TV Critic Susie Creasey praises the star-studded drama’s inspiring salute to second-wave feminism
Mrs. America is a riveting depiction of the conflict which arose in the 1970s over attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), detailing the true stories of women who fought for, and against, this proposal. The series depicts a considered portrayal of both sides of the ERA debate, and although it is partly a tribute to the work of the Second Wave feminists, it also shows the cracks and personal grievances within the alliance.
The ERA is an alteration to the US constitution that was proposed as early as 1923 to help prevent gender discrimination more than any existing US law. For the Second Wave feminists, the ERA promised a better version of America, one with proper repercussions for sexual harassment, equality in the workplace, and access to safe, legalised abortions. However, to this day it remains unpassed, due to the large backlash it faced from the Christian conservative public at the time.
Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), in many ways the symbolic head of the conservative movement, led a successful campaign to stop US states from ratifying the ERA on the basis that it disrupts traditional family values and threatens the position of the housewife in society.
Each episode presents a dramatized story of an influential historical woman; Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) all feature as pioneering feminists who led the women’s rights movement forward into a new age of freedom. The star-studded cast gives consistently excellent performances, recreating the optimism and anger of the Second Wave feminists through passionate and energised performances. However, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) is the continual central focus of Mrs. America, as the conservative Republican who led a political campaign which would eventually dash the hopes of feminists across the USA.
Mrs. America brilliantly explores the fascinating hypocrisy of Schlafly’s values. She was an influential politician and author who ran for congress, and eventually enrolled in law school. Yet she was also an anti-feminist, homophobe and founder of the Eagle Forum and ‘STOP ERA,’ organisations which heavily promoted traditional gender roles, despite Schlafly herself not conforming to the ‘housewife’ ideal and never taking a passive role in society. Throughout the series she even empowers other women by providing them with the skills to run a successful political campaign, ironically proving that women are capable of far more than just housework. As Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) brilliantly expresses it in the series: ‘She’s a liar, a fear-monger and a con-artist, but worst of all she’s a goddamn feminist. She might be one of the most liberated women in America.’
Although the series could have made Schlafly the ultimate anti-feminist villain, Blanchett manages to bring a surprising amount of humanity to the role. Her dimensional performance creates a juxtaposition between Schlafly’s heavily contrived public persona, complete with an artificial smile, impeccable hair, and immaculate suits, and her more vulnerable moments in private where she struggles with her relationships.
Nonetheless, showing Schlafly experiencing human struggles furthers the feminist message of the show, rather than creating true pathos for her character, as the points in which she generates sympathy are when the programme presents her as a victim of the patriarchy. Her husband treats sex as his married right, in political meetings her male co-workers ignore her opinions and ask her to take notes instead, and her sister is ridiculed for being an older unmarried woman.
Those expecting Schlafly to undergo some kind of redemptive character arc will be disappointed; as a historically-based programme Mrs America sticks to the facts of Schalfly’s life – in which she holds the opinion that ‘some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough’. Despite all the sexism she faces in her own existence proving that this isn’t the case, Schlafly stubbornly marches on with her anti-feminist campaign, and with each small victory she makes, the viewer is left to make their own conclusions about what exactly she is trying to prove and to whom.
Another brilliant aspect of Mrs. America is the costume design, which is historically accurate but also adds to the characterisation of the show, defining the feminist and anti-feminists through their clothes. Conservatives like Phyliss Schlafly and Alice wear old-fashioned cuts, soft colours and pearls, which emphasise their ‘femininity’ and respectability, harking back to the image of 1950s housewives and idealised womanhood. In contrast, the Second Wave feminists wear bold prints, trousers, relaxed basics and long flowing hair, expressing themselves through their individual style, with garments emphasising ideals of freedom and practicality. The costumes form unofficial uniforms which distinguish the two groups, but also seem surprisingly relevant to today’s fashion scene, considering they were in fashion almost fifty years ago. Seventies staples such as waistcoats, bellbottom jeans and aviator sunglasses are already making their way back into our wardrobes, and it would be no surprise if the series inspired other throwback trends.
Perhaps the main strength of the series is how it succeeds in navigating the grey areas of feminism and anti-feminism rather than presenting either as objectively right or good. Housewife Alice (Sarah Paulson) suggests that not all of Schlafly’s supporters are inherently sexist. Instead, she finds solace in the attention Schlafly’s campaign gives to stay-at-home mothers, a group of women who are the punchline of sexist jokes and overlooked by the Second Wave feminists. Additionally, Second Wave feminism is shown as being anything but a utopia, as issues of race, sexuality and gender collide without resolution. In the fourth episode, Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson) editor of Ms magazine and civil rights activist, finds her article ideas detailing black feminist experience overlooked in favour of articles focused on white women’s issues, highlighting how BAME women were, and still are, underrepresented by mainstream feminism. Moreover, the white feminists such as Steinem are portrayed as being oblivious that the discriminatory power structures which permeate society also exist in the ‘sisterhood’. Mrs. America shows that the disagreements, inconsistencies and prejudices internal to the feminist movement itself need to be actively tackled and resolved if we are to continue making wider progress for all women.
One of the harrowing messages to be taken away from the series is that in the US, other than one declaring men and women have the equal right to vote, there is still no law explicitly preventing discrimination on account of sex. Schlafly’s legacy may seem set in stone, particularly as Donald Trump is a huge fan of her work. However, strides have been made forward in recent years as recently Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. The programme will bring the ERA back into the public consciousness, perhaps succeeding in inspiring a new generation of feminists to take up this particular battle for equality once again.
Mrs. America is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
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