“We’re all secretaries to them.”
“Mrs. America” is a dazzling triumph, must-see TV of the highest quality and a much-needed antidote to cabin fever.
The nine-episode series by FX on Hulu is about the riveting battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It’s broad and ambitious in scope, clearly and effortlessly capturing the epic flow of history, yet richly nuanced and finely detailed in it storytelling, capturing the quirks and foibles of leaders on both sides of the battle and drawing well-rounded portraits of the fascinating people who left their marks on American political history.
Running from 1971 (the introduction of the ERA) through 1980 (the election of Ronald Reagan), the series centers on Phyllis Schlafly, “the sweetheart of the silent majority,” a conservative activist who played a crucial role in Republican politics from her support of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to her support of Donald Trump in 2016.
As the series opens, Schlafly is producing the influential “Phyllis Schlafly Report” with a dedicated cadre of volunteers. Her primary interest is national defense (she has a master’s degree in government), but she quickly realizes that opposition to the ERA can be her most effective organizing tool. She develops a highly effective campaign that combines fear-mongering (“do you want your daughter to be a lesbian?”) with a positive message (pro-family, pro-life, pro-America). She launches STOP ERA and the Eagle Forum.
Schlafly’s grassroots approach successfully ambushed supporters of the ERA who had lined up broad bipartisan support for the amendment that would guarantee equal protection on the basis of sex. The bill had easily passed both houses of Congress with support from President Richard Nixon (and subsequent support from Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter); by 1972 the amendment had been ratified by 28 of the 38 states required for enactment. Schlafly’s intervention stopped that progress in its tracks.
Series creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller wisely keeps the fascinating figure of Schlafly front and center through all nine episodes of the series, but uses a clever narrative strategy to tell the other side of the story. The first episode introduces the group of fierce second-wave feminists who support the ERA and each subsequent episode spotlights one of the feminist leaders.
The second episode spotlights Gloria Steinem (a groovy performance by Rose Byrne); the third episode focuses on Shirley Chisholm (played with precision and passion by Uzo Aduba) and her historic run for president; and the fourth episode turns to Betty Friedan, widely considered the mother of the feminist movement (a wonderfully intense performance by Tracey Ullman).
Episode five recreates the prime-time “couples debate” between the traditional Phyllis and Fred Schlafly and the liberated Brenda and Marc Feigen-Fasteau. LGBT issues rise to the surface as Brenda has an affair with a female photographer and Phyllis discovers that her eldest son John is gay.
Episode six focuses on Republican Party politics. As Phyllis tries to move the party to the right, Jill Ruckelshaus (the exquisite Elizabeth Banks in a finely tuned performance) debates how to shore up support for the ERA. Episode seven centers on the abrasive Bella Abzug (a bravura display by Margo Martindale).
Episode eight brings all of the characters together at the National Women’s Conference in Houston. The fierce floor battle includes a fight over support for lesbian rights. Episode nine effectively wraps things up with a focus on presidential politics: Abzug is fired as chair of Carter’s National Advisory Committee for Women and Schlafly helps Ronald Reagan win the Republican nomination and the general election.
Waller and her writing staff do an amazing job at presenting all of this material in a clear, concise and compelling manner. They find the fiery passions beneath the rigorous intellectual and political debates on both sides of the issue and fearlessly probe the private costs of living very public lives. Some of the minor characters do get lost along the way, but overall, the series creates complete and complex story arcs for all of the principal characters.
Waller and her directing and design team bring the 1970s to vivid life. The period detail is impeccable; it is incredible to see how quickly technology and shifting norms have changed American society. It’s a great character note that Phyllis is an early technology adapter; she happily trades in her typewriter for a computer and brags that she can fit her entire mailing list on one of the new floppy disks.
Cigarettes are everywhere; fortunately, that has changed. Sexist attitudes are also everywhere; sadly, that has not entirely gone away. All of the women are subject to second-class treatment. In an early episode, Phyllis is asked to take notes during a meeting with Sen. Goldwater; later when Bella and Shirley are dismissed as they try to stop the sexual harassment of congressional staff, Bella wryly observes, “we’re all secretaries to them.” As the #metoo movement demonstrates, that battle continues.
The acting is top-notch. Blanchett shines in her rich multi-faceted portrayal of Schlafly and embraces all of the character’s prickly contradictions. She promotes traditional family values, yet leaves her own family in the care of an African-American maid; she loves her husband and asks for his guidance in presenting her legal arguments, but joyfully manipulates him when necessary. She’s ruthless, passionate, blazingly intelligent, proudly stylish and all too willing to bend the truth to make her case. Blanchett’s work is sure to dominate awards season (whenever that happens).
The supporting cast is equally strong. John Slattery is great as the devoted Fred Schlafly and Jeanne Tripplehorn is heartbreaking as his unmarried (and therefore invisible) sister Eleanor. Niecy Nash is pure dynamite as feminist activist Flo Kennedy and James Marsden is wonderful as the condescending Phil Crain who always gets outplayed by Phyllis. Melanie Lynskey is delightful as Rosemary Thomson, an ambitious member of STOP ERA who frequently brings some lovely humor to the proceedings.
Most notably, Sarah Paulson is terrific as Alice Macray, a character created by Waller, who starts out as one of Phyllis’s most dedicated supporters. One of the best scenes in the entire series is when a slightly tipsy Alice strikes up a conversation with another delegate at the National Women’s Convention. The two happily swap pictures and sip Pink Ladies until Alice discovers that her new friend is an ERA supporter and she flees in terror.
The first three episodes of FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” will drop on Hulu on April 15; subsequent episodes will drop weekly.
The series is an excellent history lesson, but it also shines a powerful spotlight on contemporary politics. The battle over the ERA, which has still not been enacted, brought about a seismic shift in American politics. Like the infamous Roy Cohn, Phyllis Schlafly is part of a conservative movement that moved the Republic Party from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump and silenced the party’s moderate wing. Like the second wave feminists, progressive activists still struggle with intersectional politics and developing a unified and effective opposition.
As Alice Macray wonders, is there a way to start to build bridges and move forward?