Television

In Mrs. America, the Battle for Equal Rights Sparks a Right-Wing Backlash

Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly, who helped scuttle the ERA and give birth to modern conservatism.

Cate Blanchett sits on a chair in period dress.
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America. Pari Dukovic/FX

Mrs. America, FX’s new drama about the real-life battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, begins before there even is a battle. In 1971, the ERA, a constitutional amendment to ensure equal rights under the law regardless of sex, had passed the House with an overwhelming bipartisan majority and was on its way to doing the same in the Senate. Passionately supported by the women’s movement, backed by a Republican president, and facing little opposition, organized or otherwise, the ERA seemed assured of ratification by the 38 states necessary to make it constitutional. And then along came Phyllis Schlafly.

Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett, more or less single-handedly defeated the ERA. An ambitious and empowered working woman who hated feminists, she built a national political network by arguing women’s truest place was in the home. She was a hypocrite, a manipulator, a massager of fact, an indefatigable workhorse, and a brilliant tactician, organizer, and political mind. In taking down the ERA, she irrevocably degraded the terms of the fight for female equality, while doing as much as anyone to usher in the conservative revolution, family values politics, fake news, abortion battles, and reflexively rancorous partisanship that has become the political smog we breathe. (Her final book, The Conservative Case for Donald Trump, was published in 2016, the day after her death.)

She was, as Mrs. America’s creator Dahvi Waller puts it, a real-life antihero, a piece of work who could be the sole subject of a piece of work like Mrs. America. (The first three episodes are now streaming on Hulu; the remaining six will be released weekly.) Instead, she is only a large part of the series’ scope. Mrs. America trains its other eye on the sprawling women’s movement itself, closely following boldface second wave names like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman). It’s an energetic chronicle of the clash between the impassioned and ungainly movement and Schlafly’s single-minded coterie that feels like looking at an old family photo album: The colors are different and so are the clothes, and then someone stares out at you with your own nose, and you understand exactly how it is that we got here, the past inscribed on the present’s very face.

Mrs. America has zip to spare, bounding along on a ‘70s soundtrack, limning complex history, ideas, alliances, and personal dynamics with assuredness, tact, and insight. But the story it tells—of how we got from there to here, of the moral arc of the universe’s stubborn refusal to bend toward justice—is a tragic one. In the first episode, various members of the movement gather in Abzug’s congressional office to celebrate the ERA passage through the House. They’re beaming, laughing, joking, toasting, assured that the amendment will pass and warmed by the seeming facts; their country is making justice-bound progress. Meanwhile, Phyllis Schlafly is stuffing envelopes, her newsletter filled with anti-ERA arguments that will halt that progress as surely as roadblocks.

The tragedy is not just in the outcome but in the structure. The show highlights the extent to which the women’s movement, even with its many accomplishments, traced the arc of a tragic hero, brought down by the flaw that was also its greatness. Second wave feminism encompassed different women with different priorities, goals, and ideas and was a chaotic, seething, at times dysfunctional group project, propelled by justice, inequality, necessity, and personality. It was so grand, so important, so nonhierarchical, so righteous that it couldn’t focus, streamline, agree on, or simplify anything, let alone attend to a bunch of housewives doing anything as goofily retrograde as lobbying local elected officials with freshly baked bread. The movement has its eyes on the horizon, not on Schlafly’s burgeoning countermovement.

Initially, Schlafly couldn’t have cared less about the ERA. In 1971, she’s still fixated on national security, a Goldwater conservative and mother of six intent on Cold War nuclear strategy. When she’s finally invited into the room where it happens—a D.C. meeting with Barry Goldwater about Richard Nixon’s flawed approach to nuclear deterrence—she’s asked to take notes, treated by the boy’s club like a secretary. Like all of the women in the movement, Schlafly is further politicized by this encounter with sexism, but like a wonky pool ball, instead of rolling forward, she spins into reverse, embracing the anti-feminist cause. She understands that the only issues on which men will take a woman seriously are women’s issues, so she’s going to make a meal of it.

Like FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and Fosse/Verdon, there’s an extent to which Mrs. America acts as a kind of feminist reclamation project, recontextualizing a women who, like O.J.’s Marcia Clark and Gwen Verdon, has been neglected or mistreated by history. That Schlafly would hate to be recontextualized as a stealth feminist by a feminist project—“Phyllis is a goddamn feminist. She may be the most liberated woman in America,” Abzug puts it—is a dry irony she surely deserves, a diss best served cold. Mrs. America’s implicit argument is that Schlafly does not get enough credit for being one of the best grassroots organizers and political visionaries of the 20th century; that her organization and vision were so toxic doesn’t mean they weren’t also powerful and prescient.

As Schlafly swivels her attention to the ERA, founding the STOP ERA movement—it stands for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”—she latches onto the women’s movement’s (somewhat actual) disdain for homemakers and taps into the not yet gushing wellspring of resentment politics. She becomes a full-throated opponent of the so-called man-hating, abortion-loving, lesbian “libbers,” who are trying to get women drafted, put them on the hook for alimony, allow same-sex marriage, and take away the “privileges” she insists married women already have—even at a time when those same women couldn’t get credit cards or mortgages in their own name. (That women can now have their own lines of credit is thanks to the women’s movement.)

Initially, that movement doesn’t take Schlafly seriously. The ERA is crashing through statehouses, and momentum, political will, and righteousness are on their side! What’s this fringe lady in Illinois gonna do? One of the best things about Mrs. America is how it mostly plays history straight (give or take its winking habit of sprinkling future-famous figures throughout the story, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Paul Manafort). We may know what will happen, but the characters never have a clue. The future is a gaping maw, and they’re flying blind. Betty Friedan, in characteristically confrontational style, thinks they need to debate Schlafly, to snuff her out, but when she does, the debate goes spectacularly wrong. The more savvy and peace-making Steinem, who has just launched Ms., thinks they shouldn’t give her oxygen, which seems reasonable until it becomes clear that Schlafly is too big to be ignored. The leaders of the movement are juggling dozens of political balls, trying to make a difference in numerous ways and places on a wide variety of issues. Meanwhile, Schlafly is steadfastly fixated on her goal and wrangling a group of women who are comparatively similar—white, religious, conservative homemakers—to do it

Schlafly’s side of the story focuses both on the STOP ERA movement and her family, which runs so smoothly because of the help of her single sister-in-law, Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who she alternately pets and abuses, and the black housekeepers she barely thinks about. The individuality and feelings of her nearest and dearest—her gay son, her embarrassed daughter, her sidelined husband—barely give her pause as she pursues the brass ring of power. One of the STOP ERA members, Alice, a fictional composite played by Sarah Paulson, stands in as the best-case version of a Schlaflyite: genuinely disturbed by racism, disinclined to make immoral compromises, uncomfortable with the bending of facts, and ultimately not inclined to view women who disagree with her about one thing as her enemy in all things. She becomes a yardstick against which Schlafly can be measured. Schlafly never measures up, but it doesn’t matter. She keeps winning.

And the women’s movement starts losing. Each episode of the series focuses, in particular, on one character, and six of the nine episodes focus on a woman in the movement. Rep. Shirley Chisholm and her presidential run are the subject of the third episode, which is set at the 1972 Democratic National Convention (the machinations of which were chronicled more clearly, at the time, by Nora Ephron). The episode takes on the disregarding of black women by white feminists as they tack to the center, but though the show is clearly aware of second wave feminism’s racial blind spots, it has a hard time not replicating them. After Chisholm moves to the background, no one replaces her. The show includes a scene in which Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson), one of the few black editors at Ms., pitches a piece about tokenism in the workplace and then has to reassure all her colleagues that she’s not talking about Ms. (She is.) But a handful of moments like this don’t make Margaret a fully developed character, just a racial foil.

Yet in other episodes, Mrs. America gets at a lot in relatively short bursts. A daytime cocktail party in which Friedan, “the mother of the movement,” lurks on the outside, chomping on a drumstick, captures the importance of social dynamics to any political movement, which have a tendency, as they do in many contexts, to revert to high school. One episode late in the season focuses on Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), a pro-ERA Republican—who, like so many of the women in this show, is inadvertently sidelined by her husband’s ambitions—and ends, with surprising poignancy, on the pain of being betrayed by the Republican Party. Another focuses on ACLU lawyer and one of Ms.’s founding editors Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor), who, with her husband, debated the Schlaflys on TV, even as she was struggling with her own sexuality. (The husbands are played by Adam Brody and John Slattery, and the moderator is Bobby Cannavale: There is almost no part in this huge show that is not played by someone recognizable.) This episode, more than any, gets at what it was like to try to live a new, radical life, and how even among people committed wholly to the cause, it could be incredibly difficult.

As successful as Mrs. America is, with the women’s movement in particular, it’s working through a huge amount of material, the stuff of dozens and dozens of histories and—one hopes—future TV series. The concise episodes are more effective than the diffuse treatment the show gives Steinem, who is by far the most famous figure but who never comes quite into focus. It’s as if because we know more about her, the show feels it has to explain less, a lack of specificity that is not aided by Byrne’s accurate but slow and low-key vocal delivery. Martindale’s Abzug, the New York congresswoman who loses her bid for the Senate during this period, is the only woman who is given nearly as much screen time as Steinem, and she does get deeper and more poignant as the show goes on, moving beyond the brassy, hat-wearing caricature into someone being perpetually challenged to do what is right.

One of the things that Mrs. America makes clear is that great acting is its own kind of sympathy. Ullman, Paulson, and Martindale all stand out, but Blanchett most of all. She brings all of her tremendous skill to bear on Schlafly, with a level of precision that makes her ring as clear as a bell. She is so hungry for the power only powerful men can confer that she can’t stop; she will brook no opposition, from the angels of her better nature or from the husband she tells her followers they ought to obey. But Mrs. America and Blanchett, also an executive producer of the show, aren’t up to anything so simple as wanting us to like Phyllis Schlafly—I know I didn’t. They want us to see her, and as more than just a poltergeist, but a woman of tremendous accomplishment, and tremendous misdeeds. Schlafly was an authoritarian. She played fast and loose with facts. She turned a blind eye to colleagues’ affiliations with the Klan. And she was incredibly effective. It’s in the fullness of this understanding that we should judge her. Mrs. America is not swimming in the willy-nilly waters of infinite empathy, but the treacherous ones of infinite complication, where everyone is fully human, and fully capable of doing right and wrong.

There’s a moment in the show’s penultimate episode, set in Houston during 1977’s National Women’s Conference—in Steinem’s words, “the most important event that nobody knows about”—when Schlafly’s lackey Alice sees Steinem run a meeting. It’s with consensus and agreement and compromise, in stark contrast to how Schlafly does things. It, along with the conference more largely, changes Alice’s life; it shows her that there’s another way—that women can come together about some things as they disagree about others and that she no longer needs to live in fear of Schlafly. In a moment like this, I could feel Mrs. America trying to lard on a bit of hope. I can understand the impulse. It’s a disheartening story. The show wants to do a bit of storytelling jujitsu to make Alice’s defection and Schlafly’s disappointment at never getting a seat at the boys’ table temper the extent to which the dreams of the Nixon era (of the Nixon era!), when corrupt presidents left the White House and Americans agreed that, of course, women should be equal under the law, have been deferred. But if you’re looking for a hopeful message in Mrs. America, it’s not in Schlafly’s fate. Some antagonists never get their due.

Instead the hope that’s to be had is in the story’s very bones: Sometimes one woman is all it takes. In the third episode of the series, the Supreme Court has just handed down its ruling on Roe v. Wade. Schlafly, watching the news on TV, turns to her husband and says, simply: “They’re winning.” Mrs. America tells the story of a woman who did as much as anyone to change the fortunes of her side, a side that is now winning so thoroughly that Roe’s overturning seems like it’s just some morning away. What makes Mrs. America so painful is also what should make it bearable: One woman can change the world. If that change isn’t always for the better, maybe next time, it will be.

For more discussion of Mrs. America, listen to the Waves.