American HustlePhyllis Schlafly, “Mrs. America,” and the Selling of Antifeminism

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America (Photo credit: Hulu)

In Rebecca Solnit’s new memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence, she writes, with her trademark haunting directness, that “Femininity at its most brutally conventional is a perpetual disappearing act, an erasure and a silencing to make more room for men, one in which your existence is considered aggression and your nonexistence a form of gracious compliance.” The sentence is part of a meditation on the author’s experience as a young woman in a young body; in the same week I watched the first four episodes of Mrs. America, FX on Hulu’s new limited series, it also seemed like an inadvertent caption to countless scenes in which women’s determination to be seen, to be heard, to matter, is greeted with puzzlement, exasperation, and anger.

Mrs. America is about specific historical figures and events, chief among them the feminist movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the unexpected spoiler who appeared in the form of a self-proclaimed housewife from Illinois. In reams of work documenting the gains, challenges, shortcomings, and setbacks of feminism, Phyllis Schlafly has regularly popped up in passing, but Mrs. America does more than fill in the blanks of a villain’s biography—it examines how the performance and marketing of antifeminism became a crucial part of the Republican party’s inexorable transformation into a pulpit for intolerance and bigotry. The show is complex not because Schlafly herself was complex, but because at its heart it is a collective portrait of women who decide to carve out space for themselves in realms traditionally and reflexively ceded to men.

And it wastes no time in perfectly and ruthlessly capturing the contradictions of the figure at its center, who, before she became the nation’s most famous anti-ERA crusader, wanted to talk politics and national security with powerful men. In the show’s premiere, set in 1971, Schlafly (Cate Blanchett)—already a familiar figure in the conservative and anti-Communist movements—is a guest on a conservative talk show hosted by smarmy Illinois congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden). Before they take the stage to discuss the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), Crane assures Schlafly that he’ll lob some softball questions “so you don’t seem like you’re in over your head.” After nodding at this bit of benign patronizing, Schlafly proceeds to get onstage and, as the kids on YouTube say, destroy Crane’s anodyne SALT talking points while not ruffling a hair on her fussily coiffed head. After she winds down, a dazed Crane cuts to a commercial break.  

At the time that the real-life Schlafly appeared on Crane’s show, the ERA was barely on her radar; it had already passed the House of Representatives by the time it became the centerpiece of her activism. Though she would rise to national prominence by defending the right of women to remain second-class citizens, Schlafly, like all loophole women, believed that she was meant for serious—that is to say, male—things. “I’ve never been discriminated against,” she says in a scene later in the first episode, when presidential candidate Barry Goldwater asks her opinion on the ERA demonstrators outside his Capitol Hill office. “I think some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.” It’s a rude surprise when, moments later, one of Goldwater’s Senate colleagues asks her to take notes during a meeting she expected to have a voice in. “You probably have the best penmanship.”

Mrs. America portrays Schlafly as a woman who was poised, organized, well-connected, and driven—and who began professionally vilifying other women in large part because the male power brokers of conservative politics made it clear that doing so was the only way she was useful to them. The question of whether the show is overly sympathetic in its portrayal of an objectively harmful figure whose racist, bigoted, antisemitic, xenophobic, and paranoid beliefs persisted up until her death at the age of 92 is a necessary one to parse. But there’s no question that, in contrasting Schlafly’s life and work with that of her sworn enemies in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Mrs. America is a clear-eyed reckoning with the impossible bargains demanded of women—regardless of where they stood on the ERA—who believed that they should not have to disappear.

The show’s creator, former Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire writer Dahvi Waller, has noted that she sold it to FX in 2015, when the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency seemed assured. Had that been the case, Mrs. America would have emerged into a very different context: Schlafly famously said that the United States would elect a woman president “over my dead body,” and given that she died in September 2016, it could have been a delicious (if overly simplistic) punchline. In 2020, it’s understandable that Mrs. America’s intrinsic humanizing of Schlafly can feel like adding insult to injury. The retrograde shift in American politics has already moved women backward in so many ways—do we really need to see one of its triumphant architects lionized?

But Mrs. America isn’t only Schlafly’s story: With each episode focused on and named for the women whose political and social activism helped shape the feminist movement’s visions, goals, and successes, it is also a reminder that the current battles for women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and political representation are ones that have been fought for decades. What results is, for better or worse, a living portrait of patriarchy—which, just as a reminder, is not a synonym for “men” but a term that amalgamates the concessions, compromises, humiliations, traps, and double standards that have always defined and circumscribed women’s lives. The word itself isn’t spoken, but its presence envelops the show’s characters, conflicts, and settings with an itchy, bruising inevitability.

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Patriarchy dogs Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), who chafes against her anointed role as the pretty face of feminism: “Is that my only value to the movement?” she asks congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale). “No, we need your tits and ass too,” Abzug replies. Patriarchy is Abzug’s willingness to sacrifice radicalism for expediency in the show’s depiction of 1972’s Democratic National Convention, when she urges presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), with increasing cruelty, to relinquish her delegates to eventual nominee George McGovern. A double bind of patriarchy and racism doomed Chisholm’s landmark run for the Democratic nomination, culminating in last-minute abandonment by both her feminist peers and her sole supporter from the Congressional Black Caucus. And, of course, patriarchy is both the animating force of Schlafly’s crusade to stop the ERA and, at home, the constant reminder of her own conditional status.

In one moment, she’s marshaling thousands of American housewives to protest a guarantee of equal rights by telling them that their god-given roles as wives and mothers is under attack; in another, she’s a wife exhausted at the end of the day being pressured to lie down so her husband (Mad Men’s John Slattery) can use her body with no more care than he’d use a sock. Mrs. America makes a strong case for Schlafly’s stated objections to the ERA as pure projection: She made up what she imagined to be written into the proposed amendment—women forced into combat in Vietnam, mothers losing custody of their children in divorces, the abolishment of the Girl Scouts, and, of course, the still-apparently-terrifying specter of unisex restrooms—and pushed it as truth.

By contrast, what she fought for with the STOP-ERA movement (the acronym stood, heralding a future army of Karens, for “Stop Taking Our Privileges”) were not laws but social constructs, like chivalry and respect for homemaking, that were chiefly relevant to other white, middle-class women. Schlafly disdained feminists on the grounds that they wanted to be men. In reality, they both wanted the same thing: to not have their sex determine whether they were recognized as full humans, taken seriously, and extended the same opportunities for success as the other half of the country’s population. Each episode of Mrs. America underscores these basic parallels by following Schlafly’s story alongside those of the women who doubted, dismissed, and challenged her, often revisiting real events in which she came face to face with her libber nemeses.

The show is complex not because Schlafly herself was complex, but because it is a collective portrait of women who carve out space for themselves in realms traditionally and reflexively ceded to men.

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The fourth episode, “Betty,” recreates a 1973 debate at Illinois State University between Schlafly and The Feminine Mystique author Friedan (a sublimely cranky Tracey Ullman)—one of the first “movement” feminists to recognize the genuine threat Schlafly posed to the ERA—in which Friedan lost both her cool and the rhetorical upper hand when she angrily said “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” The fifth episode, meanwhile, finds Schlafly faced down by ACLU lawyer Brenda Feigen Fasteau (Ari Graynor), who flips the script, pressing Schlafly to provide the name of a bogus case on which she hangs an argument. For the first time, Schlafly is struck silent, hit squarely in the one place that really hurts—her lack of a legal education. (Schlafly began attending law school in 1975, at least partly against the wishes of her husband.)

Schlafly and her pro-ERA opponents knew that, in focusing their political ire on one another, they weren’t directly addressing their real problem. Cautioning Friedan to rethink her plan to take on Schlafly in a debate, Steinem notes that it’s “exactly what the men with money want us to do. Use women as a cover and orchestrate a catfight to distract everyone so they can sit in dark rooms and smoke cigars and count their money.” Both the pro- and anti-ERA efforts ultimately needed men to achieve their desired goals; indeed, men’s opinions and decisions shaped everything from what women could lobby for at political conventions to what content they could publish in a feminist magazine. A scene in which New York magazine editor Clay Felker (Craig Warnock), who funded Ms.’s first issue, responds to Steinem’s plan to put Chisholm on the next cover by complaining “I’m already giving you a lesbian article!” also finds him bragging that he gave Steinem her first assignment at Esquire because he liked her legs—a one-two punch of acknowledgment that, as Ms. founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin said in an oral history of the magazine, “[N]othing happened without men. You needed one man to be nice to you and then maybe you could run with it.”

If Mrs. America seems too sympathetic to Schlafly, it might be because she’s played by Blanchett, an actor who has managed, at some point, to bewitch every camera in the world. Despite knowing little about Schlafly when she took the role, Blanchett (who is also one of the series’ executive producers) embodies her chilly mannerisms perfectly—an anvil disguised as a pastel princess cake. But the show is astute in most of its characterizations, as well as in capturing the interpersonal ego traps and ideological fissures in both mainstream liberal feminism and burgeoning Christian conservatism. Steinem’s necessary reckoning with her culpability in racial tokenism at Ms., for instance, isn’t the same thing as Schlafly’s displeasure that some of her cohort were proud, rather than polite, racists; and both are different from the frustrations felt by Florynce Kennedy (Niecy Nash), the radical lawyer and Black feminist lesbian constantly navigating multiple intersections in pursuit of justice. But they all reflect the role that whiteness and racism have played, and continue to, in women’s organizing.

That no character’s contradictions go unexplored reflects the breadth of research and source material that informs Mrs. America, and the reality that neither the fight for feminism nor the fight against it were events confined to one time period or era. (For that matter, nor was the ERA, now a subject of renewed organizing.) Mrs. America doesn’t aim to be a conclusive survey of how feminism won or lost. Instead, it’s a timely acknowledgment that women’s political convictions and actions are always assessed through societal lenses that put them at the periphery. Convenient or inconvenient, believed or distrusted, useful or disregarded, they are never, ever, neutral.

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.