Television

Mrs. America’s Showrunner on the Show’s Lessons and Its Detractors

“I think I’ve created a human character, but not a sympathetic character.”

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America, with "Exit Interview" logo in the corner.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FX Networks.

FX’s Mrs. America is the story of a backlash. In 1971, when the show begins, women’s rights was a bipartisan issue with broad cultural support, and the Equal Rights Amendment seemed poised to enshrine that progress in the Constitution. But instead of becoming the law of the land, the ERA became a battleground, led on one side by movement feminists like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Shirley Chisholm and on the other by the far-right national security wonk and Illinois homemaker Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly, played in the series by Cate Blanchett, almost single-handedly defeated the ERA, politicizing previously apolitical women with partisan culture-war tactics that are still with us.

On the occasion of the finale, we spoke with Dahvi Waller, the series’s showrunner, writer, and producer, about its resonances with the present, whether it was too sympathetic to Schlafly, and the time the vegan Tracey Ullman, playing Betty Friedan, had to chomp on some barbecue.

Willa Paskin: The show was conceived before the 2016 election, when everyone thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. How did the results of the election change the shape of the show?

Dahvi Waller: It was supposed to be a show about a specific battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, and then after the election I realized I wanted to tell a much broader story that illuminated how we got to where we are today. It’s funny, when I had first sold the show, I thought, This is going to be tough, having our way in be Phyllis. But then the story became “How did we get to be so divided, and what happened to the Republican Party, and the ascendancy of the new right, culminating in 2016?” Having Phyllis as the way in made telling that story really easy. She is the main character of that story.

How did you pick the characters besides Phyllis that you would focus on? It strikes me that one side was an embarrassment of riches in terms of characters, and the other side … was not.

It was very easy on Phyllis’ side: She was the main character, and there were no other leaders in her group. On the other side, there’s not enough room for all the amazing, complex characters. So on that side I really followed the politics of it. The National Women’s Political Caucus was a political arm of the women’s movement. They were the ones who were very focused on the ERA battle. I followed the founders of that group—Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem. I knew that I wanted to tell the story of the death of moderate Republicanism and certainly pro-choice Republicans, so that brought Jill Ruckelshaus, who was one of the Republican founding members, into the development process. The fact that Brenda Feigen Fasteau debated Phyllis Schlafly—that was the other way I chose my characters: Who actually interacted with Phyllis? I guess some people might have created a fictional debate between Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly because it makes for great television. But I really wanted to follow the true story.

Was there anyone in particular it hurt not to be able to include, or to include more of?

One of the problems with the National Women’s Political Caucus was that it was a lot of white feminists. There were no black feminists who debated Phyllis Schlafly, no women of color. So there are a lot of amazing women who, if I were doing a series only about the women’s movement, would be included. I think Flo Kennedy is a great example of someone who, if there was a way to do an episode where we went on a tangent, I would have loved to delve deeper into. It really speaks to the scarcity of shows centered on women on TV, that there are so many stories that are left to tell. All of these women should have their own shows or movies, because their male counterparts do! Like, Gary Hart has his own movie. Why doesn’t Shirley Chisholm?

Shirley Chisholm is the center of the third episode of the series, and it lets you address, early on, the racial blind spots and mistakes of the movement. But it’s still a hard needle to thread, being aware of those blind spots but not repeating them.

Yeah, how do you not repeat the mistakes of the feminist leaders 45 years later, while still telling a story about the mistakes that they made? Part of it is that we’re able to call out those mistakes in our storytelling. The Shirley episode speaks to those divisions and blind spots, and there was no way I wanted to tell this story without it. But it was definitely a bit of a puzzle to figure out how to weave Shirley’s story when there is no direct intersection with Phyllis’.

There were two stories I wanted to thread through the series: One was the death of Republican feminism, and the other was the birth of intersectional feminism. I don’t think you can have a show about the women’s movement and not talk about intersectional feminism, not just when it comes to race, but to sexuality too. Embracing a lesbian rights agenda was also a big fight that raged through the 1970s, and we wanted to tell that story as well, which is why we introduced the characters of Midge Costanza and Jean O’Leary in Episode 7, late in the series. Would we have loved to have them in Episode 2? Sure! It’s great when all your characters are in the first two episodes! But that’s not what happened. Those are the challenges to telling stories based on true events.

Tell me then about Sarah Paulson’s Alice, who is a composite character. Who is she based on?

There are not many public figures in the anti-ERA movement, other than Rosemary Thomson and Lottie Beth Hobbs. But I really wanted to represent the everyday homemakers who made up Phyllis’ army. They’re all over the biography that Carol Felsenthal wrote about Schlafly. There was a homemaker that I spoke to, one of the Schlafly Eagles, who really just admired Phyllis and felt she was her Joan of Arc. I also read an article that really interested me about a neighbor of Phyllis’ who, for 25 years, she says she polished her silver and lived her life the way Phyllis prescribed. And then she had a real awakening and ended up joining the National Organization for Women and opening up a pro-ERA headquarters in Alton, Illinois, across the street from Fred Schlafly’s law firm. Which is a real finger to the Schlaflys! She was part of the inspiration for Alice’s composite character.

I’m curious if you thought the show was for a particular audience, and if you did, if you were trying to write against the knee-jerk reaction of that imagined audience. With the anti-ERA group in particular, were you trying to make characters it would be hard to reflexively hate?

I didn’t write for a specific audience. But from the start I had no interest in creating characters who were either perfect angels or monsters. I wanted to humanize everyone. I think there is a real difference between humanizing a character and making them sympathetic. I also think there’s an important distinction to be made between writing a sympathetic character and writing an unapologetic character who sometimes you feel sympathy for when they are experiencing injustice. I think I’ve created a human character, but not a sympathetic character.

We’re talking around the thread of criticism that the show is too sympathetic to Schlafly. What did you make of that?

I understand where that’s coming from. Particularly if you lived through the time. But I want to understand how we got to where we are. And I think to understand that, you have to understand why someone like Phyllis Schlafly appealed to so many women. And if she’s a mustache-twirling villain, you’re not going to understand that. I didn’t want to have my head buried in the sand.

What did you find intriguing about Phyllis, from the start? What made you want to make a show about her?

When she was first pitched to me as a central character, she was pitched as “She’s the biggest anti-feminist, but she’s also really liberated!” And that wasn’t that interesting to me. But when I started reading about her, l learned that her main passion for the 20 years before she took up the anti-ERA campaign was defense and national security. What makes a woman who wants to be part of a very traditional boys club suddenly shift to women’s issues? That mystery was something I was really interested in. She has these characteristics that we generally associate with strong-willed feminist women and yet she’s fighting so hard to keep women oppressed, and that disconnect, there’s a lot of drama there.

There’s this moment in the show that’s almost the “aha!” moment for Schlafly, where she’s in this meeting with Barry Goldwater, talking about national defense, and he asks her to take notes. She goes out to get a pen, and the secretary calls her “Ms. Schlafly,” instead of “Mrs. Schlafly,” and it seems like it’s at that moment she decides she’s going to take on the ERA. She goes back into the meeting and just rails on it. What’s happening in that sequence?

The inspiration for that scene actually came from a footnote in the biography that was written about her by Donald Critchlow, in which it talks about this Goldwater meeting that she attended with a bunch of national security hawks, and in the footnotes it says that the notes from the meeting are in her personal archive. I was like, well, “Why was she the one taking notes?” I think that’s the moment in which Phyllis realizes, not consciously, that the only way she will be heard and listened to is when she talks about women’s issues.

But what’s going on with the secretary?

Something we play with in this series is this ambiguity: How much is Phyllis’ opportunism and how much is sincere ideology and how much of it is childhood trauma? And I think the truth is that it’s somewhere in between those first two things. So it’s not enough that she gets sent out of a room and she has to find a way back in and get the men to listen to her. The slap in the face is this younger secretary. This was the time when the term Ms. was just starting to be widely used. Now it’s used all the time, but it wasn’t really popular until the early ’70s. And the fact that even in Sen. Goldwater’s office—and he’s such a right-wing politician—even his secretary is using this very modern feminist label really irks Phyllis. It makes her realize, Oh, they’re winning the culture war. And that, I think, genuinely does bother her.

I’m so happy you mentioned that, her ideology versus her opportunism, because I wanted to ask you about it. The show makes the case that what Phyllis is really after is power. She is gutted, in the conclusion, not to get a seat on the Reagan Cabinet, because that is what she has really been fighting for. I think this quest—the woman who wants power, deserves power, is denied power—has a much more bipartisan appeal than an ideological one would. Even liberal women can relate to Phyllis trying to get a seat at the table. I’m curious if you think you soft-pedaled her ideological stance because it would have made her too odious.

I think if the series was set in the ’50s and ’60s and followed Phyllis when she was fighting communism, it would all be Phyllis the ideologue. But I don’t believe she was super ideological about the ERA. It really struck me when I listened to her do interviews or speeches or read her writing: She gets most animated and the ideology feels most pure when she’s talking about the Cold War. She found ways to link the feminist movement to communism to make herself feel better about spending so much time on it, but the ERA is not where she gets most passionate. In fact many, many times when she was interviewed during the ’70s and they’d ask her about the ERA, she’s like, “I hope this thing can be put to bed so I get back to what I’m really concerned about, which is communism!” She’s constantly trying to pivot back: “I just hope this whole thing’s over!” She was so angry about the ERA extension that she literally threw a gala on the original deadline to pretend the extension had never happened, like someone who’s willing it not to be true. It’s not that we were soft-pedaling the ideology—that’s just not where the ideology comes in for her. It felt like this thing she was doing to get this other thing that she wanted. Which makes it all the more tragic, as a feminist. I would’ve felt better if she really actually cared.

Although that would’ve been a harder character to write, right?

Yes, yes. Like you said, liberal women can relate to a woman wanting power. So, interestingly, it’s the opportunist in her who is more relatable.

So the thing about the show is it’s a show about how they win.

It’s a tragedy! This is a show about a successful backlash movement. Absolutely.

Right, a tragedy. But towards the end—I’m thinking of the Alice character in particular—I felt like you guys were making some moves, like we know this is a tragedy—

[laughing] But we don’t want you to slit your wrists and never protest again?

Yes, exactly. Were you thinking about it like that?

A little bit. If I had never read about a neighbor of Phyllis’ who joined NOW and opened an ERA headquarters, I would never have done anything like that. But is there some wish fulfillment in the character of Alice? Of course. On a very deep, basic emotional level, the show is about how we respond to change and our fear of change and why change is so threatening to some people. In the writers room, we’d like to think that people are capable of change. We would like to think that some people are able to process and get over their fear of change so that things that threaten them maybe won’t be as threatening. So, while it was all based on true events, yes, of course, there’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment. At the same time, Pamela has a very tragic ending and never escapes her controlling husband and world. Not all the characters have happy endings. The twist in this tragedy is that the woman who wins also loses because she is a woman. If Phyllis were a man, she straight up would have been in Reagan’s Cabinet. Everybody loses.

The show has all these contemporary figures pop up, people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paul Manafort. How did you decide who to include?

For the most part, we only chose to include cameos of famous people if we ran right into them in our research. Shirley MacLaine was at the meeting between the women’s caucus and Sen. McGovern and wrote about it for the New York Times. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also invited to the meeting at Justice with Stan Pottinger that Gloria and Brenda were invited to. Dick Cheney was deputy chief of staff for President Ford when Jill was appointed to run the commission, so it’s plausible that he would be in the White House for that first scene at the top of “Jill.”

The only exception to that rule was Manafort and Roger Stone. While we know they helped run Reagan’s campaign, we do not know if they crossed paths with Phyllis in 1980, or whether they were in Illinois for the primary election. But it was a shorthand way to dramatize the parallels between the 1980 election and 2016 for audiences who grew up after 1980, who have no idea what Reagan meant in 1980.

There are a lot of parallels. Did that ever feel hard, heavy?

I remember one moment that was particularly difficult was during the Kavanaugh hearings. We were breaking the story for the Jill episode, and one of our writers has found this unbelievable story of the 20 secretaries that Shirley Chisholm spoke out about, about the sexual misconduct on the Hill. Breaking that episode during the Kavanaugh hearings was just a really tough time. We used to joke that the theme is “women really can’t win.” And then we would bake a cake that said “women can’t win” because we’re women, and then we’d laugh about it. I’m so lucky. I found the greatest writing staff. We laughed so much. And they read all the books with me and slogged through the research. I mean, it’s not easy to listen to Marjorie Spruill’s book on audiotape, but we did it! On all our commutes.

Wait, did you assign homework?

I don’t want to cop to this—no one is going to want to work for me!—but my dad is a professor, and I may have given some homework in the first few weeks. Like, “You’re in charge of one year in the ’70s for a little book report on what happened that year in pop culture, and everyone take a character and go dive deep and do a report on that character and present it.” We joke about how everyone got a minor in women’s studies writing the show.

There’s this visual reference to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman in the last episode, and there are other references to ’70s films scattered throughout. Could you just tell me a little about the show’s stylistic antecedents?

Side-by-side photos of Jeanne Dielman peeling a potato in the kitchen and Phyllis peeling an apple in the kitchen.
Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman in Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Criterion Collection and FX Networks.

So when Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck came aboard to direct the pilot, we agreed we really wanted the show to feel like it was filmed in the ’70s, as opposed to a show about the ’70s. And so a lot of inspiration came from movies like Nashville, All the President’s Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Jeanne Dielman, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. What Chantal Akerman was doing in the ’70s, it really spoke to just what the feminists were fighting to liberate women from.

We also really wanted to capture the contrast between Phyllis’ world and the feminists’— how they exist in the same time period and yet they feel like they’re in a very different world. So the color palette is different and the pacing is different for each of those worlds: Phyllis is often neutral and centered in the middle of the frame and shot in a studio style, while the feminists are off-center and shot on handheld.

Were any of the women particularly hard to get a handle on?

Gloria Steinem was a real enigma. She’s not your classic social-change movement leader. She really didn’t want to be in the spotlight. One thing you learn when you’re writing is you never want a passive main character, and in some ways she wasn’t active because she didn’t want the spotlight. And also, many of the ways in which she was revolutionary were in her personal life, which is why we included it. It was really revolutionary in 1972 to say, I’m turning 40, and I’m not getting married. I’m just gonna have boyfriends and not have kids. But that’s really about the personal being political.

The Brenda Feigen Fasteau episode is maybe the most “the personal is political” one. It really gets at how hard it is to live a radical life, even when you’re a radical.

I’ve always had very progressive values and ideals, but there are aspects of my life that are very traditional in terms of how I live it. And I’m really fascinated by that tension within all of us, between our belief system and what we’ve actually internalized from ten thousand million years of patriarchy.

I feel like I could go through each woman individually, but you did such a good job with Betty, who is so easy to caricaturize.

I spoke to a lot of second-wave feminists, and everyone was like, “Betty was so difficult! Betty was impossible!” I heard this from everyone. Literally everyone. And in all the writing you read the same: Betty was so difficult. I don’t know, maybe we had distance, but the writers, we grew to really love Betty. I would do an impression of Betty in the room. She was my favorite character to do an impression of, with her poor eyesight and her braless granny dresses. Even though she’s very narcissistic, I understand where she’s coming from! She really felt like she was being sidelined, and she didn’t understand why she wasn’t relevant and why she wasn’t connecting with younger generations. She did really want the spotlight, and for it to go on the woman who doesn’t seem to want it, who is so pretty, it just felt so human. And I love the fact that her children really love her, that she’s a great mom. We really wanted to show that these women were, contrary to the negative stereotyping that Phyllis put forward, amazing wives and mothers and friends.

There’s that moment at the barbecue with Betty standing on the side, eating a drumstick, and there’s Gloria and Bella rolling their eyes about her.

And, you know, Tracey is vegan, she doesn’t eat meat. She was like, “I’m taking one for the team and spitting it out.” That scene in particular, that’s the high school cafeteria, that’s the politics of any social movement.

I know you made a conscious decision not to speak with the subjects of the show, but it sounds like you talked to a lot of other second wavers?

I’m circling the perimeter. I definitely spoke with women who knew Gloria and Bella and Betty very well. And even when we were interviewing casting directors, someone walked in and she’s like, “I drove Bella once to a meeting.” I couldn’t believe how many people these women had touched. So you’d just be talking to someone casually and they’d be like, “Oh, my mother interviewed Betty Friedan, and she was like this.”

Have you heard from anyone who was in it, since it’s been out?

I have not personally heard from anyone. I know Jill Ruckelshaus did an interview about the show. That was really great. It’s fun to hear what we intuited right from the primary sources.

One of the things that’s embedded in the show is this idea that so much of this is a lost history. This huge women’s conference happened in Houston, and no one remembers it! So it may be weird to say something seems like more lost history than other parts, but the Jill Ruckelshaus storyline really felt that way to me.

When we discovered Jill Ruckelshaus, we were like, “Oh, my God, there were Republican feminists?” And she was so famous at the time! We loved how she was a different kind of feminist. I wanted the show to be about all the different ways in which you can be a woman, and Jill really spoke to that. Jill is in these group meetings with the feminists, and they’re all arguing, but that’s OK. There’s still such a clear, deep respect, even though they disagree on so many things. And I long for that time. I wish there was a way back to that period of bipartisanship and decency and stability in politics.

What do you hope people take from the show?

I never want to be prescriptive about what people take from the show. I love when they just tell me what they took from the show. But I do hope that people feel galvanized, that there’s a realization of how fragile our rights are, and that we have to keep fighting for what’s important to us and against injustice. We can never be complacent.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To hear Met curator Sheena Wagstaff discuss the process of creating an exhibition, listen to Working.