When Cate Blanchett as the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in the FX-Hulu series Mrs. America gives her first speech against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971, it seems almost by accident. Speaking at a luncheon of the Daughters of the American Revolution, she abandons her usual topic of defense spending to focus on a subject which up until then had been bipartisan and comparatively bland. The ERA, a constitutional amendment which would guarantee equality between the sexes, had just been passed by the House of Representatives, received an endorsement from a Republican president, and was on its way to ratification by the states. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX as well as Supreme Court decisions that prohibited hiring discrimination, many saw ERA ratification as more symbolic than substantial, codifying legal protections that had already been created over the past decade.
But Schlafly sensed an opportunity. “They want to use our miraculous constitution to create a sex-neutral society through the so-called Equal Rights Amendment,” she forewarns, testing out the inflammatory rhetoric that over the next decade would help ignite the culture wars. The ERA would lead to the drafting of women into combat, she said, as well as the end of alimony, unisex bathrooms, homosexuals out of the closet, and worst of all, men taking care of children.
Despite certain mischaracterizations of Schlafly’s personal life, Mrs. America succeeds enormously in revealing the religious and cultural assumptions that compelled her to cling to a sanitized vision of the past. As a polemicist who both resisted the machinations of the Republican Party and sought validation by its conservative wing, Schlafly—with the permission of her husband—played on the middle-class housewife’s fears about the uncertainty posed by new freedoms in the workplace and in society at large. Blanchett completely inhabits her character, from the baronial cadence and permanently ensconced smile to sometimes unexpected moments of vulnerability. The rest of the cast is equally effective and affecting, including Schlafly’s close friend Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson), who has a crisis of conscience and joins Marxist lesbians in a marijuana-induced sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land” at the 1977 National Women’s Conference, and Republican ERA supporter Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) who watches her GOP, and her identity, slip out from under her.
The show has been skewered in the conservative press. Commentary’s Christine Rosen bemoaned the representation of Schlafly’s character “as icy, Stepford-like, and instrumental in her connection with other women, navigating a world of pastel dresses and appropriate chit chat like a seasoned politician rather than an empathetic friend.” Abigail Shrier (who has a forthcoming book on “the transgender craze”) wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal complaining that “there is no factual basis for the show’s assertions that Schlafly at any point cultivated racist supporters, that she and her husband shared an envy-plagued or sexually dysfunctional relationship, that she invented case law or deployed ad hominem arguments to win debates.” In a blitz of interviews for Elle, Vanity Fair, and the Washington Times, Schlafly’s daughter Anne Schlafly Cori criticized the show’s portrayal of her parents’ relationship, and its omission of religion as central to her worldview.
The show’s creator and former Mad Men producer Dahvi Waller said she didn’t interview any of the characters’ family members so as to reproduce fact as a biopic; instead, she chose to create a panoptic piece of art, which took liberty with subjective memory and private life: “I wanted to write the show from multiple points of view and be in different perspectives from episode to episode. I felt if I sat down and talked to anyone, I was beholden to their version of events.” Waller spent two years engaged in archival research and even hired Schlafly biographer Carol Felsenthal as a consultant for the show. In almost every frame, one can see the attention the creators invested in bringing the period to life, and they invite the viewer to relish its peculiarities: the frequent and unironic use of the words brother, sister, and comrade; Betty Friedan’s leather dresses; and how uncharismatic George McGovern really was.