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The Backlash Appeal of Mrs. America

Why do we watch dramas about right-wing women?

Sabrina Lantos/FX

“But aren’t women really worse male chauvinists than men, I mean, most of them?” Warren Beatty asks the poet and director Sandra Hochman, a few minutes into her brilliant, anarchic docu-fantasia about the 1972 Democratic convention, Year of the Woman. Leaning down toward her, his frown a flirtatious parody of respectful curiosity, he insists: “Aren’t they more destructive to the women’s movement, basically, than men are…?” He isn’t actually talking about the conservative activist and author Phyllis Schlafly, who that same year began her crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment, and who is played with relish by Cate Blanchett in Dahvi Waller’s glitzy new FX/Hulu drama Mrs. America. Yet Beatty’s silken tone does convey a fascination with the anti-feminist woman that retains its grip on filmmakers all these decades later.

From Meryl Streep’s admiring portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, to Nicole Kidman’s and Charlize Theron’s peppy takes on Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, the woman empowered by reactionary politics is an enduringly potent fetish object, for liberals in particular. Mrs. America seems at first to be a case in point. It begins in 1972, when Schlafly starts marshaling her anti-ERA forces. She’s the underdog: At that year’s Republican convention, delegates from the National Women’s Political Caucus ensured that the party platform declared support for the ERA, as well as for federally sponsored childcare. Nine episodes span the period up to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide, in which Schlafly plays a supporting role, and which marks the end of the women’s movement as a certain kind of visible force in American politics.

The show’s scope is ambitious, with individual episodes following Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). The feminists occasionally threaten to run away with the story, but Schlafly dominates—the star antagonist, shaping the narrative throughout. You can understand this character’s appeal: At the crudest level, there’s the perverse thrill of villainy. We see Schlafly chuckling over the notion of public money for women’s shelters: “I think the husband will be more inclined to beat her if he thinks she’s going to get a vacation funded by his tax dollars!” She’s also unembarrassed by any apparent contradiction between her opposition to women’s lib and her own careerism—rather than stay home to enjoy the attentions of her wealthy lawyer husband and six children, Schlafly added a law degree to her master’s in government, made several runs for public office, gave speeches around the country, and debated her enemies on TV. Free of the guilty unease that dogs upper–middle-class white feminists, she likes to announce, “I’ve always said that women can do whatever they want.” As a vehement anti-Communist, she believes in an American individualism that lets you have it all ways at once. If the protections and privileges of a pampered wife have helped her thrive in the public sphere, that’s all the more reason to defend and celebrate them.

There’s a deeper aspect, though, to the lure of the right-wing woman, and it speaks to Mrs. America’s greatest strength. Such characters lay bare the danger in assuming that your social cause may eventually prevail through the justness of its arguments, that it’s possible and sufficient to be—in that notably passive locution—on the right side of history. Mrs. America is an apt reminder that the achievements of the women’s movement were never a matter of historical progress. Gains are contingent. They must be negotiated, schemed, and fought for. As Blanchett’s Schlafly puts it, “It’s about power.”


And power, initially, looks to be all it’s about. The show’s fine-grained politicking requires so much exposition in the early episodes that there’s little room for character development. We get glimpses of Gloria Steinem’s boyfriends and Betty Friedan’s painful encounter with her child’s new young stepmother, but these can feel rote, generic.

That gamble soon pays off as the show develops. The shifting struggles, machinations, and compromises that activism entails become the heart of the drama, with political disappointments and conflicts informing and sharpening the domestic ones, rather than the other way around. It’s a relief to acknowledge that the way a person engages in politics may tell you more about her than the details of her love life. We see Chisholm fight to stay in the race for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination when supposed allies are insisting it’s time to rally behind George McGovern—and their shamed disillusionment when he nonetheless betrays them over abortion rights. Later, Abzug accuses Steinem of wanting to “preach to the choir” by going to California and discussing wording for sex workers’ rights, while she heads to do battle on Schlafly’s turf, Illinois. To her comrades’ shock, Abzug threatens to drop a promised motion for protections on sexual preference. “You were a bigger radical than me when we met!” Steinem says at one point. “And you were a dilettante,” Abzug retorts, “who wanted to play politics.”

Yet Abzug looks uncomfortable when Friedan reassures her that the only way to win is to abandon what she considers fringe interests, and focus, like Schlafly, on one simple demand: equal pay for equal work. “Does it bother you that no one calls you a radical anymore?” Abzug asks. “The movement is getting down to middle America,” Friedan insists. “We’re mainstream, that’s a good thing.” The question keeps coming up: Who decides which goals are indispensable?

The other side isn’t immune to such problems. Schlafly has to manage the egos of lobbyists and Republican insiders, and coordinate the factions she relies on: the Southern evangelicals and Illinois housewives, the more explicit white supremacists (Birchers, Klansmen) she must publicly disavow, but whose fervor helps her numbers. Even emotional dramas in the Schlafly home serve mainly to illuminate her politics. There’s a family showdown when Schlafly finds out her daughter, just coming to consciousness as an undergraduate, has changed her name from Phyllis Jr. to Liza. Her Princeton friends are feminists, who “all want to be Gloria Steinem” (the ubiquity of Steinem-alikes is a recurring visual gag in the series). She feels like Hester Prynne, an outcast. Eyes welling, face rigid, Schlafly responds with a story about her own youth during the Depression, when her mother, on top of full-time work, took a Saturday job at a Roman Catholic high school so that Phyllis could attend. Classmates laughed, but she says, “I never, ever thought, let alone said, that I was ashamed ... of her.”

The same biographical material is used to still more striking effect when her husband, Fred (John Slattery), is helping her practice for a debate. Playing the enemy, he points out that marriage and the existing laws had not spared her own mother from scrambling to support her family on a pittance. The moment highlights the incoherence in Schlafly’s arguments, but also their potency: Whatever the ERA would actually mean for women, Schlafly has a strong, hard-won intuition that being a breadwinner won’t in itself liberate anyone, not the middle-class wives who “are going to find themselves with two full-time jobs,” and not those so poor that they are already trapped in several.

Although there are quite a few scenes in which Schlafly must swallow routine sexist indignities, the humiliations that really hurt are setbacks in her political career—when she feigns illness to avoid a delegate election that she fears she’ll lose, or when Reagan calls to thank her for her help, but doesn’t offer her the post she’d hoped for in return. Or when she realizes why Fred was so supportive the last time she ran for Congress: He didn’t think she could win.

The subject’s superficial appeal, both for audiences and for Dahvi Waller, who previously worked on Mad Men, is obvious. What could be more fun than a retro-glam Cruella de Vil, whose antics you can thoroughly enjoy while having the superiority of your own politics reaffirmed? Yet in the end it isn’t Schlafly who provides the show’s most arresting element. Whatever her private disappointments, her politics prevailed, and they often feel more contemporary than those of the “libbers” represented here and in Hochman’s film. The painful nostalgia is for a moment when American feminists, however imperfectly, were attempting to build diverse coalitions, when they fought to gain power and to make real change at the same time.