Race has been at the center of the long and circuitous struggle for gender justice since Sojourner Truth made the intersectional declaration “Ain’t I A Woman” at a Women’s Rights conference in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. The recent FX/ Hulu mini-series, “Mrs. America,” that concluded this week, chronicles one chapter in that long history: the decade long fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, and the issue of Black women’s representation warrants both recognition and criticism. “Mrs. America” gives a tepid nod to inclusivity by incorporating the stories of women like Black Brooklyn Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and radical lawyer-activist, Flo Kennedy, but it ultimately errs more to the right than the left and marginalizes Black feminism yet again.
The nine-part mini-series, which ended on May 27, focuses on six prominent women from the era, notably Feminine Mystique author, Betty Friedan and Ms. Magazine founder, Gloria Steinem, along with the right-wing anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Portrayed by Cate Blanchett, Schlafly gets far too much screen time, minimizing the breadth of Black and Latinx women’s activism in this period and shortchanging viewers in the process.
Series creator Dahvi Waller, admitted in an Esquire interview that she herself had not even heard of Chisholm until the 2008 election. However, to Waller’s credit, she devotes one of “Mrs. America’s” episodes to Chisholm’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. It is a lesser-known chapter in U.S. political history but one that resonates today in many ways. Before Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory, there was Rev. Jesse Jackson’s primary campaigns in 1984 and 1988. But before both of them there was Shirley Chisholm, who also paved the way for recent women presidential aspirants, but with radical, as opposed to liberal, politics. Chisholm, whose campaign slogan was “unbought and unbossed,” confronted the smug racism of the Democratic party elites that sought to marginalize her by calling for a “bloodless revolution” at the party’s Miami convention. As Chisholm’s biographer Barbara Winslow writes, “Her feminism was connected to all contemporary social issues: ending the war in Vietnam, abolishing poverty, opposing racialized police and state violence, expansion of social welfare programs including education, day care and healthcare,” and women’s reproductive freedom. Chisholm also welcomed the endorsement of the Black Panther Party, even though some of her more mainstream advisors warned against it.
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Three other Black feminists who were involved in this period are portrayed but identified by first names only, as if they were simply there to add a little color to the story.
Influential groups like the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) and its more notable offshoot, the Combahee River Collective; and women of color groups like The Third World Women’s Alliance were left out of the series entirely. We do, however, get a glimpse of a few important characters to the left of the ERA crusaders. For example, the inclusion of the edgy, colorful and formidable Black feminist lawyer, Florynce (Flo) Kennedy, whose apartment was a gathering place for so many Black women activists in New York at that time, is significant. With a sharp tongue and sartorial flair, Kennedy was irreverent in her manner and unapologetic in her radical political stances. Ms. magazine editor and Black lesbian activist and writer, Margaret Sloan, also appears in the series. We see very little, however, of the sprawling Black liberation, anti (Vietnam) war, and gay liberation (not yet named LGBTQ) movements with which many of these women were affiliated, and by which all of them were impacted. Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde and welfare rights organizer and feminist powerhouse Johnnie Tillmon are not even mentioned.
Most interesting about the Chisholm episode is the behind-the-scenes wrangling at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. Hard-nosed feminist politico Bella Abzug argued that Chisholm should drop out of the race to curry favor with the frontrunner, George McGovern. Chisholm knew the symbolic power of her candidacy and she had a larger strategy in mind. The Democratic Party, already in turmoil, wanted desperately to project an image of unity in 1972. But Chisholm refused to quit even after she had no path to the nomination and as supporters defected to McGovern. She was not as focused on her own career trajectory as she was on amassing enough delegates to influence the party’s platform and its vice-presidential nominee. Chisholm and her supporters were concerned with free childcare, affordable housing, civil rights, health care and abortion. Political expediency won out and Chisholm eventually and reluctantly got behind McGovern who lost miserably in the general election. Her example and her motto, “unbought and unbossed,” inspired many young women activists like Congresswoman Barbara Lee to run for office.
For viewers who want to delve deeper into the truncated stories of Black Left feminists, or even Chisholm herself, there is a rich library to explore.
Beginning in the early 1980s, scholar activists like Angela Davis, Paula Giddings, bell hooks and Barbara Smith wrote books about a multi-issue Black and woman of color feminism long before critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us the term “intersectionality” in the late 1980s. A fuller portrait of Kennedy and her influence in both the feminist and the Black liberation movements are laid out by historian Sherie M. Randolph in her 2015 biography. And Barbara Winslow’s biography of Chisholm, and Shola Lynch’s award-winning documentary about her, all chronicle these women’s lives and political careers in detail. The 1995 collection, “Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought” is a priceless contribution to our archive of Black feminism.
With a resurgence of white nationalism, renewed attacks on a woman’s right to abortion, and an open sexist occupant in the White House, the 1970s don’t feel so far away. Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy as decisions by Trump-appointed judges chip away at it, and the blatant racism that Chisholm confronted so boldly may not be as widespread, but is still with us and just as viscous. But similarities notwithstanding, we are in a different place, a scary and uncertain place.
Feminists of the 1970s were an eclectic and often fractious group. “Mrs. America” reminds us that there was no idyllic sisterhood among them. They argued. They disagreed. They undermined each other at times, and conversely, stepped up in one another’s defense. There were real political fights around Friedan’s homophobia, Abzug’s crude pragmatism, Steinem’s celebrity, and an undercurrent of liberal racism. The women also came together repeatedly to celebrate their victories and mourn their losses. But along with other social movements of the era, they won some important victories in the courts and in the streets: victories on issues like gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual violence, reproductive choice and sexual harassment. Those were partial victories and fragile ones. They still need to be defended. But as left and intersectional feminists, myself included, would add, the struggle for “women’s rights,” if it is to be truly inclusive, has to be bound up with the rights of all marginalized and oppressed people. In the words of Black feminist scholar and author Beverly Guy-Sheftall, “It is my black feminist politics that propel me always to think deeply about the human condition: global realities, especially as they affect people of color, women and children; and the urgency of our need to eliminate racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, religious intolerance, xenophobia and all other oppressions that plague humans wherever they live.”