The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was first introduced by activists in 1921 and was nearly passed in the 1970s; incredibly it was never successful. The amendment asserted that equality under law could not be denied on the basis of sex, creating a culture war that still simmers to this day.
Mrs. America, the new FX series streaming on Hulu, investigates why it fell apart and what happened to the women on either side of the fight. The nine-part limited series largely follows Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), a conservative activist who branded feminists as angry, unsatisfied women whilst battling men to work her way into politics.
Mrs. America tells the story of how the ‘STOP ERA’ spread across America, assisted by conservative housewives and armed with baked goods. Their argument was the amendment would rescind their freedom to be a housewife and to raise children without having to work. Their main argument was that women may be drafted for the armed service, a shocking thought for them.
Blanchett will inevitably win an Emmy for her role (if we’re ever allowed outside our houses to enjoy such awards shows). Schlafly is a paradox in herself, a wife on an Illinois lawyer (John Slattery playing his Mad Men character Roger Sterling, but a little more Midwestern), she is ambitious and is only supported when her husband thinks she won’t win. She appears on a TV politics show with Republican representative Phil Crane (James Marsden) who reminds her to smile in that patronising way men do. She is the prime example of a woman who needs the ERA. She is smart and beautiful, fiercely ambitious and educated as well as a woman could be in the era. But she is held back by men who ask her to take notes instead of lead the debate, held back by her husband and the women in the hairdressers. She isn’t the heroine of the show, neither is she the villain, but the writers appreciate how forceful she was.
Although the series centres on Schlafly’s pursuit, it also delves into the women’s movement and the formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Those with even the smallest amount of feminist knowledge will likely recognise the characters, which include author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), lawyer Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash), politician Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) and revolutionary journalist Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne).
While every episode centres on a different character, it all comes back to Phyllis. By changing perspective each episode you start to see how the women all view each other, even those who are on the same side. Focusing on Phyllis— however good Cate Blanchett is— feels like a missed opportunity. Phyllis never changes throughout the 70s; her dogged determination never wavers no matter the political landscape around her. Her opponents come from a varied walk of life, with different backgrounds and different reasons for their campaigns, to not spend more time with them feels like a disservice to feminist history.
Shirley Chisholm, especially, feels brushed over in the series. She was the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black candidate to mount a presidential campaign. She is a figure many may not have much knowledge on, so ignoring her story and the way she was discarded, is not only hurtful to her, but also to the marginalised who to this day are still struggling to push the movement into the mainstream.
Mrs. America, created and written by Mad Men screenwriter-producer Dahvi Waller, and co-produced and mostly co-directed by Anna Bowden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel), at times feels like a heist picture. Iconic 70s feminists lock themselves in rooms and plan how they can break into the patriarchal vault. Do they slowly work from the inside or do they just blow their way in, unconcerned about where the debris lands? Think Prison Break meets The West Wing meets The Handmaid’s Tale.
The series is smart to not back away from showing the white feminism of the entitled characters. No matter how good their intentions are, there is no doubting this era suffered from being entitled and oblivious to the alienating of their African-American sisters. Sadly, the show also suffers from alienating the African-American characters in favour of spending more time with their white leaders.
The show recreates the aesthetic of the period with a truth that never feels like parody, or a romanticisation of the era. Everything from the frumpy pastel outfits to the set design feels truthful. The wink-wink name drops of people who would later go on to make a huge impact on the country (for better and for worse) just about avoids being cheesy (look out for Mrs Ginsberg). Some of the speeches are a little long, but it’s so well acted you’ll never become bored. At the hands of a weaker cast and directors, Mrs. America could have slid into a preachy educational visit through American legal history.
Mrs. America, despite its flaws, is an engaging show that will be a reminder in how far, and how little America has gone. Although screen time is dedicated to one side, it fairly depicts the positives and negatives in both fights. Even more noticeable Schlafly is introduced to Roger Stone and Paula Manafort, both of whom played a significant part in the Trump campaign. That’s not the only parallel, the monologue states that “We select our leaders first by eliminating women,” something modern politics only knows too well. Schlafly, who died in 2016, praised Donald Trump in her final book and the president spoke at her funeral. You can be forgiven for skipping Mrs. America if you’ve had enough of conservative rhetoric and the Fox News narrative, at times it’s a little too close to home.
Mrs. America is a well-acted and thoughtful depiction of the fight for equal rights. It’s powerful in its honesty about how little has changed for women. The series is a stark reminder that the fight is not over, women still earn 75 cents to every dollar a man makes, anti-feminist conservatories still tarnish women with the cartoonish stereotypes Phyllis did and America is still not ready for a woman president (let alone a WOC). Never forget how valuable politics is and how high stakes it can be for marginalised minorities.
Mrs America is now available to stream in the USA on Hulu
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy