Mrs. America is the history-packed and binge-worthy nine-episode Hulu series created by Dahvi Waller (of “Mad Men”). We see a dazzling sweep of history from the early 1970s to 1982 as the fight against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment unfolds. Still unpassed, the ERA would create a constitutional ban on discrimination against women. Its failure to win approval was due in large measure to the brilliant political strategist Phyllis Schlafly. Cate Blanchett embodies captivating contradictions as Schlafly, the antiheroine in Mrs. America.
The story of her STOP ERA movement was in many ways an origin story for the culture wars still raging today, a playbook for how we got to be the polarized nation we are. We see the beginning with Schlafly’s brilliant use of grassroots mobilization–mailing lists, manipulating recorded speeches for the media, and moving supporters across state lines to protest what had been seen as a benign and popular constitutional amendment. The issues were many: gendered pay equity. LGBTQ rights, access to abortion, racism, protections against sexual harassment (i.e., #MeToo) and domestic abuse.
While Mrs. America is foremost a docudrama about Phyllis Schlafly, a parallel plot involving two fictional characters: Alice (Sarah Paulson) and Pamela (Kayli Carter) begin as women who believe that their most important job is to be a wife supporting her husband’s ambitions and a mother. For someone like Phyllis Schlafly, a privileged, highly educated woman (who had run for a political position in Illinois), to come along and say, “We’re going to protect your status,” was an irresistible elixir for many.
Mrs. America is complicated and richly multi-dimensional on several surprising levels. Schlafly basically built a gilded cage and got locked inside it herself. Here’s an elegant intellectual and ambitious woman who was rejected by the Washington establishment in spite of the fact that she wrote brilliant position papers on nuclear disarmament which Henry Kissinger adopted as his own,. Almost in a retaliatory way, Schlafly takes up a cause that has some traction,–pro-family, pro-choice, anti-ERA and anti-gay rights– to build her base. And she uses that base to magnificent effect: building email lists that senators and presidential candidates beg for, including Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Both of whom she supported enthusiastically but did not garner their explicit anti-ERA support after they secured the nomination and, in Reagan’s case, the presidency.
There’s no denying the homemakers that comprised Schlafly’s army are sympathetic, because they’ve lost status when compared to working women. And Schlafly senses that longing for visibility and acceptance. Benign sexism was the petri dish in which she cultivated her Eagle Forum movement, recruiting churches as a source for her mailing lists and memberships. Grassroots politics became a stunning juggernaut for influencing voters: “The person that everybody’s paying attention to always wins” Phyllis preaches to her choir. Her followers became a fervent cult of acolytes and certainly not stay-at-home housewives. The irony is palpable.
A lot of the people who made up the counterrevolution to the women’s movement were the same people who led the backlash to the civil rights movement. The segregationists became the anti-feminists. The Ku Klux Klan supported her financially but secretly. The overriding theme for the anti-ERA movement was a fear of change to traditional womens’ status.
Schlafly ran for Congress in 1952, wrote four books on nuclear weapons strategy as well as “The Conservative Case for Trump” (published the day after she died in 2016). She helped Barry Goldwater secure the Republican presidential nomination and wrote a syndicated column that ran in more than 100 American newspapers for 30 years. Schlaffly also had been a national-security expert on Soviet Union politics for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The irony of Phyllis Schlafly is that she created a battalion of affluent housewives, empowered them to leave their homes to attend conventions, and turned into political activists who understood the power structure in Washington. Certainly no mere stay-at-home moms. We see the ascendancy of the far-right with Phil Crane (later co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation), Paul Manafort and Roger Stone asking for her political prowess to gain women voters.
Bella Abzug and Schlafly even used the same campaign slogan in their congressional runs: “A Woman’s Place Is in the House”… the House of Representatives for Abzug, For Schlafly’s followers it was the suburban home, but not for Schlafly herself who seemed to be rarely at home.
In the 1970’s the ambition had to be disguised for her cohort to follow. Her husband, fifteen years her senior, played by John Slattery of “Mad Men”, only reluctantly accepts her growing fame. Perhaps one of the more poignant aspects of her not-easily-categorized personality is the fact that she understood the power of the polemic, of a binary either-or polarization that would evoke outrage and zealotry. Schlafly was a master of the message, however brazenly a lie, and a master of bringing followers together without division and infighting for a bigger share of the power.
Perhaps the climax is twofold and viscerally bloodletting: Schlafly in a scene at the end—victorious in defeating the ERA but betrayed by the male politicians who learned and gained from her. And Alice, an erstwhile friend, who deplores why Schlafly became so “mean” in pursuit of a winner-takes-all strategy.
Note: The battle over ERA realigned the Republican and Democratic parties. Not one Republican Congressman supports abortion and the Republican-controlled Senate will not take up the ERA proposal, after the Democratic-controlled House approved rescinding the deadline—previously 1982—for ratifying the ERA. So far the thirty-eight states needed for ratification have occurred, with the latest—Virginia—passing the ERA this year, almost forty years after the initial failure to acquire the necessary votes.