Mrs America (TV series)

3 07 2020
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, from the Mrs America TV series (photo from IMDB)

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, from the Mrs America TV series (photo from IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9244556/mediaviewer/rm3950416641)

I watched Mrs America recently and it took me back to my late teens when I segued from high school in a regional Western Australian town to university in Perth.

For me this transition occurred in the early ’70s, right in the middle of the US and then global women’s rights movement. It was an awakening time in many ways, as it often is for those going from the comfortable existence living under their parents’ wing in a country town, to the ‘radical’ ideas and different norms of life at university in a big city. Perth was a city, but in terms of population and mores it was more like a big conservative country town. Things from the outside world didn’t penetrate very far—there was no internet, social media, etc. so all news and information came via tightly (and conservatively and male) controlled newspapers, TV news etc. Of course, some at university had other sources and so there were alternative opinions and ideas offered in the student newspapers and at the protest marches of the time (mostly against conscription and Australia’s involvement in Vietnam, though there were some women’s right marches too—I’ve never been an overt protester so I never went to any marches). That sets the scene for where I was for much of the time period covered by Mrs America—sheltered from the big bad world, living on the far west coast of Australia under the wings of my parents, and then at university. I was a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby for a short time while I was at uni.

I’d heard of some of the American women involved in the women’s rights movement—Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan, mainly, though I think I’d heard of Bella Abzug too; Shirley Chisholm was a vague recollection—but I never read any of their books. In Australia, the publishing and bookselling industries were very controlled and getting books from the US was almost impossible, so I’m not sure we even had access to those books at that time, except perhaps from underground sources. Being Australian, The Female Eunuch (Germaine Greer, 1970) was the main feminist work I was exposed to. Other writings I recall included Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1970; I think I still have my copy of that!) and a bit later, Damned Whores and God’s Police (Anne Summers, 1975 [Australian]).

I had never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, though I think I’d heard of the STOP ERA group.

So I came to Mrs America knowing a little about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) struggle, but not much, and what I did know was way back in my memory banks and half a world away from where I was living.

First, I loved this series and all aspects of its production. The costumes and sets were exactly as I remember from the time, even the excessive smoking everywhere. And the acting was superb. The two Australian leads—Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly and Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem—were brilliant and both deserve awards for their performances. The plot moved along at a good pace, and the focus of each episode on the main players of the time and the chronological sequencing of those episodes was done well. There was SO much to love about this series, and I intend watching it again.

But then there was the subject matter, and so much of it brought back feelings of frustration and anger rage at how little has changed for women in general, and especially for women of colour and LBGTQIA women. And anger that the ERA STILL has not been ratified in the US (I can equally point fingers at Australia—we certainly don’t have a good track record on the rights of anyone but white men either).

But my deep well of anger was reserved for Schlafly and her team of STOP ERA slaves (what else do you call people who work for all hours for nothing but the crumbs from their controlling mistress?) and for the far-right wing evangelist Lottie Beth Hobbs (played by Cindy Drummond) who Schlafly joined with (well, bulldozed is a better description) to gain more supporters for her cause, and as a result added a pro-life, anti-abortion, anti-gay aspect to her platform to appease Lottie’s conservative right-wing Christian evangelical followers.

Schlafly, as depicted in Mrs America, was the biggest hypocrite. Her platform was against women working outside the home, yet she had a job as a political lobbyist (adviser on nuclear and defense policy at the highest levels of the US government), ran for the US Congress twice, wrote several books, gained two degrees, and had 6 children by the time Mrs America starts, and had a law degree by the time it finishes. And how did she do all these things? She had Black women to run her household (no doubt paid a pittance), a well-heeled lawyer husband to support her financially, and an unmarried (and belittled) sister to palm her children off to when the Black women weren’t available. And once she started her newsletter and the STOP ERA movement, she had a team of unpaid volunteers (women like her with children, but not necessarily with the same support networks to look after them) who she worked to the bone and treated like her minions. As depicted in the series, one of these was obviously being abused by her husband, but Schlafly’s response was for her to dismiss it and to tell the woman to stay in the marriage. Schlafly was bossy and super controlling, was always right (in her mind), and what she said was law. She saw no hypocrisy in taking the stand that a woman’s place was in the home, yet working for a living and doing few, if any, homemaking activities herself. She was anti-gay, yet one of her sons came out as gay in 1992. She was supportive of her minions and staff baking bread and pies (no doubt financed by them, not Schlafly) to bring along to ‘bribe’ officials, yet did no baking herself. She swanned around bossing everyone with her upper middle class white privilege, yet taking no responsibility for what happened in her wake. I hated her. I love how well Cate Blanchett played her (she had to be good for me to hate the character), but I was so angry that Schlafly and her tribe hijacked the ERA.

(Aside: Some names that appeared in some of the episodes are still appearing in news stories today — Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, etc.)