‘Mrs. America’ Richly Captures Both Sides in the Battle for Gender Equality
Phyllis Schlafly as played by Cate Blanchett in “Mrs. America” provides an endlessly intriguing, and very human portrait of a reactionary. She wages a scorched earth campaign to block ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, yet in her private life suffers the same inequalities, abuses and prejudices any woman could easily relate to. The clash of ideals and the commitment to set ways of life are part of what make this limited series more than just a historical reenactment. It’s a sharp study of personalities and mindsets, while at the same time providing a stirring chronicle of the battle to defy old gender codes.
It’s the early 1970s, Richard Nixon is president and Schlafly has made a name for herself as an intense conservative activist. She’s staunchly against Nixon’s planned SALT treaty with the Soviet Union to limit arms and runs a newsletter railing against everything from Communist plots to perverse art. Her marriage to lawyer Fred (John Slattery) is a postcard image of a “proper” household. He calls the shots, she knows her place, even as she’s the one with real presence and a gift for public speaking. But Phyllis is soon pulled into a wider arena when sister and fellow activist Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn) brings to her attention the debate in Congress over the Equal Rights Amendment. For traditionalists the ERA is seen as part of a radical agenda spearheaded by the feminist movement, whose prime public symbol at the time is Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne). Phyllis is pondering another run for congress despite a previous failed bid, which doesn’t make Fred too happy, and launches a public campaign against the ERA. The stage is set for a clash between two views of how the relationship between the sexes should be in the United States.
“Mrs. America” is the latest creation of Dahvi Waller, creator of “Mad Men.” As with that now classic show, Waller and her team give “Mrs. America” a rich period feel but fueled by a great energy to its storytelling. The cinematography and production design almost have the texture of 35mm cinema, songs of the period grace the soundtrack all around. The Vietnam War is on the living room televisions, but the emphasis of the writing is on gender roles and how passage of the ERA brought the surface debates over social norms which take on a contemporary relevance in our own #MeToo era. In the first episode Phyllis partakes in a kind of Republican beauty pageant and is openly flirted with by the very married congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden). Marsden plays the role with an oily slickness, always just happening to touch Phyllis’s shoulders with the fake friendliness of a certain kind of man. At home Fred jokes about feminists (“nobody likes them anyway”) with a snarky condescension Phyllis seems to notice, but does nothing about because this is just the way things are. When she does find agency is when power plays are involved, as when she meets infamously bombastic Senator Barry Goldwater to protest Nixon’s upcoming treaty with the Soviets. She’s the only woman in the room and is asked to go get a pen to take notes because “you must have the best penmanship here.” She soon takes command of the moment, demanding the Republicans unite against the ETA. There’s a subtle sharpness to this and other moments, as when Phyllis argues with Fred over running for office, or holding meetings with her squad of activists, some who have respectful envy towards her charisma. Phyllis embodies the idea of what ideology is, or how some resist change out of a simple fear of a new reality where everything won’t be as it was. When Fred wants sex he will have it whether Phyllis wants to or not, but for her the traditional order can’t be uprooted.
The series then contrasts Phyllis’s world with that of her feminist opponents. By the second episode we spend more time with the iconic Gloria Steinem and her own inner circle which includes Margaret Sloan (Bria Henderson), an openly lesbian editor at Steinem’s publication “Ms.,” Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). Steinem is portrayed as the counter to Phyllis. She’s the unpolitical politician, tiresome of the idea of joining any sides or parties because women of all ideologies are oppressed. But Bella Azbug attempts to push her to be more of a power player. It’s inevitable for Steinem to have to deal with politicians considering one of her key causes is abortion rights. But like Phyllis she must also deal with tensions in her own camp from those intimidated by her flashy flame as she attends museum parties in trendy sunglasses, is continuously admired for her looks and has a handsome black boyfriend who drops by the hotel in the evenings. She’s indeed the definition of a free woman in a changing time, but with fame come many other forms of criticism and judgment. Also like Phyllis misogyny is something that never quite goes away. At the “Ms.” offices a financial backer loudly proclaims he once hired Steinem because he liked her legs. There’s an uncomfortable silence all around the buffoon is oblivious to.
Cate Blanchett is the force bringing all the material together with her fantastic performance. She has always excelled at playing powerful figures, going back to her breakthrough in 1998’s “Elizabeth.” In “Mrs. America” she gives off presence and authority, but in defense of a patriarchal system where the woman’s rightful place is in the kitchen with the baby, even for someone as ambitious and talented as her. How close to the real Phyllis Schlafly this is will be hard to say without consulting a biography or two, but as drama she’s an endlessly fascinating character. Blanchett plays her like a forerunner to the Michelle Bachmanns or Sarah Palins of the future, who prove women can easily walk the halls of power, yet defend a staunchly traditionalist mindset. “Mrs. America” obviously sympathizes with the cause of the feminists, but it also makes Phyllis complex enough to garner at least some empathy.
“Mrs. America” is a nine-episode opus set in the ‘70s but very much about debates still going on now. The women portrayed her blazed trails and opened doors, but the battle for equality is far from over. And that is one of the great values to the approach of this limited series. It gives both sides of the divide equal time to be explored and dramatized. Gloria Steinem’s side may seem to be proven correct by history, but Phyllis’s voice is not exactly silenced, and it deserved to be heard like that of anyone else in changing times.
“Mrs. America” premieres April 15 with new episodes streaming every Wednesday on FX on Hulu.