Cate Blanchett in FX’s Mrs. America (Source)
It’d be easy to assume– on first glance– that Mrs. America is a show about one particularly driven Conservative housewife, and her dream of escaping the suburbs.
Weirdly, that’s exactly what Phyllis Schlafly (the historical figure at the centre of the show’s publicity) wouldn’t want you to think. And nor is it entirely true.
[Spoiler warning: there’s a fair amount of plot discussion ahead – spoilers aplenty]
I remember seeing Cate Blanchett’s sharply tailored, back-lit silhouette in promo photos, before reading up on the show’s plot, and wrongly assuming it went the way of ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, the title to one of Jia Tolentino’s essays in her 2019 book Trick Mirror. To me, it looked like a show that valorised the ruthless pursuit of success by an individual woman, without stopping to examine the ways in which that aggressive pursuit actually undermined the show’s professed feminist precepts.
(One thing I’ve learned from all of this: stop judging shows by their publicity photos. Yes, you– you looking at the photos I’ve included in this article. Stop thinking you already know what kind of show Mrs. America is, or what I’m about to say)
The story of Phyllis Schlafly, a Conservative author best known for organising a suburban grassroots campaign in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution, is only one in an immense tapestry of stories and experiences woven together in Mrs. America. (A quick explainer: the ERA is a constitutional amendment which legally enshrines equality regardless of sex, ending legal distinctions along gendered lines with regards to employment, divorce, property ownership, and other areas). The pilot episode introduces Schlafly at a Republican fundraising event, modelling an American flag bathing suit and preening under the sound of an announcer’s voice: “Mrs. J. Fred Schlafly!”
Schlafly is the pilot’s main focus, and the show nimbly sets up the context for her first love; nuclear strategy and national defence policy. In a conservative talk-show interview, she explains to the show’s host and Republican congressional candidate Phil Crane (played with smiling paternity by James Marsden), that along with studying political science, she began working as a gunner and ballistics technician when the Second World War broke out. “A regular Rosie the Riveter!” Crane cuts her off, moving the conversation on.
Source) James Marsden in Mrs. America (
The inciting incident in Schlafly’s timeline, in the eyes of the show, occurs later in this first episode. Having been invited to a discussion on Republican defence strategy—on the pretext that “you know more than any of us” about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, as Crane says in her dressing room after the show— Schlafly finds herself being ignored, overlooked, and asked to take minutes on the meeting. Having stayed relatively quiet during some initial, pre-meeting chatter about the upcoming vote on the ERA bill, (when asked about it by Barry Goldwater, Crane responds, “It’s not her area of expertise”), Schlafly insisted “I’ve never been discriminated against. I think some women like to blame sexism for their failures, instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.”
But when she’s asked to take minutes– in a meeting to which she’d supposedly been invited to give an expert opinion– somewhere inside Schlafly an invisible switch seems to flick. “Well soon we’ll have girls in the foxholes, and then we’ll really be at a disadvantage,” she mutters to herself, before launching into an impassioned argument against the ERA as a hamper on women’s ‘privileges’ within their ‘traditional’ roles. When Goldwater and Crane suggest her argument could become a potential campaign plank for Schlafly’s run for Congress, she demurs again. “I’m not interested in running on women’s issues,” she laughs. “Still, it’s a good spin,” Goldwater smiles, thinking.
Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America (Source)
The show’s initial concern is the push-and-pull within these ideas. That Schlafly– finding herself ignored in policy discussions in her field of expertise, and on the issues that first got her interested in politics—decided to hitch her wagon to ‘women’s issues’ in an act of political expediency, shows an incredibly complicated set of motives at work. “When I started to research into her and learned that her passion and her career for twenty years prior to 1972 was in military strategy, defense strategy, and that her real passion was defense, I thought, ‘Well now there’s an interesting mystery,’” creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller said in a public radio interview in April. “She just couldn’t get into this — what was very much a boys club. But when she started talking and speaking out against the ERA, she started getting a lot of traction.”
Contrary to most of my preconceptions about Mrs. America, the show is not simply a biographical study of one woman— albeit one staggeringly complicated woman. Schlafly’s home life, and particularly her deputy-wives, are a subject of considerable attention—the invisible women who worked to ensure her six children were fed and cared for. They include Schlafly’s disarmingly pitiable sister-in-law Eleanor, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, and their submissive housekeeper Willie Reed, played by Novie Edwards.
In addition to Eleanor and Willie, and the immediate circle of church friends and fellow home-makers who inspire Schlafly to develop a politically activated network of suburban women, Mrs. America continues to zoom out, setting its sights on an even broader cross-section of attitudes towards gender and the ERA.
It’s the last few minutes of that pilot episode which define the show for me. In particular, a broad sweeping shot of congresswomen Bella Abzug (played by Margot Martindale), Shirley Chisolm (the first black woman to serve in Congress, the first black representative to run for major-party presidential candidacy, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination—played by Uzo Aduba), and Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne) cradling a bottle of champagne and some mugs, as they hustle into the new offices of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) to the sound of Etta James’ ‘Fire’.
They’re greeted by— and the show is subsequently populated with— a dream cast of 1970’s American feminist figures—from the ornery matriarch of the second-wave movement Betty Friedan (played with gusto by Tracey Ullman), Republican feminist and co-founder of the National Organisation of Women Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), co-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women Carmen Delgado Votaw (Andrea Navedo)— and even a sneaky cameo from a future Supreme Court justice (Tara Nicodemo). In a conversation between Steinem and a Ford-appointee looking to start a women’s taskforce, the talk turns to Schlafly, and the potential for a public face-off. “Maybe you should debate her, Mrs. Ginsburg,” the Attorney General suggests, after a softly-spoken woman in the corner of the room defends the judicial need for the ERA. “Oh no,” she shakes her head, “I don’t like the limelight.”
Bella Abzug (Margot Martindale), Audrey Rowe Colom (Melissa Joyner), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Carmen Delgado Votaw (Andrea Navedo), and other members of the NWPC (Source)
The project of representing this multi-faceted, highly factional movement over the course of nearly a decade, and the conservative backlash against it, is not an easy one—but it’s taken on by Waller, and her team of writers and directors, with incredible deftness. Immediately upon introduction to the NWPC, we see the group pick up where they left off— with a heated discussion of their intentions, arguments over credit and credibility, over Nixon’s endorsement of the ERA (“I thought trashing Nixon was bi-partisan!” quips Steinem, when Ruckelshaus suggests the Republican president isn’t all bad), over Friedan’s prickly views on sexuality and LGBT rights. “We’re not each others’ enemies”, Friedan says in that first episode, but the show’s undertow of emotional friction, and its focus on the rivalries amongst the NWPC, continually call that statement into doubt.
In a later episode, when black lesbian editor and activist Margaret Sloan-Hunter (played by Bria Henderson) joins Steinem’s fledgling Ms. Magazine, a facet of this friction reveals itself—like a subterranean sea monster surfacing for air. In an article pitch meeting, surrounded entirely by white editors and writers, Sloan-Hunter suggests an article on “tokenism in the workplace”– instances where
“One minority is propped up to cover the experience of an entire population. Like the white population, we are diverse within ourselves.”
“What does that mean—‘diverse within ourselves?’” Another editor asks.
“There is not a monolithic black experience.”
“Wait, sorry—you’re not saying you feel that way here..?” Someone else asks.
“No.. no. Not at all”, Sloan-Hunter assures them after a moment.
Sloan-Hunter ended up leaving the magazine, going on to co-found the National Black Feminist Organisation. But the echoes of that conversation, and the failures of the second-wave movement to unify beneath a broad intersectional umbrella, reverberate throughout the show.
Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson) in Mrs. America (Source)
Intermingled with my love of this action-movie style assemblage of famous feminists, and this epic (in the Greek sense of the word) look at their lives throughout the 1970s, is this persistent, itchy feeling that we’re still not getting it quite right. It’s a feeling Tolentino articulates brilliantly in Trick Mirror, an extended rumination on our current culture’s need for, and contingency upon, self-delusion. In an essay examining some of the more obvious examples of this self-delusive culture—‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’— Tolentino writes about the emergence of market-friendly pop feminism and ‘Girlboss’ culture, stating that
The problem is that a feminism that prioritizes the individual will always, at its core, be at odds with a feminism that prioritizes the collective. The problem is that it is so easy today for a woman to seize upon an ideology she believes in and then exploit it, or deploy it in a way that actually runs counter to that ideology.
Tolentino touches on these ideas again, later, in ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, where she unpacks the idea of celebrities as feminist figures, and the need for a less celebrity-focused narrative. I can’t help but think of Tolentino’s words when gushing over Mrs. America with friends, like it’s the latest Marvel movie. ‘I just want to be Gloria Steinem,’ I found myself saying, ‘I mean, long-term, Betty Friedan. But, like, short-term—Gloria.’
This focus on the individual, and our tendency to gauge the success of a collective through individual triumphs, has a powerful grip on what we see as important, and how we decide to take action. It’s evident in the physical structuring of Mrs. America—each of the nine episodes are named after a particular figure; ‘Betty’, ‘Bella’, ‘Phyllis’. Admittedly, it’s a huge part of the reason I’m so preoccupied with American feminists, who are often the most culturally-enshrined as individuals— making them easily distinguishable, digestable, stan-able. It’s even subconsciously shaped our choices behind the current structure of FreeBird.
It’s not necessarily a harmful idea, in those instances. But it is worth noting. It makes me think of something Jeffrey Toobin— one of Tolentino’s fellow New Yorker staff writers— once said of the Mueller Report, “Simplicity rarely loses to complexity in battles in the public square.“
Like Tolentino, I’ve developed a gentle kind of scepticism when it comes to cultural works which seek to isolate individuals as singular, stand-alone bastions of hope—or the celebrities through whom ‘pop feminism’ tends to express itself. Ultimately, I think Mrs. America manages to resist this ideological temptation, and instead continues to zoom outwards, bringing in more characters, and take on an even wider lens, as the series progresses. And by the final episode, what really struck me was the extent to which only one character remained isolated— so blinkered, so laser-focused on her own success, she’d become unable to help or connect with even her closest friends. Schlafly.
“Valuing a woman for her difficulty can, in ways that are unexpectedly destructive, obscure her actual, particular self”, Tolentino writes. “Sexism rears its head no matter who a woman is, no matter what her desires and ethics might be. And a woman doesn’t have to be a feminist icon to resist it—she can just be self-interested, which is not always the same thing.” I thought of that, watching Schlafly enter an elevator filled entirely with black-suited men, gazing upwards as they begin their ascent.
Schlafly encountered considerable hurdles— early on in her career, and throughout her time in the public eye, ending with her death in 2016. She penned four books on Republican nuclear policy before turning her attention to ‘women’s issues’. And yet, the show refuses to embrace her simply because of her ‘difficult’-ness, choosing instead to focus on her personal politics— the ways she punished and constrained the women closest to her. When Alice, a composite character representing several different members of STOP ERA, (played with piercing sincerity by Sarah Paulson) comes to the realisation that Schlafly is largely using the anti-ERA movement for her own personal gain, she articulates that constraint in their final scene together. “It’s empowering”, Alice says of securing her first job, signalling the end of her time as a stay-at-home mother and a shift in her slow drift away from Schlafly’s inner circle. “You used to feel empowered by me,” nudges Schlafly, the corners of her mouth twitching up. “I used to feel scared,” Alice replies.
Sarah Paulson in Mrs. America (Source)
The beginning of Alice’s defection— her first glimpse beyond Schalfly’s all-American fishbowl of ‘tradition’— takes place in a scene which reiterates the factional nature of the second-wave feminists. In sharp contrast to the lock-step operations of STOP ERA, Alice watches a group of NWPC members discussing an imperilled vote on a resolution at the National Women’s Conference of 1977. “What if each of the caucuses got to write their own addendum?” suggests Delgado Votaw, of the resolution. “I want to make sure everyone here approves this approach,” says Steinem, cross-legged on a hotel room floor, surrounded by her peers. One by one, she goes around the circle of women, checking she has their consent.
Alice watches on from across the room, and the difference between what she now witnesses, and autocracy of STOP ERA, is stark. The divided NWPC leaders sit within a larger whole– a whole ultimately strengthened by their differences.
Alice (Sarah Paulson) finds herself just beyond the circle of discussion (Source)
Critical takes on Mrs. America cite how close it cuts to our current reality, how “it’s painful and uncomfortable to see the on-screen history of [the show] repeat itself in our off-screen lives”. In my mind, that makes the show all the more necessary to watch. The work of the second-wave feminist movement was imperfect, often troubled—and while it’s tempting to mentally turn the show’s more famous historical figures into inspirational memes, it’s something we should actively resist. It’s a trick mirror—something that, in Tolentino’s words, shows us “the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault”.
And in fact, no attempt to see ourselves, no ‘mirror’ of cultural representation is totally accurate, Tolentino writes in a related essay on the HBO show Girls; “not a friend, not a story, not an auteur, and definitely not a television show.” What matters, when it comes to the trick mirror of feminist historical narratives, and the idea of ‘difficult women’, is what you do when you finally look away.
Mrs. America is currently streaming on iPlayer. Check out Jia Tolentino’s twitter, as well as her other writing for the New Yorker, Jezebel, and other outlets. You can find Trick Mirror in your local independent bookstore.