Whether they hand out the Emmys in a fancy ballroom or just tweet out the winners and send the trophies by FedEx, one thing is certain — Mrs. America will be claiming as many of them as is allowed by law.
It seems odd to say in an era of so much great, must-watch, hunker-down-worthy TV, but FX’s latest all-star miniseries truly breaks through the clutter. Mrs. America has top-notch talent, a storyline that couldn’t be timelier, and a cast of real-life human beings you’ll remember long after you’ve forgotten whatsername from Tiger King.
Really, the only thing that could keep Mrs. America from becoming America’s most talked-about series is the unwise decision Disney made, pre-coronavirus, to premiere this “FX on Hulu” production exclusively on Hulu. FX’s cable viewers who don’t have Hulu will have to wait until later this year. Then again, Mrs. America might just be the thing to convince locked-down families to finally go in on that Hulu-Disney+ bundle. (That $13/month package also comes with something called ESPN that I believe shows Australian Rules Football games on tape delay.)
Mrs. America tells the story of the rise and fall of the Equal Rights Amendment, the campaign to encode full gender parity into the U.S. Constitution. Passage of the E.R.A. was supposed to be the culminating triumph of second-wave feminism. It had bipartisan support. (Hell, Kansas was one of the first states to ratify it!) The E.R.A. would have paved the way for equality between women and men in the workplace, in marriage, in reproductive issues, in military service… and that’s where Phyllis Schlafly comes in.
In a twist that makes Mrs. America more real and enticing, the star of the show is not one of the many feminist icons of that era (more on them in a moment), but rather, a housewife from downstate Illinois who went on the offense and, with the help of her massive mailing list, stopped the E.R.A. just short of the necessary 38 states for ratification. To be sure, Mrs. America devotes at least half of its runtime to telling the stories of Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and other E.R.A. proponents, but by framing the narrative in this way, those women actually spend most of their time on defense.
It’s Schlafly, and more specifically Schlafly Nation, who play offense in Mrs. America. It’s the conservative woman who gets the nicely nuanced, two-time-Oscar-winner star treatment. In Cate Blanchett’s deft performance, we understand better how a tradition-minded but fiercely ambitious woman was able to resist a seemingly irresistible force of her fellow females.
Years before the Moral Majority or Fox News — two male-dominated organizations — came into existence, Schlafly took the unlikely path from 1960s cold warrior to 1970s culture warrior. As Mrs. America tells it, Schafly is called into the office of Senator Barry Goldwater (“Mr. Conservative”) as a defense expert. Whereupon, naturally, one of the men in the room asks her to take notes of their meeting. Without missing a beat, Schlafly walks into the front office to borrow a notepad. She's all smiles around the men, but when the secretary gives her writing implements and addresses her as “Ms. Schlafly,” Phyllis takes out her frustration: “I’m married,” she says, with a frosty smile.
At this point Schlafly is only dimly aware of this E.R.A. that has passed out of Congress. But once she learns that full equality would result in women someday being drafted into the military, with the resulting horrorscape of empty kitchens and barren bedrooms — this was during Vietnam, recall — she activates her network of tradition-minded women. And over the next eight years in state house after state house, as well as the national media, through a colorful sweep of changing fashions and music that are excitingly presented here, the pro- and anti-E.R.A. sides clash. They are proxies, it turns out, for a culture battle that is still going on.
Blanchett excels at showing us Schlafly’s skill at turning a blind eye to sexist Republican men in order to gain their help in pushing her agenda. It could be political naivete on her part — then again, what she ignores can’t slow her down. We see this in her confrontation with another conservative heavyweight, Phil Crane (played by James Marsden), about his support for E.R.A.
“If you’re in favor if this fraudulent amendment, I don’t think you have any business calling yourself a Republican!” she declares. Crane condescendingly explains, “Sometimes we have to vote for laws that are symbolic so that we can get the Dems to join us to pass things more substantive, like tax reform.” Exchanges like this convince Schlafly to give up on D.C. and focus on building her base. She believes (rightly, it turns out) that with enough grassroots support Republicans could have their tax reform bill without having to endorse the E.R.A. The only other person in 1972 who believed that was Ronald Reagan.
What makes Mrs. America so timely isn’t just the obvious head-nod to the centennial celebration of universal woman suffrage — the amendment that actually did make it into the Constitution — but the reminder that feminism has long faced deep opposition within the ranks of women. And not without good reason. Schlafly quotes the line from Freidan’s book The Feminine Mystique calling marriage “a comfortable concentration camp,” and then predicts that if the E.R.A. passes, women will have two jobs — one in the workplace and one at home. What kind of progress is that?
It’s gratifying that showrunner Dahvi Waller, who obviously learned a few things about writing characters from her years on Mad Men, has put so much thought into telling the story of the Stop E.R.A. movement. As we see in Mrs. America, Schlafly was never fighting a lonely battle. Her coffee klatches were always well-attended, she was a TV favorite, pulled in piles of money, and became a player in the men’s game of politics without having to leave Alton, Illinois.
Clearly, though, there’s something self-contradictory about a woman professing to be happy with her home life, married to a successful businessman and big-time GOP donor (the always-watchable John Slattery), who is at the same time jet-setting around America spreading her message and basically upstaging everyone around her. Schlafly’s mailing list of thousands of donors makes her a force to be reckoned with, and she knows it. Or rather, Blanchett projects that knowingness; whether the real Phyllis Schlafly saw that her juggernaut put her into conflict with her hubby, the old boys’ club, and other ambitious women in her movement, I couldn’t say. But it adds depth to her character here. (Most of the women in Mrs. America are based on real people, with one exception: Alice Macray, played by Sarah Paulson, is a composite character. Unlike the feminists, most anti-libbers didn’t write memoirs for future screenwriters to consult.)
Of course, the pro-E.R.A. side isn’t as unified as some of the hazier histories of that era would lead you to believe. I’m not even going to pretend to do this part of Mrs. America justice, because I don’t think most people reading this need to be told to watch Rose Byrne breathe life into Gloria Steinem, or see Tracey Ullman in one of her uncanniest star turns as second-wave pioneer Betty Freidan, or enjoy Uzo Aduba playing the unbought, unbossed 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. And what more does anyone need to say other than Margo Martindale IS Bella Abzug? (Here’s a rundown of the star talent gracing Mrs. America’s first four episodes.)
These are strong personalities and they do not mix well. Abzug, a polished congressional insider by the time the E.R.A. landed on her desk, wants Steinem on the national stage. The founder of Ms. Magazine enjoys the spotlight, but taking up a major political cause raises the stakes considerably,
This makes the casting of Byrne, who co-starred alongside brassy Glenn Close in FX’s Damages, such an inspired choice to play Steinem. As she did on Damages, Byrne shows us a somewhat timid but strong-willed young woman growing into the leadership role that destiny, and Bella Abzug, have assigned her. Each episode of Mrs. America revolves around one of the lead characters’ stories, and the second hour is devoted to how Steinem’s advocacy for legalized abortion gives her the wherewithal to take on the bigger game of E.R.A.
The people who designed the sets, the hair, the fashions, and the score for Mrs. America should all get Emmys. This is a fully immersive docudrama, and if the dialogue gets a little explicatey at times, there is a tremendous amount of relevant history to cover here, and nine episodes barely cover it.
The first three episodes of Mrs. America drop on Hulu April 15th, with a new episode every Wednesday through May 22.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.