TV

Review: Mrs. America

The woman who tried to squash feminism.

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Mrs. America, the excellent nine-part series currently midway through its introductory run on FX on Hulu, approaches a still-hot-button political issue in an unusually even-handed way. The subject is the 1970s struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), with lefty feminists pushing to have it installed in the Constitution and right-wing warrior Phyllis Schlafly battling to stop its proponents in their tracks.

Reactions to the series have been impassioned, even among those who hadn't yet seen it. As a critic at the pro-Schlafly Daily Wire put it, "Early reviews suggest" that the series "paints the social conservative in a most unflattering light." The leftish Vanity Fair waited until actually watching Mrs. America to announce in a headline that it "Tells the Villain's Story."

In fact, Mrs. America presents a fairly rounded portrait of Schlafly (with the usual history-pic caveat that a lot of the dialogue has been invented). Its clear-eyed assessment of a contentious public figure is a tribute to the series' creator, Mad Men veteran Dhavi Waller, and to its incomparable star, Cate Blanchett, who carefully negotiates all of Schlafly's contradictions. She was a tireless campaigner for female submission to husband and home (and had six children herself), but also an author (of 26 books), a congressional candidate and a national-defense expert with a law degree and a steely determination to project her uncompromising views.

Schlafly was a dark-mirror reflection of the angry feminists she so ferociously opposed. Like them, she was repeatedly written off in the world of male action and enterprise. We see her trying to assert her policy expertise in a political strategy meeting and being told by one of the men present to just sit down and take notes for them. Later, passing out some homemade muffins she's made as part of a clever political strategy, she's asked by an appreciative man if she's ever thought about starting a baking business. "No," she says, after giving the question about two seconds' contemplation, "I've never thought about that."

But it's Schlafly's opponents who receive the series' most detailed examination. We see that Ms. magazine editor Gloria Steinem (glowingly portrayed by Rose Byrne) is a casual bohemian with a painful secret in her past and that she's resisting calls to become the pretty, press-friendly face of the feminist revolution. We meet the abrasive Betty Friedan (a fierce Tracey Ullman), author of that movement landmark, The Feminine Mystique, who's been cast aside by her husband for a younger woman; and the flamboyant congressional activist Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale, superb yet again), who's determined to convince fiery black Democrat Shirley Chisholm (a rousing Uzo Aduba) to give up her presidential bid against George McGovern—the preferred candidate of the movement's middle-class white feminists. It could be said that intersectionality starts here.

The cast is filled with familiar faces, which gives the series a rich texture. John Slattery plays Phyllis' staunchly anticommunist husband, Fred Schlafly (he's convinced abortion is part of the commie plot to promote population control). Jeanne Tripplehorn is Phyllis's lonely, middle-aged sister-in-law ("Why didn't anyone marry me?"). And Ari Graynor brings a surge of emotional energy to the role of Brenda, an ACLU lawyer whose open marriage is unsettled by her sudden lesbian awakening. ("That's practically a rite of passage for a radical feminist," says her proto-woke husband, played by Adam Brody.)

The story begins with Phyllis, a Goldwater Republican, paying little attention to the ERA, even though it's been ratified by 28 of the 38 states it needs to become law. She becomes alarmed, however, by what she sees as the possibility that the proposed amendment could lead to the drafting of women for military service and the end of separate restrooms for men and women, among other things. She starts an anti-ERA group called STOP ("Stop Taking Our Privileges") and begins drawing a national following. "The feminists think it's settled," she says. "They're not expecting a fight." Phyllis and her pro-family adherents are angered by feminist slogans like Friedan's "Marriage is a comfortable concentration camp." Says Schlafly, "They think if you don't feel enslaved you must be dumb."

The series manifests an uncommon sophistication in showing us that both Phyllis and Gloria Steinem are beginning to worry about their respective movements. When one woman at a STOP chapter meeting expresses admiration for a conspiracy-mongering rightwing group, the John Birch Society, Phyliss tells her "Keep that to yourself" (although Schlafly had her own ties to the Birchers, something she long denied). She's even more taken aback when another of her followers says, "The Lord made men and women different, just like he did white people and the colored." Meanwhile, we find Gloria observing a boisterous feminist cabaret show in which anti-marriage sentiments are in the air and the central prop is a large fake penis. "This is why they hate us," Steinem mutters.

It can't be a spoiler to reveal that Phyllis Schlafly finally did prevent the ERA from being ratified, although it was close (the feminists won 35 states to their cause, out of the necessary 38). An ever-evolving feminism went on to soak deep into American culture. But Schlafly's brand of hard-edged right-wingery proved influential as well. The last of her many books, published in September 2016, the month she died, was titled The Conservative Case for Trump.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: May 8, 1884

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  1. Schlafly’s daughter offered to help and the producers turned her down

    https://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/a32255873/phyllis-schlafly-mrs-america-anne-daughter-interview/

    Schlafly Cori said she emailed producers after FX announced the new series in 2018 in the hope of participating in some capacity, but never got a response. Mrs. America creator Dahvi Waller told Vanity Fair that’s because she felt opening a line of communication would make the show’s writers “beholden to [that person’s] version of events.”

    To Schlafly Cori, it felt like a slap in the face. “It was obvious they were not interested in the family’s point of view,” she said. “They already had the show sketched out, and they weren’t interested in the facts getting in the way of their portrayal.”

    She probably didn’t intend to sum up the leftist worldview in that last sentence, but that is how they approach everything. Phyllis Schlafly deserved better than that

    1. That said, I really like Cate Blanchett so I still might give it a shot

      1. Remember The Aviator? There’s a scene where a woman in a swimsuit is walking away from the camera, and my first reaction was “It’s Katharine Hepburn!” and it turned out to be so. I will never forget being amazed that Katharine Hepburn had a distinctive walk, that I had seen enough of her movies to recognize it, and that Cate Blanchett could emulate it that well. I had never known that Katharine Hepburn had a relationship with Howard Hughes, so her presence in the movie was a surprise as well. Might make this worth watching at least an episode or two.

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  2. Are there two versions of this series?

  3. I might have to give this series a look just to see if it squares with my own memories of the time – I always assumed that Schlafly wasn’t actually an anti-feminist, she was a very clever girl playing a hard-nosed political game. I mean, “Stop Taking Our Privileges” was a clear call to take a moment to re-think this whole equality thing and realize that equality is a two-edged sword. You demand to be treated the same as men? You might not like some of the ways men are treated. Privileges come with responsibilities. You might be better off playing the power game the way Schlafly played it – look at where it got her.

    Even though I was young at the time, I was already politically aware enough to know that the clearest argument on the issue was the “if we pass the ERA it means no more separate men’s and women’s bathrooms” argument and the counter-argument of “oh, don’t be silly, it doesn’t mean that at all and you’re just being ridiculous”. I can read and yes, yes that is exactly what it says and you’re full of shit if you’re arguing that it doesn’t say what it says. These arguments over “fairness” aren’t actually about fairness, they’re simply about power and who gets to oppress whom. And even without the ERA, look at where we’ve wound up on the separate bathrooms issue. You say you want equality, but no matter how much equality you get you’re always going to be complaining that things aren’t equal enough and the inequality inherent in the power to define equality is as unequal as it gets.

    1. Women can now sign up for combat arms MOS, but still don’t have to register for selective service. Putting aside that no one should have to sign up for selective service, I am not at all seeing how anyone can defend this as equal. Just another example of how feminist don’t mean equal unless it is by their definition.

      1. True, but mostly irrelevant. The draft has been dead since 1972 – and its discontinuation has allowed the Army to discover that a few well-trained volunteers on long enlistments are vastly superior to masses of draftees on an enlistment too short for thorough training. So all it really means now is that young men have to spend 5 minutes to fill out and mail a postcard, which young women are exempted from.

        1. It is no small thing that women are exempt from the Draft. They need to pony up here, first, before i take any of their other mewling seriously.

  4. Have not seen this one, however I have noticed the docudrama’s are getting less obviously pro one side d and closer to telling the story. Have you seen Waco…does not make the government side to be total villain or totally the good guys and both Randy Weaver on Ruby Ridge as well as the Branch Dividians are not portrayed as fanatics, but hopefully a more accurate representation of what was really happening at the time.

    1. The Waco series ended up being a lot better than I expected. I actually cheered during the initial assault scene when that one BD gunman sliced down the hallway and shot the ATF assholes back out through the window.

    2. Whoop. One data point doesn’t equal a trend. Hollywood doesn’t change.

  5. I remember that era. I remember my mother being all on board the Phyllis Schafly train. I also remember the local JBS bookstore carrying all of Schafly’s books. I bet that really wrankled her!

    But I never really understood the opposition to the ERA. It’s a very milquetoast amendment, nothing in it controversial. Just that women get the same legal treatment as men. Nothing in there about unisex bathrooms or equal pay or anything like that. And in today’s era the arguments against it are just crazy. “It would mean transgender fluidqueers would be indoctrinating your children in daycare!”

    My mother was fully against the ERA, even though there was nothing in the text of the amendment that she opposed. Rather, it was all about the culture war. It was old school conservatives versus the new abrasive feminists. And the feminist leadership was as abrasive then as they are now. It was about burning bras and quick divorces and experimenting with lesbianism and screaming at men. Today that may seem rather blaise, but back then it was quite controversial.

    I think the ERA would have easily sailed through if the second wave feminists had less confrontational leadership.

    1. But I never really understood the opposition to the ERA. It’s a very milquetoast amendment, nothing in it controversial. Just that women get the same legal treatment as men. Nothing in there about unisex bathrooms or equal pay or anything like that.

      It’s a shame we don’t have Swiss Servator and his narrowed gaze here, I’m trying to figure out if you’re serious or just more subtle with your sarcasm than I am. You know that “equal opportunity” has come to mean “equal outcomes” and that “non-discrimination” has led to “affirmative action” and “inclusive” means “no straight white non-leftist men allowed”? “Equal treatment” would demand that women are entitled to special treatment in the exact same way, complete with the same usual suspects straight-facedly arguing that fairness dictates unequal treatment. You know, because women only get paid 72 cents of a man’s dollar and men get all the good STEM jobs and we’re not even going to mention the horrific discrimination within the NFL, the NBA and sperm bank donations.

    2. But you know how it would have ended up. That’s the thing. It looks like a simple obvious ‘treat everyone the same’ idea and the next thing you know you’re in jail and the lawyers of america are sucking the blood out of every business in sight.

    3. The actual text doesn’t seem like a problem. But the interpretation of it likely would be. I mean, look what happened with a law that was meant to insure that girls’ sports got equal funding.

      And what problem is it meant to solve? Where do men and women not have equal rights under the law?

    4. Any enemy of Equality is a friend of mine!

  6. “The woman who tried to squash feminism.”

    Extremely biased comment in the subtitle that assumes that supporting the ERA is equivalent to being a feminist.

    ” No ——– inequalities on account of sex or on account of marriage, unless applying equally to both sexes, shall exist within the United States” – ERA

    No inequality shall exist ?
    Maybe the writer supports egalitarianism, but many people including some feminists do not.

    1. There is no way a feminist doesn’t support the ERA. None. Any other combination is just cognitive dissonance.

  7. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC), bless his reactionary heart, tried to modify the ERA to specify it *didn’t* have the meaning Schlafly would attribute to it. Ervin lost, and the disclaimers were defeated. Then the supporters of the ERA insisted it didn’t have those meanings, even though the Senate turned down the chance to make that clear.

    Also, we know perfectly well that, if ratified, the ERA would have been read by the courts as a charter of “abortion rights.”

    1. Actually, abortion would be a sexually discriminatory procedure, and probably illegal again.

      1. One would like to *think* so.

      2. If abortion were required by law you might have a point.

        1. It’s federally funded.

          1. It’s amazing how quickly, “My Body, My Choice!” always manages to morph into “My Body, My Choice, Your Wallet!”, isn’t it?

    2. Not just abortion. They would have read all sorts of crazy things into the ERA. “Milquetoast fluff” is not the sort of language you should add to the law of the land. It gives liberal courts more excuses to undermine other parts of the constitution that new amendments were supposedly not meant to address.

  8. The subject is the 1970s struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)

    Thank god this bullshit never got passed. What a disaster it would have been. It’s bad enough at the state level now. For instance, California has mandated that every board of directors must have a certain number of women on it. Even at the federal level the Obama administration signed and enforced provisions to ensure “equal pay”. Tech companies are scrambling to comply with this nonsense.

    1. No credible libertarian would oppose the ERA, just like they wouldn’t oppose the 13th and 14th amendments. What a crock.

  9. Just think, if this had passed, it would be ILLEGAL for the rapist Joe Biden to declare he will select a woman as the president of vice candidate.

  10. So who plays Phil Donahue who pimped out those feminist leaders to American housewives convincing them they were living in gulags?

  11. From what I can see, the worse act a woman can commit today is to NOT be a raving feminist. Second only to NOT having a professional career and being satisfied with life as a homemaker. Worse person ever!

    This is based on my interactions with female peers and your mileage may vary.

    1. Lately we’ve been calling the non-raving feminists without careers that stay at home Karens. Lately, I think we can all agree that they pretty much the worst. To be fair, if the feminists are right about them, it is completely for the wrong reasons.

      1. See? You can’t win if you’re a woman. You’re horrible no matter what.

  12. Contrary to what this author writes, Phyllis did not just have “ties” to the John Birch Society. She (and her husband) joined the JBS in the summer of 1959, Phyllis resigned in 1964.

  13. It sounds like the pro ERA side was full of the usual cultural marxist agitators (central and eastern euro types who arrived in the states in the 1890-1910 and these were their kids or grandkids…versus liberty loving and I hate to say this but it is obvious Christians. Perhaps there is something about secular jews versus the “old right” because it always seems these are the sides..very ver strange.

    I was a little kid when this all hit but I recall my mom saying this was a commie plot..that govt existed to protect everyone’s life, liberty and property and that was it..govt had NO place in free association or economic translations in anyway. Then again we grew up Catholic, Italian, and very anti New Deal

  14. I am not very excited about this show, but I can give you an opportunity to watch what it is, I have seen a movie with an ideological connotation and it shocks me because it is like a justification for your ideas and that is may be debatable.

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