When it’s time to tell a story based on historical events focusing on the “heroes” and their “noble” causes seems the logical path to follow. Take for example the feminist fight by the women’s movement to seek the approval of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) in the 70s. The proposed amendment was designed to guarantee “equal legal rights” for all American citizens regardless of sex– covering all sorts of issues related to employment (equal pay, especially), divorce, and property. A fair cause led by female leaders who fought for it against all odds.
But, what if this particular story is told from the point of view of someone who antagonized the Second Wave feminist movement? That’s exactly what the miniseries MRS. AMERICA does in its first episode (“Phyllis”) which is centered around the launch of a conservative women’s group opposed to ERA legislation, commanded by Phyllis Schlafly, a woman of equal parts of intelligence and political malice. ERA had bipartisan support and was destined to collect the required approval of 38 states until Phyllis started a smear campaign stating that the aforementioned amendment would revoke many women’s privileges (they could be drafted to Vietnam’s war or any future conflict, lose protections like alimony and reduce the advantage of winning custody of children). Her conservative rhetoric was complemented later with the inclusion of evangelical organizations and other Christian groups concerned about abortion and gay rights agenda that might be benefited after ERA legislation (curiously, one of Schlafly’s son was a closeted gay).
How an American housewive, born and based in Missouri like Phyllis Schlafly got interested in the conformation of a huge political group of women that rivaled the feminist leaders of their time? Well, Phyllis wasn’t a conventional housewife in the first place. Her early political trajectory included a candidature as a congresswoman from the Republican party (she lost) and direct efforts in the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater (he also lost). According to the events portrayed in the series, Schlafly couldn’t care less about a “women’s matter” such as the fight for ERA. Instead what drove her political passion was to be included in discussions about Defense Affairs and international agreements.
In an extremely important reunion for her, the men in the room subtly humiliated her when they suggested that she should take notes of the talking points as if she were a secretary. And she does, obediently hiding her resentment. They asked about her opinion about ERA, an unimportant subject to her to this point even when Alice Macready (Sarah Paulson), a closer friend, insisted that this was a thing to worry about. In a men’s world, Schlafly was a persuasive and attractive woman to a certain degree without enough credentials to get the recognition she sought to discuss matters of “masculine” interest. But when it was about “woman issues” she could contribute with a much-needed perspective for some men to reject ERA without “looking bad”. For her, it was an opportunity to be widely heard and get credit as an influential political force in conservative circles. This presents a fundamental contradiction in notorious Phyllis’ life and work, and something that made her a fascinating character as much as she is heinous: she finally embodied feminist values as a free, independent, and laborious woman though she used her power, intelligence, and influence to sabotage women causes. She never ceased to follow personal interests wearing the conservative facade of woman and wife that always thanked her husband for “grant her permission” to assist the places where she delivered a speech. Of course, when someone in which such characteristics are performed by one of the best living actress of the world like Cate Blanchett then is inescapable to sympathize at times with Phyllis Schlafly even when you reject everything that she represented.
MRS. AMERICA is a series that provides an insightful recount of certain passages in recent America’s history. It is a detailed observation of the rise and decline of the feminist movement in the country, almost close to achieving the ERA approval until Schlafly and her followers managed to stop it. In the process of that confrontation, we learn that Reagan’s candidacy was favored. This is the first television project created by Dahvi Waller, a screenwriter whose credits include the also prestigious period series MAD MEN (2007-2015). It is reasonable to think in the series as a female response for that show because both are carefully constructed period pieces concerned about American history distinguished by top-notch writing, superb performances, and a tremendous art direction rich in details and symbols.
Composed of ten episodes, Phyllis‘ storyline is just one of many starting points to encompass diverse angles and perspectives of the same events. Each chapter explores a particular female character without neglecting the rest. Among the real-life characters you’ll find: Gloria Steinem (Rosa Byrne), the fresh young face of feminism that sometimes resents being treated as the poster-girl for the movement; Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) who was the first black candidate for a major party’s presidential nomination and also the first woman to run for Democratic Party; Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), member of the US House of representatives who worked directly with presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter; Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), a pioneer for feminism who wrote the seminal book The Feminine Mystique (1963) and also a divisive figure for the new generation of social fighters (her views on lesbianism were controversial and labeled as homophobic); Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), a feminist representative for the Republican party; and Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor), an attorney who challenged Phyllis to assit a live televised debate and she were able to humiliated the Schlaflys (each women was accompanied by their respective husband) after exposing her for citing false cases (one of the indelible moments of the series). Each one of these women, just like Phyllis, are portrayed in a complex way that doesn’t ignore her respective contradictions and the huge differences between them even when they share a common cause.
MRS. AMERICA fills a colorful canvas of collective voices that represented the spirit of feminism distinguished as its Second Wave. However, the best episode of the entire series, the penultimate one (“Houston”), is the most experimental and the one less restricted to historical facts mainly focused on a composite character (Alice Macready). The episode tells the physical and emotional journey (psychedelic at some point) of Phyllis best friend during her participation in the historical National Women’s Conference (1977) celebrated in Houston, Texas which ended to become a life-changing experience to her. Alice understands the hypocritical position she and her friends defended. One of the best television hours of the year.
Over the course of the series, there is an ongoing concern from the characters to change other minds and not conforming themselves to the usual “preaching to the choir”. MRS. AMERICA has a similar purpose. This is an eye-opener released at the right time as a politically charged document that many would dismiss as “liberal propaganda” while others would be worried about the “extreme indulgence” in the treatment of Phyllis Schlafly and the far-right politics she professed. After all, the series is technically about her triumph as much it is about the conquers (and losses) of her feminist opponents. The difference between Phyllis and her political rivals is that her achievements are bittersweet even for herself when she realizes how invisible her efforts are for the people from who she expected some respect and recognition. Worse than losing a battle is to be defeated in victory. It is a dead-end where no one cant moves forward anymore.
The fact that MRS. AMERICA might be equally uncomfortable and polemic for different sides of the political spectrum in the country means that its cultural significance is urgent here and now. But makes no mistake, this work has the heart and the mind in the right convictions. It may leave you a little outraged and sad about the current state of affairs, and how many things haven’t changed at all for women and their struggles. Those same emotions can inspire you to take up the torch and keep fighting.