Mrs America is the true story of the fight for and against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The limited series by creator Dahvi Waller hinges on women’s rights revolutionaries – and formidable counter-revolutionary, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett).
Phyllis Schlafly is a “goddamn feminist!”
One of the smartest insights that Mrs America provides is that Phyllis Schlafly, in the words of Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), “is a goddamn feminist. She may be the most liberated woman in America.” And the truth is, she is. She just chooses to not see herself that way. The wife of Illinois lawyer, Fred Schlafly (John Slattery), she’s run for Congress in the past, is openly ambitious, applies to law school despite her husband’s misgivings, is appreciated for her beauty and intelligence and is regal and terrifying, to both her allies and enemies. Schlafly sees managing men as a woman’s lot. At a meeting with male Republican lawmakers, she announces, “Some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.” In response, they ask her to take notes, assuming she has the nicest penmanship. Still, Schlafly doesn’t turn her attention towards the ERA until her friend Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson) worries the amendment will marginalise housewives. It is at this point that her mental calculus computes that speaking about women’s issues may be the only way to be heard in a male-dominated world. Schlafly soon changes her focus from anti-Communism to anti-feminism. She’s found her cause and a supportive audience. The best thing about Mrs America is that it never sees Schlafly as a heroine, or an anti-hero, for that matter. It respects her canniness, charisma, ambition and force of will. Even the second-wave feminists, who Schlafly and her squad dismissively refer to as “libbers” gradually come to respect her for the threat she poses.
The feminist side of the story
Parallel to Schlafly’s story is the 1970s feminist movement with Abzug, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Representative Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) and others. Initially, Schlafly and her STOP ERA squad are but a barely squawking annoyance to the exuberant group. In fact, there’s a running gag about Friedan, who later engages in a debate with Schlafly, being unable to pronounce her name. The group has far better things to do – such as plotting the quick passage of the amendment by President Richard Nixon. Just as they’re deliberating over their win and how to argue over tactics and priorities, they’re T-boned by Schlafly and how. What follows is an epic decade-long fight.
Bringing about a change in America
The real story isn’t about which side won or not, it’s about how both sides of the battle won, and in their own way, changed America. Schlafly’s emphasis on how their rally had bigger crowds than the “libbers rally” was echoed in Donald Trump’s campaign. And Steinem’s statement, “We select our leaders first by eliminating women, then minorities”, rings true even today.
Packed with powerful performances
In a show packed with knockout performances from an ensemble cast, Rose Byrne and Tracey Ullman stand out. Cate Blanchett is sublime as the anti-feminist Schlafly, who both wins (the ERA died in 1982, three states short of ratification) and loses (President Ronald Reagan doesn’t offer her the expected role in his administration). The only thing she can do is sit down, swallow her despondency and peel apples. But don’t you dare feel sorry for Schlafly. After all, she’s in exactly the place that she’s been claiming women should be happy to inhabit: the kitchen.
WATCH OR NOT
The limited series is a political drama packed with dynamite performances and sharp writing, making it an absolute must-watch. Plus it has a phenomenal soundtrack (Walter Murphy’s ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’, Etta James’ ‘Fire’, The Staple Singers’ ‘I’ll Take You There’).