Polished Regression: A Review of ‘Mrs. America’ and its historical setting

July 12, 2020, 10:34 a.m.

The Hulu series “Mrs. America” chronicles the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s. The series title is an allusion to the prominent anti-feminist and conservative thinker Phyllis Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett. At the forefront of the series, Blanchett brings a villainous undertone to Schlafly, always hidden beneath a bright smile and elaborate hairdos. Each episode has a focus on a different character, usually the namesake of the episode. Two episodes are not centered around their titular characters. Those episodes are “Houston,” which centers around the Houston feminist convention, and “Reagan,” which follows the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. While the series by no means praises Schlafly or her motivations, it does offer a humanizing glance under all the polyester, hairspray, and bigotry.

Unlike the dissection of Schlafly, many of her political opponents, the feminists, go unexplored. Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), one of the Women’s Liberation movement’s critical members, and the first Black woman from a major party to run for president, is featured in one of the best episodes of the series. In it, she struggles to hold onto influence and power at the Democratic Convention that concluded her historic run for president. However, after this episode, which beautifully explores the divisions between progressives and moderates within the Democratic Party, Chisholm gets very little screen time. She only appears briefly for the rest of the series as if she played no part in the story’s main plot. Regrettably, the television format is unable to follow all of the interesting characters in the story. Despite a seeming effort to incorporate intersectional feminism into the TV show with the appearance of Flo Kennedy and Chisholm, they may have fallen down by not continuing to follow Chisholm throughout her career as she did remain an active participant in the feminist movement and the battle for the ERA even after she left Congress.

This is not to say that all of the feminists get buried in the series. Both Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), who was widely accredited with kickstarting the Women’s Lib movement, and Bella Abzug, tragically and side-splittingly played by Margo Martindale, have finally gotten their time in the limelight. The two work as foils for each other throughout the series. While Abzug represents the more progressive and radical feminists, and Friedan being a more traditional feminist, they frequently and comedically butt heads.

While “Mrs. America” takes an ultra-personal approach to the feminist movement and its opponents, it also broadly looks at shifting American politics and the birth of the religious right in Schlafly’s hands and her infamous mailing list. In the episode “Jill,” Elizabeth Banks plays an empowered but fading Jill Ruckelshaus whose beloved Republican Party grows increasingly conservative. At one point, Ruckelshaus meets Schlafly in a bar before a debate. In this scene, foretelling a new Republican Party, Schlafly details a beautifully sinister vision of the Republican Party’s doom; made all the more chilling by Blanchett’s powerful performance. Representing an older and more moderate Republican Party, Ruckelshaus jousts with Schlafly who eerily predicts the Reagan Revolution and a new evangelical right.

Some historians and scholars credit Schlafly and her grassroots campaign with affecting this revolution. Stanford history professor Jennifer Burns said, “Her organization was able to bring a lot of different religious groups into conservative political action.” Interestingly, before Schlafly and other Catholic conservative thinkers of the mid-to-late ’70s began speaking with evangelical Protestants, Evangelicals were not anti-Roe v. Wade. At the 1971 Southern Baptist convention, church leadership passed resolutions affirming a woman’s right to have an abortion. According to Burns, “Protestant Americans perceived abortion as a Catholic issue before Catholic advocates were able to convince [the Protestants] that abortion was a sin.” During the ’70s, Catholic activists like Schlafly were awakening and mobilizing the large base of evangelical voters, by the time Reagan came around in the ’80s, the Protestants mobilized heavily.

Schlafly was an instrumental part of the conservative movement and the substantial changes the Republican party underwent during the ’70s. When the ERA first passed Congress it had full bipartisan support. Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter all endorsed it. However, during this time, the culture of the country moved toward the right as a response to the feminist and Black Power movements. Because of this, as Professor Burns said, “[Right-wing voters] pushed out moderate representatives and moderate candidates.”

“Mrs. America” largely portrays Schlafly’s battle against the ERA as a stepping stone to positions of more influence and power. From the beginning, the show emphasizes that Schlafly’s main passion was defense policy, a topic on which she is incredibly knowledgeable. The show’s thesis is that she did not care about the ERA and was using it to secure a position in the Reagan cabinet. However, Professor Burns said, “I do think she believed in [her cause]. I do think she believed very firmly. Sometimes a lot is made of the paradox of her as sort of leading the life of a career woman while making these very strong statements about what women could and should do, or what might be best for them.” Burns added, “I think she comes [at that with] a very well developed theological understanding that men and women are created differently, [and] should do different things.”

However, Burns also believes that while Schlafly wasn’t indifferent to the ERA, she likely was using women’s issues to raise her profile among conservatives. Burns explained that “Schlafly used a strategy called strategic maternalism, which is claiming expertise in the areas of the home or family and using that to gain social or political influence.” To Schlafly’s disappointment, she isn’t able to use the power she has garnered to gain a cabinet position with Reagan. This might be an adverse effect of strategic maternalism. Professor Burns explained “[this strategy] can be a bit of a trap, though, because if you establish your expertise on gender issues it can end there.”

The issues brought up in “Mrs. America are still being fought over today. For example, the ERA still has not been ratified nationally. Similarly, the divisions in the conservative movement highlighted in the ’70s and ’80s are reappearing. As the most powerful conservative, the current president continues to move farther and farther to the right, dragging his party’s platform with him. Those he leaves behind might find themselves in a similar position to the moderate conservatives who were shafted by the New Right in the 1970s. A similar struggle persists within the Democratic Party, as leftist ideas become more mainstream, many liberal and establishment Democrats are being driven from office by younger progressives. In the 1970s, these political movements resulted in the Reagan decade. Similar backlash may be in store today. On one level, “Mrs. America” shows the battle between incredibly talented and intelligent individuals with opposing ideas. On a larger scale, it shows the persistent ideological war between the left and the right. 

Contact Patrick Curnin-Shane at patrick.curninshane ‘at’ mastersny.org.

Natalia Shane was a participant in The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

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