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Mrs. America’s many brands of feminism, discussed and dissected

FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America is some of the best TV of the year. But how does it want us to feel about Phyllis Schlafly?

A woman standing in an elevator is surrounded by men in suits and ties.
Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly wants to be the only woman in the room where decisions are made. She nearly succeeds.
Sabrina Lantos/FX

At the center of FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America, a series broadly centered on the anti-Equal Rights Amendment activist Phyllis Schlafly (played here by Cate Blanchett), are two very different ideas of the role of women in American society.

The first, represented by Schlafly, sees women as traditional housewives and homemakers, an irony given Schlafly’s prominent role as a full-time activist. The second, represented by the many women involved in the movement to pass the ERA — figures like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm — suggests that women might, indeed, have full equality with men under the law.

Schlafly’s forces won this fight, and the reverberations of that victory are being felt to this day, in 2020, when the Equal Rights Amendment has finally gathered the ratifications it needs to be added to the Constitution, only for the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider rescinding the extended deadline the amendment hit in 1982. (Originally, the deadline was in 1979.) The final moments of Mrs. America make a very real case that Schlafly was one of the chief architects of our era of political polarization, and the “what happened next” ending montage featuring real footage of all the women depicted in the production — a trope that rarely hits me with any emotional weight — moved me to tears at the thought of these people being real.

One of the most interesting aspects of Mrs. America is the way it depicts both the necessity of feminism and how the 1970s feminist movement failed due to infighting and struggles to truly embrace intersectionality. A standout episode early in the series is all about the ways other members of the women’s movement tried to get Shirley Chisholm to drop out of the 1972 Democratic primary in favor of George McGovern, in hopes of getting a few crumbs from his campaign that they ultimately didn’t receive.

Yet Mrs. America also argues for Schlafly as a kind of accidental feminist herself, someone who superseded her husband in the public eye and ultimately didn’t receive the political reward she expected for it. The final shot of the series is of Blanchett sitting at a table, beginning to peel apples, stuck at home after being passed over by Ronald Reagan for a position in his administration. She changed the world by not changing it, and she wound up a prisoner of her own success.

Views on feminism have shifted greatly since the 1970s era depicted in this series, so I — Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff — asked two of my colleagues, associate culture editor Allegra Frank and culture writer Constance Grady, to join me for a chat about the many feminist worlds of Mrs. America and of the present day.

Mrs. America has so much Phyllis Schlafly. Was she the right choice for a main character?

Phyllis appears in silhouette.
Phyllis addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the defeat of the ERA.
Sabrina Lantos/FX

Emily: I’ll start by asking the two of you a perhaps fraught question: How do you feel about this series’ choice to center its action mostly on Schlafly? No matter how good Cate Blanchett is — and she’s so good — it’s hard to escape that she is, essentially, playing the ultimate “Karen.”

Constance: I think the fact that Mrs. America revolves around Phyllis Schlafly is, in some ways, the only thing that makes this story bearable, because she gives you a villain worth hating.

I kept feeling myself on the verge of heartbreak as I watched the scenes with the second-wave feminists hoping for all the things I know that we don’t have. On my TV screen, there were all the leaders of the women’s movement looking joyously forward to an inevitable future in which reproductive freedom is guaranteed, the ERA is enshrined in the Constitution, and Congress has legislated universal child care.

Meanwhile, in 2020, the Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade, and Congress has refused to rescind the 1982 deadline to make the ERA the law of the land. Universal child care hasn’t even come to the table as a potential priority for legislation in decades.

(Adding to the sense that they didn’t know how good they had it: The second-wave feminists are constantly attending parties and conferences, and maybe it’s the quarantine talking but god does a woman’s conference seem like a really fun place to be right now. I just want to sing “This Land Is Your Land” with some nice lesbians and take a self-defense class!)

In some ways, watching Mrs. America felt like being repeatedly stunned with a sledgehammer. The series just keeps emphasizing that for all the cultural progress we’ve made, in many ways 2020 is significantly less progressive than the 1970s were. We have gone back so far, and that is painful and maddening and tragic.

But then we cut away from Gloria Steinem et al. to Cate Blanchett in her glorious beehive wig, baring her false teeth in a rictus grin while her eyes glitter icily above, and bam: There’s Phyllis Schlafly. There’s someone you can focus all your rage and loss and betrayal on. There’s the woman who defeated the ERA, terrified thousands of conservative women into thinking they were under attack, and helped usher in the culture war. And man, is it cathartic to hate her.

Allegra: I agree there’s almost something spiritually visceral in hating Phyllis Schlafly — a soothing affirmation that we as feminists are morally superior, that despite her sharp intellect and ambition, Schlafly lost in the end.

These feelings were elating, and they felt good. Yet they were also fleeting — because by the series’ midpoint, Phyllis Schlafly no longer fit easily into my hero/villain dichotomy. Even though she was superficially an anti-abortion, homophobic, and heteronormative asshole, Phyllis was not depicted superficially by Mrs. America.

We see Phyllis stumping for the sanctity of marriage at Eagle Forum rallies, but we also see her trying to wriggle out from under her husband’s thumb. We see her quietly warn her son against practicing homosexuality, but we also see her enroll in law school, defiantly and with pride. Her facade as an untouchable paragon of domesticity and good Christian values shows new cracks with every episode, undermining this image in ways that both can endear her to the viewer and discredit her to herself.

Phyllis Schlafly wasn’t a “proper” feminist. And how could we mistake her to be, with Gloria Steinem right there? But as Emily said, there is room to read her as an “accidental” feminist. Schlafly is independent, driven, self-assured; as much as she argues in favor of wives serving their husbands, she’s never at her own husband’s beck and call. Those equal rights she argues against could benefit her, and it’s hard to believe she doesn’t recognize that to at least some degree, deep down.

I was in awe of how much all of this resonated with me, even if Schlafly’s professional roadblocks were undercut by her coldness. Did I like Phyllis Schlafly? Not at all. Did I sometimes sympathize with her? Surprisingly, yes. I’d credit Cate Blanchett for that as much as I would the show’s superb, textured writing, as Blanchett makes Schlafly completely her own. She absorbs the woman into every fiber of her being, and if I didn’t fall in love with Schlafly at all, I fell in love with Blanchett’s performance of her.

My affection for Blanchett as Schlafly — and at times my softening toward Schlafly as a character — gave me the opposite feeling that hating the character did. I felt bad, embarrassed, by my ability to appreciate Schlafly for her efforts to enter politics on her own merit, to earn a law degree to prove her worth to her husband. I wonder if either of you had a similar experience while watching Blanchett act her heart out. Did she ever make you reconsider how you felt about Schlafly? And is it a possible failing of Mrs. America that we could have sympathy for this otherwise villainous woman?

How successful is Mrs. America at telling stories about the rest of the women’s movement?

The many people of the women’s movement stride down the street in Washington.
The pro-Equal Rights Amendment forces gather for what they assume will be a successful meeting in Washington.
Sabrina Lantos/FX

Emily: I’m in a bit of a weird position with this, because I grew up in conservative Christian America, and I spent at least some of my childhood seeing Schlafly venerated as a hero. One thing the finale drove home for me was how much the religious right felt taken for granted by Reagan when he swept into Washington. (We get an early indication of this on the show, when Schlafly says that if Reagan chooses Bush to be his running mate — which we know he eventually did — it will be a considerable betrayal of her movement.)

Reagan’s conservatism always placed the social issues that Schlafly and her cohort most cared about on the back burner, in favor of tax cuts and breaking the power of the institutional left. And in many ways, those social issues-focused conservatives (who have spilled out of the “religious right” box in the past 20 years) had been chasing a candidate who would back their very specific issues until the evangelical George W. Bush was elected. And then Donald Trump eventually came along to filter all of their grievances down to a sharp point.

Much of the appeal of Schlafly and others like her comes from that sort of grievance culture — somebody somewhere is trying to tell you what to do. They want you to be happy that people are gay, that people can have abortions, that men can just decide they’re women one day out of nowhere. This complaining takes only about five seconds to deconstruct, because Schlafly and her ilk actually are trying to tell people what to do (take it from me, a girl still unpacking decades worth of baggage from growing up in that world). But when their objectives are wedded to a very specific sense of terror at a crumbling world order, it can become a potent political force.

Yet even that political power can’t get Schlafly the job she wants, which is working in the Reagan administration on foreign policy. Her entire journey, remember, began because nobody would take her foreign policy knowledge seriously. And though I find Schlafly’s saber-rattling terrifying, it’s clear she knows way more about foreign policy than other subjects.

The final shot of the series is an homage to the Chantal Akerman classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, released in 1975 (so just a few years before the finale takes place). Jeanne Dielman is a classic of feminist cinema, the story of a Belgian housewife (and occasional sex worker) whose options are profoundly constrained by the society she lives in, and it features shots of the main character peeling potatoes that are incredibly similar to the final shot of this miniseries.

The point that Mrs. America directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are making with such an homage: Schlafly actually broke out of the constraints that held her, only to forever be boxed in by those constraints. Though she would gain power going forward as the American conservative movement was ascendant, she would never have the power she craved. She, like Jeanne Dielman, is sitting in her kitchen, peeling away. (Read more about this connection from Sam Adams at Slate. Showrunner Dahvi Waller talks about it in this interview.)

Constance, I’m interested to hear more on how you feel about the show’s portrayal of the women’s movement. I think the series is saying about 17 things about the ERA’s failure to pass and certain strategic mistakes the feminist left makes again and again. I think they’re all true, and I also don’t know how the series prioritizes those ideas (not that it has to). What do you think is the underlying theme of these sections, if indeed there is one?

Constance: One thing I found myself appreciating most about those sections of the series is that there wasn’t one clear correct answer to the strategic issues the women’s movement found itself facing. Pragmatists like Bella (and how terrific is Margo Martindale as Bella, by the way? She’s all tired warmth) argue that they should keep their expectations low and not make waves in order to avoid alienating their male allies. She wants to focus on the incremental steps forward she’s sure the movement can achieve rather than taking ambitious swings that might not pay off. Meanwhile, idealists like Gloria and Shirley want to demand serious action on all the issues that matter most to them, including hot-button issues like LGBTQ rights and abortion.

Morally, Gloria and Shirley are clearly correct, but it’s also not obvious that Bella is strategically wrong. The concessions she convinces the movement to make to the McGovern campaign never pay off, but neither do the big swings. And when Bella finally decides to play hardball with the Jimmy Carter administration, even with the rest of the movement backing her up, she’s fired. The women’s movement ends up losing its place in the White House.

So what I ended up concluding is that, within the political universe of Mrs. America, it didn’t matter what tactic the women’s movement was going to take. Either incremental changes or big, ambitious swings were going to fail every time, because the men in charge of the system had no intention of actually ceding their power. They were only ever stringing along the women they pretended to sympathize with and respect, because doing so allowed them to leach those women’s political capital away for themselves.

That’s true for the women’s movement, and it’s also true for Phyllis and her Eagle Forum. Phyllis sold out her gender to build enough political capital to be a viable Cabinet pick. She weaponized the terror she whipped up in the women of Middle America over an issue she never really cared about to build an entire political movement from scratch — and in the end, all Reagan ever wanted from her was her mailing list. He stole her movement and her clout out from under her, and she didn’t even get a job offer out of it.

And yeah, as I watched the show, I recognized that this outcome had to really suck for Phyllis. But I did not feel bad for her when it happened. I just thought, “You knew what these men were like when you started working on their behalf. You should have known better than to think they would ever let you be an exception.”

I did, however, feel extremely bad for the women who became Phyllis’s chief lackeys — especially Sarah Paulson’s Alice, who has a truly spectacular breakdown in the penultimate episode, “Houston.” Allegra, how did you feel about the women working with Phyllis? They’re presented to us in a much more straightforwardly sympathetic way than Phyllis is. Did you still feel bad about sympathizing with them?

Allegra: I. Love. Alice. So much. I love Sarah Paulson in everything, always, forever and ever amen, and Alice is one of my favorite roles of hers to date. I never judged myself for loving her, even though she started out as a Schlafly-head, less a crone than a fangirl. Alice received Mrs. America’s most poignant arc, as she grew from the ultimate rule follower in a restrictive marriage into a self-actualized woman curious about feminism, one who dared to challenge the intentions and ideals of her peers in the Eagle Forum. By virtue of being the series’ most prominent fictional character, an amalgamation of other female conservatives from the time period, Alice got to overcome “chief lackey” status.

So no, I never felt bad for sympathizing with Alice. She was a woman who married young, had never left home, had never been exposed to anything beyond what she was told. So I loved her, and I rooted for her, especially when she finally stood up to Schlafly for going way too far into the conservative deep end at other women’s expense.

The others, though? Well, aside from the young, likely abused woman whom Alice ended up nurturing when they traveled together to Houston, I could hardly care for them — in particular Melanie Lynskey’s awful, awful, conniving Rosemary. But I do recognize that these women were all rather blindly following the powerful words of Phyllis Schlafly, the charismatic woman they all wished they could become. None of them would rise to that level of cachet, just as Phyllis herself couldn’t reach the heights she aimed for.

In theory, I sympathize with the Eagle Forum ladies’ futile hopes to achieve the same status as Phyllis Schlafly among their fellow conservative women. But on an intimate, personal, individual character-based level? Nah. Rosemary can miss me with her shit.

The best episodes and moments of Mrs. America

Sarah Paulson stars as Alice.
Alice slowly watches her entire life change.
Sabrina Lantos/FX

Emily: I want to wrap this up by asking you your favorite moments and episodes from the series, because my suspicion is that we will have at least somewhat different answers.

Jen Chaney at our sister publication Vulture dinged “Houston” for being a little too easy in terms of how it transforms Alice from ERA opponent to feminism-curious over the course of a few days, but I found it to have intense resonance with my own life, where my conservative politics essentially dissolved the second I was made to question them at all. It certainly helps that it’s extremely easy to give this episode a queer reading, with Alice having a long unrequited love for Phyllis that she barely understands.

But the episode is my favorite of the series — and the year in TV so far — for reasons beyond its poignance. Whomst amongst us could watch Sarah Paulson lie on the ground and try to shovel food into her mouth while high on some sort of pills she got from a mystery woman in a bar and not be instantly enchanted? Nobody. That’s who.

Constance: “Houston” is a great pick for best episode. I was waiting the whole series for Sarah Paulson to finally have a chance to get weird, and oh, boy, when it came it did not disappoint. Also, shoutout to Melanie Lynskey for the smugness of her delivery on “I sleep like a T.”

But I think my favorite episode was actually episode three, “Shirley,” because it’s where Mrs. America clicked into place for me. The first two episodes were so full of winky “Phyllis Schlafly? NEVER HEARD OF HER!” moments that I kept cringing off my couch, too distracted to focus on anything else that was going on, but “Shirley” made me sit up and take notice. It’s where Mrs. America made it clear that it was going to take a serious look at feminist history, beyond the headline names like Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem.

I have a basic feminism 101 understanding of the second wave, but I’ve always focused mostly on the theorists and writers of the era rather than the political workers. People like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug are figures I’ve always vaguely felt I should know more about but have never really looked into. And mostly, the vague and fuzzy sense I have of both of them is more than enough to get me through any pop cultural conversation about feminism without breaking a sweat. Because mostly, pop culture doesn’t consider feminist history to be worth talking about.

Actually, until very very recently, pop culture didn’t consider feminism to be worthy of any attention at all except for mockery and disdain. Do you remember how it felt in the ’00s, when if you wanted to make any kind of feminist statement to most people, you had to preface it with, “I’m not a feminist, but ...”? When I was in college, I started talking about “my inner feminist” all the time (“Knocked Up is a funny movie but my inner feminist has some problems with it!”), because I thought it would be just ridiculous to self-identify as a feminist, full stop. I wanted instead to suggest that my belief that women are human beings was not a part of my identity but attributable to some shrill, hairy-legged radical inside of me, someone whom I talked about with faint contempt but could not help talking about a great deal nevertheless.

And then Mrs. America went and gave feminism the full prestige television treatment — and gave it to second-wave feminism, no less! The most embarrassing kind! The feminists who aren’t safely dead, like the first wave, or young and hot, like the third- and fourth-wavers! The feminists who have spent the past 40 years caricatured in pop culture as bra burners and feminazis! And they gave it to the second-wave feminists even I don’t know that much about, and I’m the kind of person who has always had an interest in feminist history.

Mrs. America put feminists like Shirley Chisholm, who was abandoned by her own movement in her own time and all but forgotten in our time, up there on my TV screen and paid the kind of respect to her interiority and human value that television normally reserves for its Don Drapers. And I was shocked by how moved I was to see that.

Allegra: The two of you have already named my top two picks! But that’s okay, I have another one, because, truly, I loved most of what this show I had to offer. The debate episode, “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc,” presented an obvious contrast between conservative and progressive marriage, as the title makes clear. Brenda and Marc are the open-minded couple, so much so that we witness Brenda exploring her attraction to women, which she then tells Marc about, and he says he supports her journey. The moment comes across as minimizing on the show, as if Brenda’s wanderlust is but a small blip in their otherwise hetero relationship. But, no, Brenda is not just experimenting, and the real Brenda Feigen eventually came out as a lesbian.

Marc’s positive response to Brenda’s dalliance with a woman reads as dismissive, a way to subtly exert dominance in a partnership where the distribution of power — rights — is supposed to be equal. And Brenda’s development of a sexual identity divorced from one that jibes with Marc’s is effectively halted by his response.

Meanwhile, the “small blip” on the opposite side of the TV debate stage (where both couples meet in the episode’s climax to publicly challenge each other’s ideals) is Phyllis’s intent to take the LSATs and go to law school. Her husband, Fred, is aghast at the idea. Why would she bother? He’s the lawyer around here, and that’s the way things are meant to be. Phyllis, encroaching on the one thing Fred can claim superiority over her with, is just indulging in a girlish pipe dream. He quashes her desires, even as the strength of their relationship is derived from their being intellectual equals.

The two sides of the story reveal some kinship between the fractured political stances the show presents. Brenda eviscerates Phyllis when they do have their performative back-and-forth over feminism, and on a legal matter, to boot; Brenda is a legal expert herself. Phyllis, with her husband at her side, has a woman reinforce her inferiority to her husband at the time when it matters most. Both women, though, are diminished by the setup of the show, with their husbands in tow as useless appendages that nonetheless are asked the most questions by the hosts, encouraged to speak on behalf of their far more interesting wives.

Despite having gone to a women’s college, my knowledge of feminist history is disturbingly lacking. Of course I am familiar with the biggest players here, like Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem (who I shared an elevator with once! She was so nice and beautiful!!!). But stories of women like Brenda Feigen and even Phyllis Schlafly passed me by. Positioning them opposite each other was a beautiful way to convey the shared struggles of being a married woman during the second wave of feminism, even if Brenda was a lesbian and hardcore feminist while Phyllis stomped all over the notion of equal rights for all women.

Maybe it’s boring to say that Mrs. America was educational. But I love it when television leaves me with something bigger than praise for its production. I can heap that praise all over Mrs. America, a show I found to be almost perfect in all aspects of storytelling and filmmaking. But I also commend it for its insightful surveys of the many different kinds of women who contributed to second-wave feminism, even in its bit characters (like Jules, a black lesbian who ditches Ms. Magazine for the open-minded West Coast, much to white and straight Steinem’s confusion and dismay). The takeaway for me was that there are many different kinds of ties that bind us. Just maybe not political ones.

Mrs. America is streaming on Hulu.