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Ms. Judging Mrs. America

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Ms. Judging Mrs. America

A compelling new series on Phyllis Schlafly’s battles against leading feminists makes some legitimate criticisms—while also distorting facts and indulging in plenty of blue-state condescension. May 8, 2020
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Even amid an all-consuming global crisis, Mrs. America, the new series from FX on Hulu, was guaranteed to become a media event. After watching six of the nine episodes—the only ones available as of this writing—I can attest that the attention is warranted. It’s a lively, superbly acted, cleverly structured ensemble piece about the 1970s battle royal between feminists and Middle American housewives over the Equal Rights Amendment. It has timeliness going for it, too, illustrating the straight line between the populist forces mobilized by ERA foe Phyllis Schlafly and those that sent Donald Trump to the White House 40-odd years later.

One not-so-good reason for the series’ buzz, however: underneath the snappy surface, it’s a predictable Hollywood exercise in blue-state condescension.

In interviews, Dahvi Waller, Mrs. America’s showrunner and former writer for the hit series Mad Men, has made no bones about being a true-blue, patriarchy-hating, intersectional feminist. She is no hagiographer, though. The show has richly textured portraits of the strong personalities and conflicting ambitions of the first-name heroines of the feminist movement—Gloria, Bella, Betty, Shirley. Bella Abzug, played by Margo Martindale, always shown wearing the congresswoman’s trademark hats, is the realpolitik voice of experience trying to educate the younger political neophytes. Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman and first female candidate for president, is the victim of Abzug-style political pragmatism when she is pressured to give up her hard-won delegates to frontrunner George McGovern. This sort of concession is a familiar occurrence in American electoral politics, but Uzo Aduba’s Chisholm invests the incident with a sense of justified racial grievance.

Tracy Ullman’s Betty Friedan is the most disagreeable of the squad, though she, too, is handled empathetically. Resentful of the younger, fabulously telegenic Steinem, she struggles to stay relevant. The fourth episode, called “Betty” (each week centers on a different major figure), is a Sunset Boulevard-style portrait of a former megastar left to face the mundane fate of a divorced, aging, unlovely woman. The only disappointment in the ensemble is Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinem. Byrne sports the familiar aviator glasses, center-parted iron-straight hair, short skirts, and bell bottoms that do enough signifying work to deserve a supporting actor award of their own. Too bad that her sweetheart face and soft, monotonal delivery convey sisterly warmth with little sign of the cunning toughness of the real-life founder of the groundbreaking Ms.

The biggest surprise is Waller’s decision to let Schlafly emerge as the most interesting woman in the room. With her normie cardigans and immaculate updo, Schlafly, brought to life by a splendid Cate Blanchett, is a visual and political foil to Steinem. Blanchett’s frozen-smiled Schlafly brings superwoman energy to everything she does. A Goldwater conservative and coauthor of several books on arms control (she was against it), Schlafly came late to the ERA debate. As the series opens, she’s only beginning to appear on East Coast political radar; evidently Schlafly’s bestselling pro-Goldwater book A Choice, Not an Echo didn’t make it to Manhattan or DC bookstores. “Who the hell is Phyllis Schafly?” snarls Friedan, when she first (mis)hears the name of the nobody busy publishing right-wing newsletters in the boondocks. It’s a nice touch when Ullman gives the line a hint of “how-dare-she?” entitlement.

Friedan had good reason to be dismissive, because Second Wave feminism was in the saddle by 1971, when Schlafly came on the scene. The 1963 Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act were settled law. More women were serving in high-level government positions, including the military. The ERA passed Congress with bipartisan support and by 1973 already had a thumbs’ up from 30 of the 38 states needed for full ratification. Fifty-eight percent of Americans supported the amendment, and even Richard Nixon was on board. The series depicts how the squad lost a struggle to get abortion rights into the Democratic platform in 1972, but they wound up successful, anyway: within a year, the Supreme Court had ruled abortion constitutionally protected in Roe v. Wade.

In the eyes of both activist and establishment Democrats, Schlafly’s unabashedly retrograde notions of motherhood and homemaking as women’s highest calling, and her conviction about God-given, inborn gender differences seemed destined for history’s trash bin. It turned out that a lot of American women—and, depending on the poll, maybe even a majority—didn’t see things that way. Schlafly was a true believer in “family values,” but she also saw in STOP ERA, the organization she founded, a personal opportunity. The series shows her mobilizing troops of housewives, some of whom hadn’t even known the name of the Illinois state capital, addressing envelopes, hashing out strategy, and lobbying legislators by giving them home-baked goods with cards reading “From the breadmakers to the breadwinners.” (Schlafly had a gift for public relations.) Though reviewers have not noted it, Mrs. America doesn’t ignore the condescension of feminists toward these tradition-minded women, or, as Steinem calls them, “housewives brainwashed by the patriarchy.” “We don’t want housewives to think we’re against them,” urges Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), the lone Republican in the feminist camp. “But we are against them,” a scowling Brenda Feigan-Fasteau (Ari Gaynor) snaps.

Mrs. America’s efforts at even-handedness have irked some on the left; “Hollywood Casts a Very Flattering Light on Right Wing White Women” was BuzzFeed’s take. Social media echoes with viewers outraged over what they see as a forgiving portrayal of a homophobic and racist traitor to her gender. They must have been watching with their eyes tight shut and fingers in their ears. Waller and team may have made an effort to understand their “antihero,” but they repeatedly make up scenes whose sole purpose is to turn Schlafly into the Serena Joy of the red-state Gilead, a collaborator in the nation’s war against women. The first time we see her, Schlafly is strutting across a stage in a corny red, white, and blue two-piece bathing suit at a charity fundraiser. The incident never happened, but it has the virtue of reassuring feminist viewers that, yes, Schlafly knew all about sexism but made a calculated decision to use it to her own advantage. Same thing goes for another scene at a meeting in Washington when the men ask Schlafly, the only woman at the event, to take notes. It would be offensive—if it had actually happened. Her husband Fred (John Slaterry) insists on sex when she doesn’t want it. Of course, no one knows for sure the goings-on behind the master bedroom door, but Waller’s portrayal is more consistent with the assumptions of patriarchy-fighters than what is known of the Schlaflys’ marriage—by most accounts, a contented intellectual and emotional partnership.

The most jaw-dropping fiction comes in Episode 5, during a TV debate between Fred and Phyllis on one side and Brenda Feigan-Fasteau and her husband Mark on the other. This debate actually happened, and, like most of Mrs. America, it’s visually precise, right down to the hairpiece worn by television host Tom Snyder (Bobby Cannavale). As the writers imagine it, a brilliant Brenda leaves Phyllis sputtering when she calls her out for what appears to be a mythical legal decision. Fred sits by passively while his wife flounders. The debate ends with the smiling arm-in-arm Feigan-Fasteaus strolling out of the studio while the benighted Schlaflys stomp off to their hotel room for a nasty fight. The fight culminates with Phyllis, in an odd detail, slapping herself hard across the face. I can’t know whether Schlafly was in fact caught in a lie on that debate stage—the full video can be seen only at the Eagle Forum headquarters in St. Louis—but there is enough available video online to judge the scene an instance of audacious cherry-picking. Not only did Schlafly easily hold her own in the available clips, but Fred jumps in to catch Brenda in her own probable lie when she refuses to name the hospital she claims was sterilizing women. It’s a safe assumption that the Schlafly’s ugly fight and Phyllis’s attempt at self-harm are also convenient fictions made according to the demands of the creators’ confirmation bias.

Mrs. America offers plenty of other examples of motivated fictionalizing, but the series also makes some palpable hits. Feminists were right to accuse Schlafly of hypocrisy; the immense purpose and meaning she found in her own career never put a dent in her binary thinking about women’s roles. Though there’s not much evidence that she used racial grievance to advance her career, the series rightly shows that she sat by as chapters of her organization allied themselves with segregationists. Schlafly was not a “prepper”—she is shown smiling as she surveys a basement filled with canned foods in preparation for the nuclear apocalypse—but her militarism could be fanatical. She referred to nuclear weapons as “a marvelous gift given to our country by a wise God.” Though they denied it repeatedly, recent FOIA documents prove that both she and her husband were members of the John Birch Society, a group that had called Dwight Eisenhower “a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The couple broke with the Birchers only when their preferred candidate, Barry Goldwater, saw that the taint of the organization would hurt his chances at the presidency.

Late in life, Schlafly enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump, a man whose record on family values should have made her frozen smile crack into a thousand pieces. It’s a fair guess that she recognized Trump as a kindred spirit. Like the president, she loved trolling her critics. She admitted that she would begin speeches by saying “I want to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me come here” because “I know it irritates women’s libbers more than anything else.” She inflamed the rift, nascent at the time, between coastal elites and middle America—exaggerating, name-calling, and even demagoguing.

Indeed, Schlafly was alert to a class gap that feminists still underplay. In the 1970s, feminist leaders were college-educated, and their idea of work was journalism and the law. But only 11 percent of American women had a college degree in 1970; for them, liberation meant a factory or menial office job. “What I am against is a small northeastern group of establishment liberals putting down homemakers,” Schlafly said. “The libbers love to say that they’re dedicated to choice, but if you dare to choose the path of full-time mother, if you don’t feel enslaved, you’re just dumb and unenlightened.”

Schlafly was the first person to turn bitterness over elite superiority into a potent political force. Trump rode that bitterness straight to the White House. Entertaining as it is, Mrs. America is proof that elites still don’t get it.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

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