The scariest stories are, to me, about 1950s housewives. They don’t have to be intentionally scary; they don’t even have to be about the housewife. Simply the reminder of what life was like for women in America so recently makes my hair stand on end, as their limited options, monotonous chores, and clinging children makes for an environment that would certainly make me whither.
Mrs. America reminded me that I should probably move that time period forward a few decades, because the ‘70s weren’t much better. There’s a throwaway reference to women needing a man’s signature to get a credit card, but that’s not the kind of thing I can throw away. My blood ran cold at the idea, quickly extrapolating what that meant for a woman’s ability to live her own life.
Which is really the entire battlefield of Mrs. America: what is the perceived ideal for a woman’s life and what do we need to make it happen. Lines are drawn around the Equal Rights Amendment, which drew major figures from second wave feminism and their intellectual (if ideologically opposed) equals.
It’s strange how little I know of this history. It had a profound impact on my life yet I only know the names Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm in passing. The rest of the people and the actual events, well, they may as well be made up. This simply isn’t the sort of thing they teach in school, nor does it get prominent museums that your parents schlep you to as a child. No, this is the kind of thing that’s preserved more colloquially, aka in film, television, and books.
How accurate Mrs. America is to history obviously isn’t something I can speak to, but it doesn’t do much to hide its narrative devices. Each episode focuses on a person, although that gets loose once we move on to the more minor players. The ubiquitous presence of Phyllis Schlafly, the head of the anti-ERA movement and played by the always wonderful Cate Blanchett, is impossible to miss, and some have interpreted this focus as being unjustly sympathetic. It’s true that, of all the real-life figures, she is the one we get to know best, but I’ll argue for the knife twist they put on her story later.
My larger point here is that Mrs. America isn’t giving the pretense of reality. They’re twisting and manipulating events as clearly as they are stacking the cast with recognizable faces that’s sure to take you out of the moment. I mean, besides Blanchett they got Rose Byrne for Steinem, Uzo Aduba for Chisholm, Margo Martindale for Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman for Betty Friedan, Elizabeth Banks for Jill Ruckelshaus, and Melanie Lynskey and Sarah Paulson as hovering supporters of Schlafly. It’s impossible to get through a scene of this show without going “hey, her!”, and I don’t think that was an accident. This is as much a meditation on the lasting effect of these people as it is a tale of their accomplishments and failures, so no, you shouldn’t really be looking at any of this as reality.
It’s easy to miss this manipulation under all the gloss. This is a swift, often funny series, one that the housewives Schlafly leads would say fixed its face up perfectly. Most individual episodes hit on a particular aspect of the movement in a way that textures all that comes later (Aduba’s spotlight as Chisholm comes in episode 3, but it’s impossible to forget the movement’s shortcomings on issues of race after). All of these snapshots meld into a portrait of the thing as a whole, a multifaceted, unwieldy thing that, yes, gets its heart and soul from Schlafly.
I think of myself as a feminist and a moderately progressive woman by today’s standards, which for the ‘70s puts me squarely in line with the pro-ERA side that is, by all accounts, the heroes of this story. So I was squirming just as much as anyone as the series lured me into Schlafly’s world. The bait was just too much. It’s Blanchett and Paulson and Lynskey, all performers I love dearly and would apparently follow into the darkest recesses of humanity. Their every decision is perfect, from Lynskey’s hilariously sharp neuroticisms to Paulson’s show-stopping drug trip through supposed pro-ERA foes (she just had the munchies!). But again, the gloss keeps the ugly truth under the surface: they’re radicals in their own way, breaking society’s rules in order to maintain them.
Steinem spits it out bluntly several times: Schlafly is a feminist. But no matter how many times you hear it, it doesn’t hit home until the series’ final moments, where Schlafly wins the ERA war but loses her career battle. Instead of being given the spoils she’s put back in the kitchen, quietly cutting an apple in what many have pointed out is an homage to Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (I’ve not seen it, but I immediately put it on my Criterion Channel watchlist). No matter, the point is clear whether you’ve seen Akerman’s film or not. This isn’t enough for Schlafly, not after she’s had a taste of real political power. All of the women in this series got a taste of something more, as did women at large at the time. That taste only whet their appetite, so even if it takes ten, fifteen, twenty years to regroup, they’ll come back fighting for even more. And that progress, even if it is slow, is how civil rights are won.
So congrats Schlafly. You lost.