Feminism's Bogeyman Gets the Last Word in Mrs. America

Feminism's Bogeyman Gets the Last Word in Mrs. America

There’s a moment in Hulu’s new drama Mrs. America when feminist activist and future U.S. Representative Bella Abzug, played by a salty Margo Martindale, stumbles upon a group of women from the STOP ERA campaign. Clutching their “BELLA GO HOME” signs in the absence of their conservative queen bee Phyllis Schlafly, the bread-baking housewives of the grassroots campaign proudly tell Abzug that they don’t want to be working girls.

“Has she taught you how to lobby legislators?” Abzug asks, regarding Schlafly’s holy wisdom. “Has she taught you how to draft a press release, a speech? How to answer reporters’ questions, give a television interview?” She’s done all of that, the STOP ERA women say, beaming. “Congratulations, you’re working girls,” Abzug says with a smirk.

If there’s one message to take away from Mrs. America, it’s that the women of STOP ERA were working activists in their own right, ones who shouldn’t have been underestimated by a growing feminist establishment in America during the 1970s. The series takes a sweeping, sometimes scattered view of feminist activism and leaders in this era, from Shirley Chisholm’s (Uzo Aduba) groundbreaking presidential campaign as the first black woman candidate to staff meetings at the Ms. Magazine under Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) whose fame as a pretty, well-spoken figurehead for the movement had reached rockstar status. But the show’s leading lady isn’t a feminist at all, rather it’s feminism’s biggest bogeyman, Phyllis Schlafly, played with a chilling frigidity by Cate Blanchett in a role that will certainly earn her an Emmy.

The series takes a sweeping, sometimes scattered view of feminist activism and leaders in this era.

The series follows the villainous Schlafly, an anti-communist activist, and author, as she mobilizes thousands of conservative women across the country to fight the Equal Rights Amendment, which Schlafly incorrectly asserts will force girls into the draft and disrupt gender roles. Over time, the group grows more and more conservative, looping in outright racists and fundamentalists. Baking pies and bread for legislators to get their support, the ladies mount a significant campaign, which feminists like Steinem wanted to simply ignore. Even as Schlafly lies frequently through a tense, lipsticked smile, about supportive attendance at rallies, about the specifics of the ERA, women remain captivated by her message, housewives with no political background finally seen by someone who wants their support.

For as electrifying as Blanchett’s performance is as Schlafly—and heavyweights like Steinem and Betty Friedan (recreated via a hoarse-voiced impression from Tracey Ullman) get ample screen time—the show finds electric purpose in depicting the work of legislators, organizers, and activists whose work has been terribly overlooked in mainstream culture. Episodes focusing on ACLU lawyer and co-founder of Women’s Action Alliance Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) who roasts Schlafly in a debate after she invents a legal case on air to support a dubious argument, and the episodes focused on Abzug and Chisholm underscore the breadth of the movement beyond pop culture celebrity. That viewers are also a party to their disagreements over lesbianism, conceding on abortion issues, tokenism, and sexual harassment is a welcome, nuanced depiction of an era of activism that could be frequently messy and petty.

Still, the speedy pace of the nine-episode show and the massive scope it takes make you wish for deeper dives into some of the women on the fringes of the show. A too-brief scene depicting a party at Black Power activist Flo Kennedy’s house, played by Niecy Nash, just barely skims a discussion of radical black feminists and their reticence to align with white feminists and lesbians. The only conclusion we get is in the form of a flyer announcing the creation of a National Black Feminist Organization, which Steinem finds on a desk at the Ms. Magazine office, and just that flyer begs for an entire episode. Just as a movement couldn’t effectively champion everyone’s story, neither can a television show trying to depict it.

Just as a movement couldn’t effectively champion everyone’s story, neither can a television show trying to depict it.

But Mrs. America knows who its real star is. While there are a few jokes told here and there at the expense of the STOP ERA proponents (such as when the electoral process must be described to a confused housewife by comparing it to a Pillsbury bakeoff), Mrs. America takes a surprisingly humanist touch to Schlafly and her supporters, depicted in two characters Alice (Sarah Paulson) and Pamela (Kayli Carter) as composites. The series takes great pains to portray the limits of Schlafly’s ambition as a working mother, even if she continued to consider herself (and sell herself) as a scrappy housewife. She is tasked with taking notes like a secretary in a meeting with politicians, and in another scene submits to sex with her husband even after repeatedly refusing. The road to Schlafly’s law degree is depicted as a battle with her husband, who in real life initially didn’t want her to attend college. I can imagine both radical feminists and conservatives watching Mrs. America and finding a hero to root for, and the show may feel lopsided for anyone expecting a spiriting, varnished depiction of radical ’70s feminism.

There’s something a bit smarmy about the way Mrs. America depicts the prescience of Schlafly’s work as an Evangelical-courting, lie-spreading conservative who mobilized thousands of white women across the country to rally against homosexuality, abortion, and unisex bathrooms to name a few of their favorite horrors. The feminists, on the other hand, are painted as failures for declining to battle Schlafly aggressively, the show’s hammering of their negligence lingers in the show’s final moments like a bad aftertaste. As the series nears the 1980s and Reagan’s victory looms on the horizon, the show gives credit to Schlafly’s organizing of supporters as a brick laid for America’s conservative movement to come. And when a young Paul Manafort and Roger Stone eventually pop up, eager to get Schlafly’s advice, suddenly her one brick looks more like a cornerstone. “She’s not going to get the last word,” Steinem tells Friedan at one point. But according to Mrs. America, Schlafly already has.

Mrs. America premieres April 15 on Hulu.

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