2020, FX on Hulu, nine episodes
In Mrs. America, show creator and co-writer Dahvi Waller uses a period drama to shed light on the present. The 1970s-set FX show chronicles the failed attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The show is based on real events, but is open to invention. That looseness is a tool for taking us beyond the historical record, to imagine how the choices that played out in public were debated in private. Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Rodham, which imagines an alternate timeline where Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton, it sometimes goes too far, particularly when it brings us into the main players’ bedrooms. But one of the creative choices that Waller makes is particularly fascinating.
Waller chooses to create a Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) who was never that interested in the ERA. She’s introduced as a foreign policy and nuclear arms specialist, as indeed the real Schlafly first styled herself. But, despite her qualifications, she can’t get into the rooms where decisions are made. At the opening of the show, she’s in one of the few roles open to a woman in politics—walking a catwalk in a swimsuit with other prominent wives in order to raise money for a congressional candidate.
The show casts her anti-ERA efforts as one more kind of slightly humiliating costume. When she takes on a “women’s issue” she’s seen as more qualified than on the topics she actually specializes in. She plays fast and loose with her claims about the ERA in a way we don’t see her do when she talks about arms control treaties. The ERA fight is just a means to an end. She’s not in the fight to defeat the amendment, but to prove she has a coalition, and to force politicians to pay court to her.
Schlafly and the show both treat the ERA as more a matter of symbolism than of concrete policy. Again and again, it’s Schlafly who makes arguments about what the amendment will accomplish, while the supporters of the amendment say she’s exaggerating. Seldom do the pro-ERA activists within the show get a chance to make a case for what the amendment will do.
The irony of the show, looking back from the perspective of the present, is that Schlafly both is and isn’t right. All the things she forecasts—women in combat, gay marriage, abortion on demand, legal threats to women-only spaces—have come to pass…without the ERA being necessary to usher them in.
Instead of focusing on policy, the show is asking a different question: Who gets to claim the mantle of a women’s movement? Schlafly is the only major figure from the right, facing down a murderer’s row of progressive activists: Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash), and more. Steinem initially dismisses Schlafly as a catspaw, rather than a political actor in her own right, saying “They finally found the best smokescreen for their chauvinism—women.” While the “libbers,” as Schlafly dismissively calls them, initially believe she’s not a threat, the viewers, well informed by history and Blanchett’s filmography, know better.
Blanchett is well cast to hold her own. Her charismatic steeliness was showcased in her blockbuster role as Galadriel, the elven woman from The Lord of the Rings who must keep her power in check, lest she become “beautiful and terrible as the dawn.” She brought that same force of personality to Julian Rosefeldt’s much stranger project, “Manifesto,” where she read historic manifestos on art in the guise of 13 personas, everyone from a television broadcaster to a homeless man.
Here, she and her opponents are living examples of their political manifestos. Both sides make a claim to be a movement for women, while working to silence and sideline the women who disclaim their agenda. These tensions persist to the present day, as when the organizers of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington banned groups like the New Wave Feminists from being partners of the protest, on the grounds that being a pro-life feminist was an oxymoron. The Women’s Marches have continued through 2020, with ongoing tensions over representation, to the point where New York City had a schism in 2019 and held two simultaneous Women’s Marches.
Schlafly and the feminists both struggle with the question of how big a tent to pitch. One uncomfortable ally Schlafly wins is Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond), a member of the Church of Christ, who makes it clear she regards the Catholic Schlafly as an idolater. The women are divided by class as well as religion, and costume designer Bina Daigeler’s sharply tailored suits for Schlafly mark her as an outsider amid the lacy embellishments of Hobbs’s living room. Despite these differences, Schlafly successfully expands her ecumenical coalition, recruiting Mormon and Jewish women and sidestepping theological fights. Her careful diplomacy is less admirable when she turns a blind eye to the racism of some of her allies, accepting segregationists as long as they don’t use racial slurs while sharing a stage with her.
The racial tensions on the liberal side are less stark—everyone favors civil rights in a vague way, but Shirley Chisholm feels abandoned by her ostensible allies when they treat her presidential campaign as symbolic and admit they never felt she could win. At Steinem’s Ms. magazine, one of the only black staffers quits after getting fed up with the way she’s treated as a token. The white women leading the women’s movement aren’t always thinking intersectionally, and, just like present-day Democrats, are sometimes flustered to find that black women are more likely to be socially conservative than their white allies. As one feminist warns, the more the movement embraces lesbians, the more likely they are to lose the Black Panthers.
Meanwhile, Steinem et al. are ready to partner with their Republican ally Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) when she can open doors across the aisle. But Jill is often brushed aside, treated as more of a tool than a teammate. When Jill pushes back against Gloria, saying it doesn’t help to claim marriage is prostitution, since “We do not want housewives thinking that we are against them,” Brenda Feigen Fasteau (Ari Graynor), an ACLU lawyer, fires back, “We are against them.”
Both sides are unwieldy coalitions. There isn’t a simple, single axis from liberal to conservative, but many conflicting goals and ideas of what it means to be a woman. Hypothetically, that offers either side the chance to try to win over the enemy’s most loosely attached allies, or even the chance to work together on some issues, but it rarely occurs.
In episode four, Schlafly and Friedan square off in a debate. Both women relish the fight—Friedan more obviously, exclaiming “God, I’d like to burn you at the stake,” just as she did in real life. But their attacks on each other reveal a potential for common ground that neither admits to. Both activists acknowledge the limits of law to protect women if the broader norms of the culture are misogynist.
Friedan makes her case by taking on Schlafly’s ideal of the homemaker who would rather keep her special privileges than have equal rights. Schlafly likes to hold up the example of a mother, who is supported by her husband and whose work in the home is treasured and protected. But, as Friedan points out, a widowed woman enjoys no such privilege. And, as the viewers have seen, Schlafly’s mother is one such woman. Neither private charity nor government support came through to support her or her children. The homemaker’s privileges are precarious, ERA or no.
Schlafly fires back, by arguing that the ERA isn’t really important as a matter of law to the Women’s Libbers. It’s more of a cri de coeur, a way to push back against a world that’s hurt them. But, Schlafly says, the law won’t stop your husband from leaving you or a man from being a pig. In the show, it’s clear this is a personal jibe at the divorced Friedan.
In the debate, both sides are focused on using the law to make a claim about who women are. But both of their campaigns are incomplete without a corresponding moral or cultural revival. The push to fix culture through law has only grown more intense in our present day. Congress is gridlocked, and many representatives seem to relish being freed of direct responsibility to legislate. Their authority is devolved onto administrative agencies, the courts, and the increasingly imperial presidency. To get anything done, activists have to look for a constitutional angle to justify taking the fight to the courts.
It’s a question that #MeToo activists have faced as well. What are the limits of what the law can do in a hostile culture? On college campuses, the attempts to use legal proceedings to push back against a toxic sexual culture have been limited by questions of due process for the accused. Even the best designed law will have a limited impact if it is the only restraint on a debauched and misogynistic culture.
Friedan and Schlafly agree that women’s value goes unnoticed or is actively undermined by the culture at large. They both attract acolytes because they make women feel seen. Friedan galvanized housewives when her Feminine Mystique gave voice to “the problem that has no name.” Schlafly spoke for the women who didn’t want to see the life they’d built dismissed as a prison.
Steinem is doing the same kind of work, for a different audience of women. Throughout the series, she is frequently dismissed as a dilettante by both her allies and her enemies. She avoids debating Schlafly and is rebuked by Bella Abzug for speaking primarily to friendly crowds. Steinem’s most affecting moment comes in episode two (“Gloria”), when a woman comes up to her on the street, shyly thrilled to meet her. It’s not Steinem’s glamour or fame that she’s drawn to. This woman, unlike the women whose names headline the episodes, won’t make a mark in the history books, and she doesn’t feel she needs to. But she wants to thank Steinem for saying, publicly, that she had an abortion. It made her feel a little less lonely, a little less ashamed, and a little less anonymous.
It’s the feeling of being seen and valued that draws her to Steinem. It’s the same longing to be known that brings the housewives to Schlafly. The fight is about who will be seen and how they’ll be known.
Mrs. America excels when it makes the choice to see and value the kind of work that doesn’t make headlines or history books. The show’s cinematography treats as thrilling the tedious work that grassroots movements are made of. When Schlafly’s ladies flip through Rolodexes, pick up phones, and copy audiotapes, the show gives them snappy montages and quick cuts. Woman by woman, stamp by stamp, their power builds.
Women are more likely than men to turn up as volunteers, and they often do the unglamorous work of maintaining what has been built. It’s not so different from cleaning—it’s work that must be done again and again and is more noticeable when neglected than when it’s done well. But it’s valued when it’s political and ignored when it’s personal.
The show reinforces this view in its closing shots, an homage to another work about a woman unhappily relegated to the domestic sphere. The last shots are of Schlafly, abandoned by Reagan and relegated at last to the kitchen. She puts on an apron, sits at her kitchen table, and carefully peels an apple for pie. Here, there are no quick cuts and no building energy. The music stops, the camera is static, and her work is slow and tedious. When she finishes one apple, she picks up another. The camera waits with her for just under a full minute. We do not see her rise from the table.
The show loses momentum in the back half of the season, especially as it becomes harder to follow the political stakes of both sides’ organizing efforts. Although episodes start with a chyron showing the year and how many states are still needed for ratification, it’s hard to tell if any progress was made. The show begins building up to the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, but this attempt at a climax is muddled. Schlafly’s women took advantage of the open process for selecting delegates to secure seats for themselves. The feminists, in turn, debated whether they should find a way to bar the conservative women, lest the conference be brought to a standstill.
Steinem makes the call to let everyone in and have the chips fall where they may, which would seem to set the stage for a major confrontation. But the arrival of Schlafly’s acolytes doesn’t appear to disrupt the proceedings. Although they set up a war room at the conference, they aren’t shown winning, or even closely contesting, any votes on the floor. And Steinem’s biggest concern, that they might show up with graphic images of abortions and use their stage time to narrate what an abortionist does, is sidestepped by the show. No graphic images are shown or referenced, and the pro-lifers use a distanced metaphor rather than speaking of grasping forceps and dismemberment.
The show eschews the political drama in Houston, showing neither Schlafly’s counter-rally nor much of the official business of the National Women’s Conference. Instead, the viewpoint is personal—the camera follows Alice Macray, an invented figure played by Sarah Paulson. Paulson is one of the strongest players in the cast, tracing the arc of a housewife for whom Schlafly’s movement is an opportunity to be proud of herself. She’s the kind of woman whose organizational skills would never be heralded when they were applied only to recipe cards, but who becomes a political player when she’s filing names for a mailing list.
Schlafly alternately encourages her and shuts her out, and Paulson breaks your heart with her eagerness for praise and her crumpling into silence. Unlike Schlafly, Alice is not a political opportunist. She fears that the ERA is an attack on her choices and her worth, and she believes, in an earnest, freshly graduated from civics class way, that speaking up is all that’s required to turn the political tide. She is the kind of woman that no one, initially, made an effort to recruit or persuade.
The episode set in Houston is her character’s star turn—her first sustained encounter with the opposition and the moment that prompts her to grow away from Phyllis. But here the show loses its conviction. Alice accepts a pill from a fellow attendee that turns out to be a lot stronger than aspirin, and the episode becomes a foggily shot montage of primal screams, sacrilege, and singalongs.
Is this drugged state the only way the creators could imagine a bridge being built between the two sides? Alice breaks with her STOP ERA compatriots by arguing that they shouldn’t reflexively vote against all the resolutions written by the opposition. She stands up, first alone, then joined by one other STOP ERA delegate to vote aye while the other ladies of her coalition keep their seats.
But the show doesn’t let us hear the full text of what she’s voting for. The political is underplayed. In the final moments of episode nine, the convention is shot like a triumph. By episode ten, the organizers ruefully admit that it was purely symbolic. The only resolution that got results was the extension of the ERA deadline, which the viewer knows will come to nothing.
The final episodes of the show give us one last parallel between the warring sides. Abzug and Schlafly, who shared a congressional campaign slogan (“A woman’s place is in the House”), are both rudely pushed aside by the men who still control who gets a seat at the table. Abzug is ousted as co-chairwoman of the National Advisory Committee on Women when she tries to get President Carter to prioritize women’s issues instead of treating them as a captive constituency. All the other women on the commission resign as a show of support for her, a moment the show depicts as a victory. Woman after woman lays down her resignation letter and walks out proudly, leaving their male antagonist mute. But it’s not clear what, if anything, follows from this moment of defiance.
Schlafly gets the same shoddy treatment from Reagan. He dangles the position of Ambassador to the UN in exchange for her support (and her mailing lists). But when it comes time to staff the cabinet, he passes over her and chooses Jeane Kirkpatrick, another anti-communist hardliner and the first woman to hold the position. In real life, it’s not clear that Schlafly was ever considered seriously over the more qualified Kirkpatrick. But in the show, Schlafly is pushed aside for the same reason Abzug is—both women are too outspoken and too likely to draw controversy. Schlafly winds up a little better off than Abzug—although she is spurned personally, the foreign policy she favors is still being advanced.
In both cases, the women hear (for what will not be the last time) the unpleasant brush-off from their ostensible allies—if you don’t like it, what are you going to do about it, vote for the other guy?
The show doesn’t have an answer to this question, or, at least, not a serious one. It ends disingenuously, with rising music and a roll call of states that have newly ratified the ERA, as though the fight is ongoing. But the amendment expired, and if a serious effort were being made to revive it, it would have to pass both houses of Congress again, and then three-fourths of the states, starting over from zero. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says she “would like to see a new beginning” for the amendment, but that anything but starting over is constitutionally unfeasible.
So why does the show pick this mirage as its call to action?
Captive constituencies are steered toward symbolic action in order for politicians to avoid being accountable for their promises. The real goals are always one more election or one more Supreme Court justice away.
Mrs. America, at its best, is a portrait of how diverse American women are, and how those disparities of values, privilege, class, and race make it hard for any group of leaders to speak for all women. Successful advocacy is a matter of compromise and shifting coalitions. But, in its ending, the show lets all women down, hiding their real and conflicting concerns under an airy confection.