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  • Articles by Sonali

    Review: Mrs America

    TV miniseries, Mrs America created by Dahvi Waller for FX on Hulu productions, depicts real events that take place in 1971 when Richard Nixon was president of the United States. It focuses on Republican author and activist Phyllis Schlafly who from 1971 to 1982 coordinated a robust opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) championed by the Women’s Liberation Movement.

    The Women’s Liberation Movement was gaining support in political circles in its campaign to win personal freedoms for women and the Equal Rights Amendment was close to being ratified, until Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) intervened. In the program the Women’s Liberation movement is led by Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) alongside Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman) author of the ground-breaking The Feminine Mystique, and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) the first African American Congress woman.

    Schlafly’s own bid to win a seat in Congress was unsuccessful. Instead she focused her political aspirations on the STOP ERA campaign at grass roots level. Her STOP ERA campaign claimed that the ERA posed a threat to American housewives. Amongst other specious arguments Schlafly said if the amendment was ratified women would be immediately drafted into the Vietnam War and both alimony and the Girl Scouts would be abolished.

    Schlafly stands against women going to work but her political hobby and activism is mainly funded by her husband’s family wealth. She and the ladies-who-lunch who make up the STOP ERA campaign are caricatured in bouffant hairstyles, wearing tweed twin-sets embellished with brooches and strings of pearls.

    Blanchett’s Schlafly seems sinister in her thirst for power and influence. But the show reveals the complexities and nuances behind Schlafly and the rest of the cast on either of the debate.

    Each of the 9 episodes centres on a specific character, taking their name: Phyllis, Gloria, Shirley etc. looking at how their individual outlook on the ERA affects their lives and family along with stories of the wider cast. Schlafly’s involvement in the STOP ERA campaign affected her children. Her own daughter distanced herself from her while at college because she disagreed with her mother’s stance on women’s rights.

    Mrs America has won widespread acclaim but controversially Gloria Steinem, now 86 years old, has criticised the show for exaggerating Schlafly's role in hindering the progress of the amendment. She says it was stopped due to vested interests. The ERA has not been ratified to this day. Steinem has also said the series makes it seem as if women were in conflict in their quest towards securing equal rights.

    In episode 4, there is a heated TV debate when Betty Friedan calls Schlafly ‘a hypocrite and a traitor to her gender’. There is also an argument between Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm. Abzug tells Chisholm to abandon her campaign to be the Democratic Presidential Candidate in case she upsets the likely winner Senator Jim McGovern. McGovern has promised to support several women’s issues.

    On the whole though women were on the fringes of the political process and more involved in lobbying. The STOP ERA group resorted to covert methods like plying male legislators with home baked bread and jam ‘from the breadmakers to the breadwinners’.

    The program also highlights how some of Schlafly’s tactics are employed by the current Trump administration. In one scene, chat show host, Phil Donahue played by Tom O’Keefe questions the veracity of some of the claims made by Schlafly when she appears on his show.

    Schlafly, like Trump, has a knack for referring to alternative facts. She overstates the numbers attending the conference in Houston that she organised to counteract the National Women’s Conference in 1977. Incidentally, Schlafly was a Trump supporter and Trump read the eulogy at her funeral in 2016.

    Mrs America is set in a period of change and upheaval and the use of real footage of the Women’s Liberation Movement woven into the drama helps bring this to life. The era appropriate soundtrack adds to the atmosphere. The drama helps to humanise Schlafly especially in terms of the reaction of her children to her involvement in the STOP ERA campaign, but perhaps this is misleading. Her influence was pernicious. Nonetheless, well- written, well-acted and informative, Mrs America is worth a look.

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