In the third episode of Mrs. America, the National Women’s Political Caucus heads to the 1972 Democratic National Convention, where Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) continues—and ultimately ends—her historic campaign for President of the United States.
The convention is an important battleground for feminist activist Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), who has plans to force a vote on abortion on the floor. She wants “reproductive freedom” to be part of the party’s plank; Democratic candidate George McGovern refuses to support its addition. So, Steinem makes a deal with McGovern’s campaign: McGovern won’t influence his delegates on the abortion vote, or allow any right-to-lifers to speak before it, if Steinem helps get McGovern the votes he needs to win the nomination. She also promises not to talk about how “women are being butchered on kitchen tables” before the vote.
But once McGovern’s campaign realizes a majority of North Carolina delegates plan to vote in support of abortion, his campaign undermines Steinem and asks his delegates to vote no. According to their polling, McGovern can’t be associated with legalizing abortion if he wants to win the election in November.
After they lose the vote, Steinem rails at McGovern’s staffer, calling him a liar and a bastard, before talking to Chisholm about fighting to get her the vice presidential slot on McGovern’s ticket. But Chisholm says she isn’t interested in a symbolic position—only true political power. She tells Steinem, “Power concedes nothing. If we don’t demand true equality, we are always going to be begging men for a few crumbs from the pie, trading women for an empty promise.”
So, how did the abortion vote go down in real life? According to a New York Times article from July 1972, there was a vote about an abortion proposal, though the word itself was not used. The proposed amendment to the “rights of women” plank said, “In matters relating to human reproduction, each person’s right to privacy, freedom of choice, and individual conscience should be fully respected, consistent with relevant Supreme Court decisions.”
The Times reports that the amendment was seen as something that could “discomfort and ultimately defeat Mr. McGovern’s race for the White House” and in the end “McGovern forces were moving around the floor, urging delegates to vote against the plank.”
Steinem confirmed some of the events in her book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, writing that “[t]he consensus of the meeting of women delegates held by the caucus had been to fight for the minority plank on reproductive freedom; indeed our vote had supported the plank nine to one. So fight we did, with three women delegates speaking eloquently in its favor as a constitutional right.” In the end, Steinem writes, “[W]e made a very good showing. Clearly we would have won if McGovern’s forces had left their delegates uninstructed and thus able to vote their consciences.”
Shirley MacLaine, a McGovern supporter, also wrote about the vote for the Times in July 1972. She said the McGovern staff agreed to a “hands off” policy on the vote, but once the campaign got wind that non-McGovern supporters were trying to convince delegates to vote yes “in order to embarrass” McGovern, the campaign sent out the word to have delegates vote no.
MacLaine reported that after a delegate from Missouri made a speech about the “murder of little children” before the vote, Steinem yelled at Joe Duffey, a McGovern floor manager. MacLaine wrote, “She tore into him shrieking, ‘You are a bastard for allowing the right-to-life man to speak. You lied to us. You promised you wouldn’t allow anyone like that to speak.’ Joe was shocked. He was speechless. He claimed he had agreed to go along with a legitimate vote of conscience. Near hysteria, Gloria burst into tears before the television cameras and rushed down the aisle.”