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Culture & Conversation Media

‘Mrs. America’ and the Forgotten Labor Activists of the Equal Rights Amendment Debate

Sascha Cohen

This new miniseries—like elsewhere in mainstream conversations—oversimplifies the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment as a conflict between conservative housewives on one side and liberal feminists on the other.

Fans of women’s history, 1970s costumes, and Cate Blanchett will all have reason to tune in to Mrs. America, a new FX miniseries airing on Hulu, about the cultural battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, which played out between two groups of activists. But so far, the show seems to be ignoring a third group of working-class activists who were very much a part of this historical narrative.

The series offers a sweeping look at second-wave feminism, the prelude to contemporary women’s politics, and runs on the tension between characters of different races, generations, and ideologies. In Mrs. America, the feminists are righteous but flawed, the villains are wrong but human—and basically everyone is middle or upper-middle class.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which has been contentiously battled over the last century, would amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee equal rights regardless of sex. During the 1970s, right-wing author Phyllis Schlafly, played by Blanchett, led the “STOP ERA” campaign, a grassroots effort of church-going homemakers defending traditional gender roles. Her opponents: the brainy, headstrong leaders of the women’s liberation movement—Gloria Steinem, played by Rose Byrne; Betty Friedan, played by Tracey Ullman; and Shirley Chisholm, played by Uzo Aduba—who sought equality under the law.

Mrs. America—like elsewhere in mainstream conversations—oversimplifies the ERA debate as a conflict between conservative housewives on one side and liberal feminists on the other. What often gets left out of this narrative is a third group of women activists with an ideological bent rooted in their specific economic status. Mrs. America neglects them too.

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In the early 1970s, working-class trade unionists, many of whom were socialists, spoke out against the ERA, fearing it would remove the protective labor legislation that unions had worked nearly a century to implement. These labor organizers saw the legislation as aligned with the business interests of bosses, benefiting only educated, professional women while further exploiting those doing the most strenuous, dangerous work. To the women who packaged meat, cleaned hotel rooms, washed dishes, and worked in farms and factories, the architects of the ERA were out-of-touch elitists. As the workers saw it, the amendment threatened to dismantle hard-won amenities for women, like rest breaks, maternity benefits, and limits on overtime.

During this decade, the U.S. working class suffered from the consequences of a sluggish economy: downsizing, deindustrialization, and an assault on organized labor from big business. In such a climate, many working women were skeptical of experimental new policy, especially coming from a group they perceived as having less at stake. Union organizers criticized Freidan and other affluent feminists for romanticizing wage work and ignoring the needs of low-income women—or “the forgotten majority,” as Ruth Miller, a representative for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a labor union that dissolved in 1976 when it merged with a textile workers’ union, called them.

Miller and other unionists pointed out that women needed off time to take care of their children, and the ERA didn’t account for unequal division of labor in the home, something that wealthy women with household staff didn’t have to consider.

Myra Wolfgang, an international vice president of a hotel and restaurant workers union in Detroit, voiced skepticism that the law would actually uplift the millions of women on the “bottom rung” of the socio-economic ladder. Wolfgang was in favor of expanding work opportunities for women, but she didn’t think a blanket legal approach like the ERA made sense for those in widely varying circumstances.

As she explained in her 1970 testimony before U.S. Congress, “a woman on welfare in Harlem, a unionized laundry worker in California, [and] an elderly socialite from Philadelphia may be of the same sex, and they may [all] be wives and mothers, but they have little in common to cause them to be of the same opinion.”

While “industrially inexperienced” women of means could potentially use the ERA to sue for unequal treatment on the job, this remedy would be cost prohibitive to most working-class women, argued labor activist Pauline Newman, of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Doris Hardesty and Anne Draper of the AFL-CIO also accused the “ladies of lib” of pursuing middle-class women’s interests at the expense of poor women. These organizers understood the ERA as fundamentally an endorsement of free-market principles, observing that various union-busting business groups supported it.

It was not only union leaders and prominent activists but also rank-and-file laborers who rejected the ERA’s promise of improving women’s lives. Electricians, waitresses, and agricultural workers believed that the advantages of protective legislation outweighed any potential opportunities the amendment would offer. Members of the United Electrical Workers, for instance, worried it would void state tax breaks for working mothers, and female farmers in California wondered if they would lose access to toilets, drinking water, and washing facilities in the fields. In other words, these women agreed with Schlafly that the ERA was harmful—but for very different reasons having nothing to do with family values or Christian morality.

In response, the pro-ERA National Woman’s Party, a political party formed in 1913 by ERA co-author Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, accused the labor organizers of communism, and Friedan called Wolfgang an “Aunt Tom,” assuming she was complicit in the patriarchy rather than seriously entertaining her questions about how the amendment would impact working-class women.

Ultimately, protective labor legislation for female workers was phased out in most states, which caused unions to shift their stance and support the ERA as the next best thing. Unfortunately, the ERA didn’t get ratified by 38 states, the required three-fourths of states’ support required by the March 22, 1979, deadline for it to become law. Of all three groups of activists, Schlafly’s camp emerged as the victors, and their reactionary agenda echoes in the current battles over reproductive rights and gender-neutral bathrooms.

Mrs. America nods to second-wave feminism’s internal tensions with respect to race and sexual orientation, but—at least in the first three episodes—omits the problem of class. This is unsurprising, as labor struggle and the perspectives of workers are so often absent in U.S. historical memory and the popular imagination and discourse.

Women like Wolfgang, Miller, and Newman complicate our understanding of the ERA debate beyond the story Mrs. America tells. Though there’s been some recent movement around passing it, the particular law is unlikely to be revisited anytime soon; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg recently suggested that it was time to “start from scratch” on equal rights.

But in a country where 62 percent of low-wage workers are women, union membership has plummeted, and the precarious gig economy means many of us work without benefits, the issue of class in progressive feminist politics remains as salient as ever.

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