In an age when many women consider themselves feminists, “Mrs. America” takes us back to an age when many women didn’t, and to an era where many actively opposed feminist goals.
The new FX show on Hulu tells the story of the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and, more generally, the story of second-wave feminism and the movement’s key players. Each episode is titled after an individual that that specific installment pays special attention to. The first three episodes are, respectively, “Phyllis [Schlafly],” “Gloria [Steinem]” and “Shirley [Chisholm],” after the ERA’s main opponent, the outspoken feminist and the 1972 presidential candidate.
The series focuses mostly on Schlafly, who organized housewives across the nation to stop states’ ratification of the ERA. Both in real life and in the series, Schlafly argued that the ERA would allow women to be drafted and take away alimony and Social Security benefits for divorcees and widows respectively. These claims persuaded many homemakers to oppose the ERA and take political action.
On the opposite end, feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are at first portrayed as celebrating the ERA’s passage by Congress. They feel victorious as they wait for the required 38 states to ratify the amendment but sense trouble when Schlafly starts advocating against it.
“Mrs. America” assumes that viewers pretty much understand what the ERA is and are on the side of feminists. As such, the series takes more time depicting the political strategy of the feminists. The heightened focus on this side’s political moves seriously slows down the pace of the show. More time is spent depicting feminists rubbing elbows with representatives and candidates than on the change the movement sought to create and why it sought this change. This made the show boring sometimes, though I suppose it might be interesting if you are a political science major who already knows a lot about feminist history.
However, the show does a good job of exposing divides within the feminist movement and how these differences limited its effectiveness. Of special note is the struggle between idealism and pragmatism. Some of the feminists’ hesitancy about the viability of Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for the presidency demonstrated how the movement had to make smart moves in the game of politics: The feminists often reject their ideal choice in favor of a more practical one that will allow them the possibility of accomplishing more of their agenda.
Nevertheless, the biggest selling point of “Mrs. America” is Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Schlafly. The talented actress and the show’s writing make the character likeable enough for contemporary women who might not agree with Schlafly’s views. For example, “Mrs. America” tries to cultivate some modern sympathy for Schlafly when she is told by a man to smile more or when she realizes that her husband never believed she might win a certain election that she ran in. An especially frustrating scene sees the highly educated Schlafly go to advise members of Congress on nuclear policy and then being asked by a man if she can take notes at the meeting because “you probably have the best penmanship of anyone here.”
But “Mrs. America” can’t have it both ways. Schlafly can’t be “enlightened” in the same way that the feminists are and still bring homemade bread and jam to representatives in her home state of Illinois to convince them not to deny homemakers the “privileges” that voting for the ERA would take away (Schlafly and her fellow homemakers did in fact do this in real life.) It’s confusing to viewers why Schlafly subscribes to this ideology. She was a well-known conservative, but she was also college-educated at a time when many women weren’t and even went on to earn her law degree. Her critics pointed out the irony of Schlafly’s roles as a touring speaker, newsletter editor and political activist while Schlafly considered herself a full-time homemaker.
Despite — or maybe because of — the contradictory nature of Schlafly’s character, “Mrs. America” is still interesting to watch. The series provides a modern, nuanced look at 1970s feminism, if not a fully accurate depiction of Schlafly. “Mrs. America” might not be a hit, but it definitely isn’t a miss.
Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.