stone’s $8 million in donations to Richard Nixon resulted in stricter limits on campaign contributions after the Watergate scandal.

Clement is a perfect example of the behind-the-curtain Illinois wirepullers that Mrs. America puts in the spotlight. Phyllis Schlafly is no longer the household name she was in the 1970s, but the local political figures she dealt with aren’t remembered at all. Mrs. America brings them back to life.

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