American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

13 August 2020

Mrs. America: Still Unfinished Business

Following on from part one of our Mrs. America-themed blog, we continue to look at the themes and characters featured in the FX mini-series and how they are represented in British Library collections.

The show depicts the parallel efforts between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. While Library collections have limited accessibility at the moment, we hope this blog serves has a welcome reminder of the items available for Readers’ research, inspiration and enjoyment as and when holdings can be made fully available again.

Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.

Betty Friedan 

The name Betty Friedan and her 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, may be the most well-known of the characters and works featured in Mrs. America. Friedan was the first president of the National Organization for women and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem.

The Feminine Mystique is widely credited with sparking the second-wave feminism movement that arose in America during the 1960s and 70s. It was whilst having conversations with former members of her Smith College contingent that Friedan realised the level of disillusionment and satisfaction amongst both herself and her former classmates; her research on these suburban housewives led to her coining the term the ‘feminine mystique’ and to the eventual publication of the text. Her description of ‘the problem that has no name’ – that is, the systematic, underlying beliefs and institutions that led to women’s disempowerment and kept them in the home – spoke to the women readers who had, for so long, struggled to articulate the feelings of disenchantment they experienced while quietly occupying their life as mother, wife and homemaker. Inspired by the feeling of possibility invoked by Friedan, women were empowered to see how it wasn’t too late to reclaim their lives.

The Feminine Mystique was first published on 19 February 1963 by the New York-based W. W. Norton and Co. It would quickly become a bestseller, with over one million copies of the paperback being purchased in its first run. The British Library holds a version of the book published later on in 1963 in London by Victor Gollancz (shelfmark: 8418.m.8.), a British publisher and humanitarian known as a supporter of left-wing causes.

The Feminine Mystique, London edition, showing yellow cover and red writing
Cover for The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. [London: Victor Gollancz, 1963.] Image sourced from Maggs Bros. Ltd. Rare Books & Manuscripts 

In Mrs. America, the relationship between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan is an interesting one to observe; the two trailblazers association has been documented as acrimonious, with Friedan stating in a 1972 speech about Steinem that ‘the media tried to make her a celebrity, but no one should mistake her for a leader.’ This is represented in the TV show, with various comments being flung between the two, although a touching moment occurs between them after Friedan is antagonised by Schlafly during a heated televised debate. Friedan is left publically humiliated having let her emotions seemingly get the better of her on screen, frustratingly, if only momentarily, damaging her professionalism and proficient demeanour in the public eye. Steinem stands in solidarity with Friedan, despite their disagreements, telling her “I have been thinking about the first time I read The Feminine Mystique. ‘Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of share in the whole of human destiny?’ I don’t know if I ever told you. Your book changed my life. Thank you.”

Phyllis Schlafly

Writer and political activist Phyllis Schlafly is at the heart of Mrs. America. Leading the opposing argument to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, she rallies women across America to join her in the fight against the women’s rights movement – representing conservative and traditional family values. The small-screen retelling of Schlafly’s 1960s-70s activities reference her 1952 campaign for the US House of Representatives. Having established her strongly anti-Communist stance and political positioning, Schlafly is frequently pictured as the only women in a room of suited and booted white men in the scenes that take place in Washington. Mrs. America traces Schlafly’s actions as she turns her attention to the ERA and women’s issues.

The Phyllis Schlafly Newsletter was her monthly bulletin used to gather fellow women supporters and inform them of political issues. When the ERA was passed by Congress in 1972, Schlafly used her newsletter to publicly oppose the amendment, fearful that its ratification would undermine traditional US values and among other concerns, lead to women (‘your daughters’ as she emotively refers to them) being drafted into the army. Mrs. America depicts Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, dedicatedly and single-handedly authoring, typing and mailing out copies from her home, taking on the role of both ‘boss’ and assistant. With momentum for her argument gathered, she and her supporters established the Stop ERA lobbying group with factions spread out across the country. And so the plot of Mrs. America unfolds…

Schlafly was a well-organised, powerful and eloquent public speaker, particularly on anti-feminist topics. While this divided audiences (Schlafly infamously received a pie to the face from one of her many opposers), she articulated her position in the 1977 book The Power of the Positive Woman. In it, we are introduced to characters like the White Knight, the Black Demon, and, The Positive Woman. Schlafly attacks what she believes are the false promises of the women’s movements and argues that any further equality for women i.e. the passing of the ERA, would hinder the fabric of American society. The New York Times has an interesting 1977 review on what they call this ‘strange little book’. Strange as it may be, its sentiment was enough to galvanise the support of housewives up and down America, so much so that the ERA eventually failed to be ratified by the required majority of states. The British Library holds a c.1977 copy of the book published by Arlington House in New York (shelfmark: 78/2650). 

Cover for The Power of the Positive Woman by Phyllis Schlafly
Cover for The Power of the Positive Woman by Phyllis Schlafly. [New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, c1977.] Image sourced from Amazon (c) MW Books

Perhaps to show that even her campaigning should never take precedence over role as a housewife, dinner for her family, including six children, was always on the table at 6 o'clock each evening, a point made in Mrs. America. After receiving her phone call of rejection from Ronald Reagan in 1980 (after aiding Reagan in the elections, Schlafly had her sights set on a Cabinet position), she puts down the receiver and affirms to her husband: ‘dinner is always at 6’. Impeded on the way to achieve her political ambition once again, she moves from her desk to the kitchen table to peel apples. A melancholy juxtaposition of a closing scene – a woman driven by political fervour resuming her place as homemaker, just as her campaign would have wanted…

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem, writer, lecturer, political activist, and feminist organiser, is another key player in Mrs. America. Steinem became a pivotal spokeswoman for the American feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, speaking out for the empowerment of women on topics such as abortion (Steinem was a fervent pro-choice advocate) as well as on issues including children's education where she sought to break down barriers based on sex and race. As this National Geographic article expresses, Steinem’s concerns were global, ‘she understood…race, class, and caste’.

Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine in 1972 and helped found both the Women's Action Alliance and the National Women's Political Caucus, the latter being ‘a group that continues to work to advance the numbers of pro-equality women in elected and appointed office at a national and state level’. Steinem gained attention for her journalism when she published the two-part feature entitled ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ in Show magazine in 1963. In it, Steinem tells of how she was hired as a Bunny Girl and details the conditions in which she, and the other Bunnies, were made to work, including the sexual demands made on them. This 2013 Guardian article explored ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ and its contemporary relevance when the feature turned 50 years old.

The British Library holds a number of copies of Ms. magazine, from 1987 onwards when the magazine switched from monthly to quarterly (shelfmark: ZA.9.a.6674). Ms. was founded by Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, the African American human rights activist, feminist, and child-care advocate. The Spring ’72 issue, featuring a depiction of a version of the Hindu goddess, Kali, using her eight arms to tackle house-wifely duties including cooking, ironing and cleaning, is featured in Mrs. America. It also included the article ‘Women Tell The Truth About Their Abortions’. In one touching scene, a reader stops Steinem in the street and thanks her for publishing the piece; illustrating how this taboo subject was one that many women felt isolated in experiencing and being able to talk about.

Cover for Spring 1972 edition of Ms. showing a version of the Hindu goddess, Kali, using her eight arms to tackle house-wifely duties including cooking, ironing and cleaning
Cover for Spring 1972 edition of Ms. published by Liberty Media for Women, as seen in Mrs. America.

Ms. was a departure from many magazines published at the time that were marketed to women in a bid to help them find a husband, raise children, or wear the right make-up, it “helped to shape contemporary feminism, with…editors and authors translating ‘a movement into a magazine.’”

In a topical twist of fate, when searching editions online, it would seem that the earliest British Library holdings of Ms., from September 1987, feature Tracey Ullman on the front cover – Ullman plays the role of Betty Friedan in Mrs. America.

Comedian and actress Tracey Ullman graces the cover of the September 1987 edition of Ms.
Cover for September 1987 edition of Ms. published by Liberty Media for Women (shelfmark: ZA.9.a.6674). Comedian and actress Tracey Ullman graces the cover. Image sourced from MereMart.com 

A woman with clear journalistic proficiency and activist vehemence, Mrs. America also touches on the media attention that Steinem’s appearance gained her: ‘the real Steinem has expressed exasperation with the way media coverage centered [sic] on her looks and style.’ A frustrating and ironic state of affairs considering the exact points Steinem and her fellow activists were making in their campaigns. This LA Times article examines this point in more detail, and how accurate Mrs. America’s’ portrayal of Gloria Steinem is (or isn’t). Steinem was not involved in the portrayal of herself in the FX series and discusses what Mrs. America gets ‘hopelessly wrong’ in this article. In particular, Steinem notes: ‘I’m very disturbed that people may look at Mrs. America and feel that women are our own worst enemies. Because even when we disagree, we don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies.’

Works by Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm can be seen in part one of this blog pairing. And don’t forget that Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, the next major British Library exhibition, while on hold for now, will be opening later in 2020.

Further reading in the Library collections which speak to the subjects/characters in Mrs. America

Abortion Rap by Diane Schulder and Florynce Kennedy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971). Shelfmark: A71/979

A Feminist in the White House: Midge Costanza, the Carter Years, and America's Culture Wars by Doreen J. Mattingly (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016). Shelfmark: YC.2016.a.8330

My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2018). Shelfmark: YK.2019.a.2799

Available as an online resource

National Organization for Women (Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2003)

Journal and journal articles

‘Puerto Rican Women and Work: Bridges in Transnational Labor’ by Carmen Delgado Votaw, found in Inter-American review of bibliography. Vol 47; Number 1/4,; 1997, 234-235. Shelfmark: 4531.894000

Women's Rights Law Reporter (Newark, N.J.: Women's Rights Law Reporter, 1971). Shelfmark: 9343.450000

[Blog by RSC]

11 August 2020

Mrs. America: Unfinished Business

One of the programmes I’ve managed to binge-watch my way through during the past few weeks is Mrs. America: an FX mini-series (currently available on BBC iPlayer) with a blockbuster feel starring Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne, to name a few.

The show depicts the battle between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. This two-part blog looks at some of the characters from the programme and the items they authored which are available in the British Library collections.

The airing of Mrs. America comes at a very timely point for Library colleagues – many of whom have been working tirelessly for months and years before lockdown, and continue to do so, on our next major exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. The exhibition was due to open in April 2020 but is currently on hold until later in the year. From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the exhibition will examine how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. A number of Mrs. America’s themes and conversations speak to those explored in the exhibition. The closing notes of the series bring the conversation to present-day America (Virginia ratified the ERA as recently as January 2020) implying, in the same way as the Library exhibition’s name affirms, that these debates are ongoing and far from settled: the fight for women’s rights is indeed unfinished business.

The nine-part series focuses each episode on key players in the US second-wave feminism movement , and the battles that were waged by the movements’ opposing parties. Tackling issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay and girls’ education, ‘the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States was one of the most conflict laden.

Some of the show’s characters I was familiar with, but many names were new to me and I wanted to find out more. Watchers of the programme will know that there are numerous pieces of literature referenced or mentioned throughout. Of course, many of us aren’t in the British Library building at the moment and seeing these foundational pieces of text on screen, or even mentioned, made me miss the office – and the collections – even more. Resources that would normally be at one’s fingertips are now slightly harder to reach. Despite the exercising of patience needed when it comes to accessing collection items at the moment, I wanted to have a root around the catalogue to see what holdings there might be that complement the stories of the main protagonists during this unforgettable moment in US history.

The following discoveries served as a wonderful and relevant reminder to me, as I hope they will for you, of what influential items the Library holds and that will available to easily consult for one’s research, inspiration or enjoyment, once a more recognisable version of reality greets us once again.

Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.

Bella Abzug

‘This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives.’ Bella Abzug’s bold 1971 campaign slogan declared that she was a force to be reckoned with. U.S. Representative, attorney, peace activist and gay-rights supporter, Abzug helped to advance the role of women in US politics. In 1961, Abzug co-founded the women's peace activist group, Women Strike for Peace, and during the 60s and 70s she was active in the peace movement, vehemently against the testing of nuclear weapons. Her fighting spirit and passion earnt her the nickname Battling Bella. Abzug was an early supporter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and remained active in feminist issues until her death in 1998.

The Library holds a first edition of Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington (shelfmark: 72/4051X) written by Abzug and edited by Mel Ziegler. The title was published in 1972 by Saturday Review Press – the publishing company branch of Saturday Review, which was, in contrast to this book’s subject, an American weekly men's lifestyle and health magazine, established in 1924. As the name implies, the book traces New York-born Bella Abzug’s journey to politics. The dust jacket shows her signature hat-wearing appearance in silhouette form, with her charismatic grin on the back cover – something Margo Martindale portrays brilliantly, along with Abzug’s ‘pugnacious wit’, in Mrs. America.

Photo of dust jacket for Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington by Bella S. Abzug showing Bella's silhouette on the front cover and her portrait on the back
Dust jacket for Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington by Bella S. Abzug, edited by Mel Ziegler. [New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.] Image sourced from Biblio.com

Episode 7 focuses on Abzug as she is tasked with organising the National Women’s Conference in Houston following her failed run for Senate in 1977. Abzug would later be dismissed by President Carter as co‐chairman of his National Advisory Committee on Women after a heated discussion on women’s issues at the White House. In the TV show, members of Abzug’s committee resign in solidarity with Bella; making for a powerful and pertinent scene (and one of my favourites). Did this really happen? This article examines the fact vs fiction in Mrs. America and the reality behind this particularly event, one which Gloria Steinem referred to as ‘the Friday afternoon massacre.’

Shirley Chisholm

The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, Shirley Chisholm represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. Chisholm was also the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. ‘Unbossed and unbought’ was her motto, showing her outspoken advocacy for both women and minority groups. In this Washington Post article, Vanessa Williams explores how Chisholm “described herself as ‘the people’s politician,’ fighting for higher wages for working people and more money for public education and demanding respect for black Americans and women.”

The Library holds a first edition of Chisholm’s 1970 autobiography, which took its name from her slogan: Unbought and Unbossed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970, shelfmark: W44/9078). In the book, Chisholm writes about her life, growing up as a young girl in Brooklyn, through her journey into politics, and her experiences of the American political system. It examines her long political struggle and the problems which plagued the American system of government.

Cover for Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm showing Chisholm in various stances
Cover for Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.] Image sourced from goodreads.com

Episode 3 of Mrs. America focuses on Chisholm as the congresswoman and presidential candidate vows to stay in the race for nomination come the 1972 Democratic National Convention. She is a recurring character and steadfast force, and through her story the series ‘points out how the obstacles Chisholm face[d] as a liberal black woman differ[ed] from those facing the white co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus.’ This recent Washington Post article includes a fascinating interview with Uzo Aduba, who plays the iconic role of Chisholm.

The next Mrs. America blog instalment will feature works by Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem.

[Blog by RSC]

04 August 2020

Reactions to HIV in the 1980s and COVID-19 stigma

This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US  collections.

My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy.  I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto.  It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital.  Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed.  Little did I know that would change the course of my life.  The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life.  As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone.  Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand.  Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men.  Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.

Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020.  A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic.  A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma.  While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic.  Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2

A photo of Susan Sontag sitting in her own home. Her left arm rests on a table and the right rests on the arm of the chair. Her dark hair is loose. She is wearing an open-necked striped shirt and a dark waistcoat. There are floor to ceiling bookcases in the background.
Susan Sontag, photographed in her own home. 1979. Copyright Lynn Gilbert.  (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking.  I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma.  Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded.  The body is not a battlefield.  The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.  We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3  Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable.  While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts.  Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history.  Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other.  Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’.  People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’.  This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.

Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope.  They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities.  We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick.  These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly.  Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).

I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing.  Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities.  My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.

Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792

References:

1.  Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100;  Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.

2.  D. Crimp,  AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16.  General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.

3.  Sontag, 1989. p. 180.

Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:

C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.'  Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504

C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.'  AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.