When I first learned about Phyllis Schlafly and her battle against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during my history lessons at school, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend why somebody would be in opposition to the legal affirmation of their own rights. Mrs America (BBC 2/FX on Hulu) offered me a more in-depth insight into the historical narrative of the motivations behind her activism. This nuanced portrayal of Schlafly and her following, alongside a depiction of the developing women’s liberation movement that took place throughout the 1970s, opened my eyes to the reality of a conflict that was bigger than the time frame it existed within.
Mrs America is a dramatisation of the events surrounding the movement to ratify the ERA, which eventually died in 1982 three states short of the ratification it needed to be implemented into the American constitution. Created by Mad Men writer Dahvi Waller, each episode focuses on either a specific individual or an event placed within the context of the principle characters’ lives. It sheds light on some of the most important feminist perspectives of the 20th Century, while also acknowledging the backlash against the developing movement by those who felt they had more to lose with an increase in their freedom and choices.
The effectiveness of the show is facilitated by the pitch-perfect cast who bring the drama to life. Cate Blanchett plays a not so unsympathetic Schlafly, and the physical similarity between them is uncanny, making the show feel almost documentary like at times. Rose Byrne is ethereal as Gloria Steinham, transformed by iconic aviator glasses and a straight middle-parted hairstyle. Betty Freidan is depicted ten years on from the publication of The Feminine Mystique, disillusioned and divided by many aspects of the movement, and Tracy Ullman portrays this conflict in its entirety. Sarah Paulson plays Alice Macray, one of the show’s few fictional characters, who perfectly encapsulates the clash between not wanting to disrupt the status quo but fundamentally disagreeing with many aspects of Schlafly’s ideology.
Some have criticised the show for its oversimplification of a serious political debate that could potentially misinform viewers of the events that took place during this time. At the beginning of each episode, it is distinctly stated that some scenes and characters are fictionalised for creative purposes. The opening credits, soundtracked by ‘A Fifth of Beethoven’ by Walter Murphy, devises the illusion of a ‘feminist disco fever dream’ and foreshadows the sensationalisation of events that were ultimately very damaging for the feminist movement. Yet it remains true that ‘Phyllis Schlafly won some battles, but she lost the war’. This is hinted at in the final episode of Mrs America; she receives a call from recently elected president Ronald Reagan, who informs her that he is grateful for her help in his campaign but cannot offer her a position in his administration due to her polarising views.
Schlafly passed away in 2016, and her final book, The Conservative Case for Trump, was published shortly after her death- reiterating the sentiment that Conservatism was the best way forward for American politics. While Mrs America is primarily centred around her personality cult and the STOP ERA campaign (there’s a reason it isn’t called Miss America), the characters and storyline that interested me most were those on the opposing side. I knew enough feminist history to recognise names and follow the conflicts between the two groups, but I had never before seen it brought to the screen in such an entertaining (and albeit somewhat fictitious) way.
Featured Image Source: Still from Youtube