Mrs. America review: Cate Blanchett and the anti-feminist mystique of FX-Hulu’s ERA-defining drama
By debating its politics through the viewpoint of these women's experiences, Mrs. America allows us to get behind the public persona to the private person — to a certain extent at least
Three years after women in the US were granted the right to vote, they pushed for another revolutionary piece of legislation called the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923. If passed in Congress, it guaranteed the elimination of any gender-based discrimination in the United States.
After being rejected in congressional sessions for five decades, the bill finally had the backing of both Democrats and Republicans at the national level in 1972. Now, it only needed to be ratified by the state legislatures. (Spoiler alert: As of 2020, there are still 12 states yet to ratify the ERA.)
What seemed like a foregone conclusion became a long, messy journey through the US political landscape. Dahvi Waller (Mad Men, Halt And Catch Fire) presents a colourful history lesson of the mess in the FX-Hulu miniseries, Mrs. America.
Since the 1920s, the post-suffrage generations have split into two rival camps at odds over whether women's empowerment comes from equality or their inherent differences from men. Here, in the early 1970s, you have the second-wave feminist heavyweights like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan on one side. On the opposite side is Phyllis Schlafly, a proud Republican housewife in Illinois whose grass-roots campaign galvanised conservative housewives across the US against the ERA. The show follows their culture war in parallel, recounting their smaller political and personal battles in vivid portraits along the way.
Set to Walter Murphy's disco rendition of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (the same version you hear in Saturday Night Fever), the show's uber-cool opening credits sequence should itself keep Twitter busy for at least a week. In the three episodes currently streaming, we are first introduced to Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) in various roles: the nuclear strategy expert, the fierce anti-communist, the loving wife and the devoted mother of six.
She also has grand political ambitions but not the means or support to pursue them. So, she finds another outlet for them, turning the unfounded fears and anxieties of housewives (played by the likes of Sarah Paulson and Melanie Lynskey) into a potent political weapon for the conservatives. These women argue that the ERA would put housewives at a disadvantage, strip mothers of custody of their children and their right to alimony, and even forcibly draft their daughters for military duty. It is the same kind of baseless rhetoric politicians rely on in their fear-mongering about refugees and asylum seekers today.
The truth is Schlafly is a woman full of hypocrisy and iniquity. She seeks out congressmen to fulfil her ambitions to run for political office, hoping to be a respected female voice among a political class made up of men. Yet, she condemns the liberals who brought about change in constitutional laws to allow women to sit at the (so-called) big boys' table. She champions the cause of the stay-at-home mom, saying "the women’s libbers don’t understand that most women want to be wife, mother, and homemaker — and are happy in that role." But she herself isn't happy in that role; she is a victim of an identity crisis and that unspeakable malaise of breadmaking homemakers confined to those very roles — what Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique. Yet, she dismisses Friedan and the feminist movement as a "sisterhood of frustrated togetherness", full of women who are supposedly resentful because they couldn't find a suitable husband and thus happiness.
Despite her opposition to the ERA, Schlafly yearns to be treated equally — by her husband Fred (John Slattery) who routinely undermines her achievements, and by the congressmen at Washington who brush off her expertise and reduce her to a stenographer. In the ensuing moments of silence, the despair on Blanchett's face is palpable. The two-time Oscar-winning actress untangles the knot of ideological contradictions, pulling off a delicate balancing act of not turning Schlafly into an overtly sympathetic figure or a conservative caricature.
In the other camp, we meet Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), who is fighting for women's reproductive rights; Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first black congresswoman and the first black candidate to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination; Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Steinem's close ally and member of the House of Representatives; Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), the “mother” of the second wave of modern feminism; and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), the sole Republican feminist in this sea of blue. With her waist-length mane of auburn hair and tinted oversized glasses, the ever underrated Byrne disappears into her role as Steinem, who is portrayed as a more tactful activist than the irascible Friedan. Steinem's passion for abortion rights advocacy comes from a personal experience; meanwhile, Chisholm hopes to use her candidacy as a social justice springboard for various causes, devoted to both African-Americans and women. We see how one crusade intersects — and sometimes clashes — with other liberal crusades of the 70s.
In the following six episodes, we will also certainly see their ideas grow, adapt, divide their supporters before uniting them again. Waller presents a gallery of rich portraits, without ever painting one camp as heroines and the other as villainesses. She uses Phyllis's anti-feminist rhetoric to test the arguments and policies of the feminists, forcing them to debate, contradict and reconcile their differences.
Waller makes you realise how a patriarchal society has assumed a permanent right of scrutiny over women's lives, their bodies and freedoms — and often, this society is bolstered by its female defenders. Schlafly's movement was a clear precursor of the Moral Majority, the conservative Christian civic advocacy group which helped Ronald Reagan, the Bushes and even Trump come to power. She shaped the conservative vision of today, which opposes everything from abortion to LGBT rights, and from gun control to immigration. Setting the stage for the culture wars being waged to this day, her movement widened the gulf between liberals and conservatives to an irreconcilable extent. It all started with a deceptively simple agenda: the government should not arbitrate in a debate over a woman's decision to be a homemaker.
By debating its politics through the viewpoint of these women's experiences, Mrs. America allows us to get behind the public persona to the private person — to a certain extent at least. This is what makes the show so intriguing. These may be unpleasant episodes in history, but they're vital to understand how we got here. The show thus acts as a testimonial to the work of feminists past, but also as an urgent call to arms to the next wave.
Mrs. America is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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