One night in the 1970s, Jean, my stepmom, and I watched a news story about the women’s movement. Jean, who’d grown up during the Great Depression, worked for DuPont from when she graduated high school until she was 65. Though Jean created some ways to test fabrics, Jean was never credited for her work. Because she wasn’t male. When a reporter interviewed women (law students, nurses, secretaries) who were fighting against sexism, I thought Jean would cheer them on. Instead, she said, “These women are so angry! I think they have penises!”
Recently, I thought of that evening, as I watched the first four episodes of the provocative nine-part series “Mrs. America” (streaming on FX on Hulu). Created by “Mad Men” writer Davhi Waller, the show tells the story of the battle in the 1970s, during feminism’s second wave, over the Equal Rights Amendment. “Mrs. America” features dazzling performances from, among others, Cate Blanchett as ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly, Rose Byrne as feminist leader Gloria Steinem and Uzo Aduba as Rep. Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman to serve in Congress).
“Mrs. America” couldn’t be more timely! One hundred years ago, women in the United States got the right to vote. (The 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave voting rights to women was ratified in August 1920.) Getting the right to cast their ballots was a milestone for women. (At least for white women. Generally, the women’s suffrage movement, led by white women, cared little about whether women of color could vote.)
You’d think being able to vote would have leveled the playing field for women. If only. But in the mid-century, most women couldn’t get a mortgage or even a credit card.
In 1949, my Mom dropped out of college to support my Dad so he could go to veterinary school. “I love your Dad,” she said, “but I wish I’d finished school. But, I didn’t even think about that then.”
Before Roe v. Wade in 1973, abortion was illegal. My Mom, like so many other women, had to have an abortion before it was legal.
It’s easy to think of feminism as being an “ism” and of feminists as being humorless scolds. Nothing could be further from the truth. The discrimination encountered by women impacts the lives of everyone – hetero and queer alike.
As other commentators have pointed out, the feminist movement has had little representation in movies and TV. “Mrs. America” is one of the few historically accurate, yet entertaining representations of feminism in the media. As someone who came of age during the women’s movement second wave, I feel seen by “Mrs. America.”
“Mrs. America” addresses the struggle over the ERA from a clever angle. Schlafly, the homophobic, arch enemy of the ERA, is the anti-hero of the series. Schlafly, as depicted in this show, is like “Walter White” in “Breaking Bad.” You loathe everything she stands for. How dare she rail against “the women’s libbers” when she’s run for Congress, written books on defense policy and travels all over the country. Yet, you have to admit: she has a certain charm.
Steinem, Chisholm, Friedan, Abzug and other second wave feminists appear in “Mrs. America.” You cheer them on with a sinking feeling. You know Schlafly and her minions stopped the ERA in its tracks. You admire the feminists. Yet, “Mrs. America,” as all good art does, forces you to see your iconic heroes as human. They bicker. Friedan calls lesbians “the lavender menace.” The white feminists don’t support Chisholm when she runs for president in 1972.
“Mrs. America” seems ripped from today’s headlines. Before she died in 2016, Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump. Republicans are using COVID-19 as an excuse to gut abortion rights. In a hopeful note, in January, Virginia ratified the ERA.
To be not only entertained, but to learn from our history, check out “Mrs. America.”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.