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Mrs. America

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I originally had no intention of watching FX’s miniseries Mrs. America, a biopic of Phyllis Schlafly and her successful crusade against the ERA. Not only because the subject matter seemed incredibly depressing, but because the spin the series seemed to take on it felt like an encapsulation of the worst faults of antihero-driven TV. I didn’t need a show about how complicated and full of contradictions Phyllis Schlafly was. I didn’t want a story that would dare me to sympathize with her because look, sometimes the men don’t respect her! We already have one Serena Joy Waterford on TV, and frankly I’ve had my fill of her already. I wasn’t in the market for another television series trying to sell me on the humanity of people who spent their lives working against progress and liberation.

It took two essays about the show, by Sady Doyle and Kate Harding, to make me realize how misleading Mrs. America‘s elevator pitch is. I can only assume that centering the show on a single, controversial figure like Schlafly (and its publicity on a star turn by Cate Blanchett, in her first TV role) was judged better from a marketing perspective, because it certainly doesn’t reflect what Mrs. America is about, or what it’s trying to accomplish. Blanchett’s Schlafly, though present in each of the series’s nine episodes, is often only a secondary character. What creator Dahvi Waller—a writer and producer on Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire—does instead is shift her perspective with each episode, following luminaries of the mid-20th-century feminist movement like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and even lesser-known figures like Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). Each episode provides a perspective on a major political event of the 1970s—the 1972 Democratic convention, the Roe v. Wade ruling, Watergate, the 1976 Republican convention, the 1977 National Women’s Conference—along the way charting the realignment of American politics during that decade, of which the failure of the ERA’s ratification is only a symptom.

When it comes to Schlafly herself, Mrs. America is refreshingly blunt and unsentimental. Though Blanchett gives a typically excellent performance, the show around her isn’t interested in exploring her complexities, but instead lays out the facts about her quite plainly. Schlafly was a cold warrior who found her political ambitions stymied, in no small part due to her gender, and who was among the first to realize what people like Ann Coulter and Candace Owens have since built their careers on—that there is money and power in being the one person in oppressed group X who is willing to tell conservative white men that all the other Xs are making it up, exaggerating, and driven by envy. Very little is made of the “hypocrisy” of Schlafly exhorting women to stay in the home and submit to their husbands while she herself built a career and even took a law degree, because Mrs. America wants to disillusion us of the notion that Schlafly was ever a true believer. She’s a political climber who has found an effective ladder, and once the show establishes this about her, it shifts its focus to the far more interesting question of how and why her approach worked.

Another way of putting it is that Mrs. America is the show I criticized The Irishman for not being last year. Instead of focusing its energies on puzzling out the psychology of one depraved but not terribly interesting person, it is instead a story about how a progressive movement falters, right at the moment of its ascendancy. Through its multifaceted storytelling, the show identifies three factors that contributed to the ERA’s failure and, more generally, to the women’s movement loss of power after the 70s: infighting and insularity within the movement; indifference from elected officials on both sides of the aisle; and the right’s ability to weaponize cultural issues, and align itself with religious and social conservatives.

On the first of those three fronts, Mrs. America offers its most compelling and winning cast of characters, each with her own strengths and weaknesses. There’s Abzug, a lifelong machine player who knows how to work the levers of power, who can get so hung up on process that she forgets to do the right thing. Steinem, deeply committed to the cause but also increasingly suspicious of politics as a means of achieving it. Friedan, a trailblazer who has collapsed into something of a kook, combining trenchant insights with embarrassing outbursts.

It’s not an accident that both Doyle and Harding single out the series’s third episode, “Shirley”, which focuses on Chisholm’s quixotic quest for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. It not only allows these fascinating personalities to clash in ways that are both intriguing and frustrating—Chisholm’s determination to stay in the race despite having thoroughly lost it, insisting that doing so is the only way she can achieve meaningful influence on McGovern’s platform and administration; Abzug’s response that drawing out the nomination battle when it’s already been decided harms both the ticket and the women’s movement; Steinem’s disillusionment when McGovern keeps abortion rights off the platform. But it also chimes with the present day in illuminating ways. Mrs. America is a show about how we got to where we are today, but as it demonstrates in episodes like “Shirley”, in some ways we’ve always been here.

It’s interesting to observe how little Mrs. America has to say about the ERA itself. More time is spent, in the episode focused on Steinem, on arguing for the vital necessity of safe and legal abortion, than on the supposed benefits of the amendment at the story’s core. Partly, this is the show’s point—an amendment affirming and protecting the equality between the sexes is such an obvious, uncontroversial idea that one hardly needs to argue for it, and the reasons that it became a political hot potato have little to do with its actual merits. But I also think it’s a way of stressing how much the ERA’s failure is rooted in the women’s movement’s failure—perhaps even refusal—to engage with a vast swath of American women.

Steinem, for example, initially refuses to believe that Schlafly and her supporters are a real movement, insisting that they are being run by conservative men. When Friedan, alone among the leadership of the feminist movement, points out that the upper-middle-class housewives who have flocked to Schlafly’s banner are not equipped for liberation, and are terrified of having their privileges torn away, she’s greeted with awkward silence, and with Steinem replying simply that “revolutions are messy; people get left behind”. That may be morally correct, but it ends up backfiring politically, with Schlafly easily weaponizing a class of women who don’t recognize themselves in Steinem and Friedan’s feminism, but who are nevertheless eager to exercise power. (It’s particularly interesting to watch these exchanges and then consider how many modern arguments for feminist goals, such as gay marriage or reproductive rights, couch themselves in the language of family and motherhood.)

But even on the anti-ERA side, the arguments made by Schlafly and her supporters are vague and hard to pin down. It’s funny, for example, that many of the things they insist will result if the ERA is ratified—women in military combat, gay marriage, an end to automatic alimony and maternal custody in cases of divorce, unisex bathrooms—and which the feminists opposing them dismiss as scaremongering, have not only come to pass even without the ERA, but are nowadays seen as largely uncontroversial. It eventually becomes clear that the ERA is merely an excuse, not only for Schlafly to amass power (and a valuable mailing list, an object coveted by several Republican politicians throughout the series’s run) but for the women she recruits to shape their identity around. Two of them, invented characters played by Sarah Paulson and Melanie Lynskey, embody how the conservative movement grows around and through the ERA struggle. The former drifts away from the movement as her initial pride in taking a stand gives way to dismay and disgust at its descent into cruelty and the negation of others’ freedoms. The latter calcifies into the epitome of a modern conservative—indifferent to truth or compassion, utterly focused on winning.

It’s that latter transformation that feels like the heart of the show, as Schlafly at first tolerates and then actively courts what at that time were considered fringe groups, outside the mainstream of the Republican party. One of the most shocking things about watching Mrs. America is its reminder that there used to be such a thing as liberal Republicans. The feminist caucus of the 70s is determinedly non-partisan, and figures like Ruckelshaus, who served in Gerald Ford’s administration, are as committed to the ERA and the feminist struggle as their Democratic counterparts. Schlafly’s contacts with the John Birch society, with anti-abortion, anti-gay evangelicals, and with carefully whitewashed parts of the KKK are an early harbinger of how these people will be driven out of the party. As much as the series’s early episodes stress the failures of feminist leaders, the show is careful to lay blame for the 1970s political realignment where it truly belongs—with the right’s willingness to ally themselves with white supremacists and religious fanatics in exchange for power and influence. Schlafly is less a leader of this transformation as she is emblematic of it, as demonstrated by the series’s decision to end not on the ERA deadline running out, but on the election of Ronald Reagan.

(I’m not really equipped to comment on Mrs. America‘s historical accuracy, but it’s worth noting that there have been some criticisms of it. Steinem, for example, has claimed that the show gives Schlafly too much credit for stopping the ERA, and that she was merely piggybacking on a conservative wave that would have happened with or without her. And writing on an unrelated subject, Fred Clark has reminded me that the evangelical fervor against abortion was in itself a political realignment, and may not have occurred as early as the show depicts it.)

If I have one criticism to make of Mrs. America, it is that it tries too hard to wring some semblance of triumph out of what is, ultimately, a depressing and dispiriting story. When you’re reduced to arguing that Phyllis Schlafly actually lost because Reagan didn’t give her a cabinet position (or, for that matter, to burnishing Jeane Kirkpatrick’s reputation by mentioning only that she was pro-ERA), you’re really clutching at straws. More importantly, a scene at the end of the season aims for triumph and ends up being more depressing than the show seems to realize. President Carter, having outwardly supported the ERA struggle and appointed Abzug as the head of his National Advisory Commission on Women, sends his chief of staff to fire her, and to bring the entire organization under the administration’s control. Instead, the women of the commission resign en masse, with Steinem warning him that women’s votes can’t be taken for granted.

Except the thing is, they can, because one outcome of the realignment that Mrs. America depicts is that there’s nowhere for voters who prioritize women’s issues to go except the Democratic party, with the result being that a non-partisan women’s movement with real political power is no longer possible. It’s a depressing note to end up, but then the reality is pretty depressing too. If there’s any consolation to be found in Mrs. America, it is in discovering such a sophisticated, engaging, enraging work of political fiction, where one expected merely another antihero show.

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