“Mrs. America”–A Closet Feminist?

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.

“Truth”—And Nothing But

 

Truth“Truth” (2015) somehow stayed under the radar last year. A compelling newsroom docudrama , “Truth” reminds me of “All the President’s Men” and the Watergate scandal.

Opening with the September 2004 “60 Minutes” episode, Dan Rather accuses President George W. Bush of receiving preferential treatment in the National Guard in the early 1970s (Vietnam War era) as a result of his father’s connections.  Photocopied memos provided by a confidential source were the main evidence for Rather’s accusations.

But Mary Mapes is the true hero. Producer of “60 Minutes”, Mapes had just won the Peabody Award for breaking the story of the Abu Ghraib torture and the story of Senator Strom Thurmond’s unacknowledged biracial daughter. Mapes did the research within the constraints of hard- to-verify dated documents.

Both the validity of the documents and the credibility of the source came almost immediately under attack. After days of defending the story with forensic specialists, Rather made an on-air apology stating that a “mistake in judgment” had been made. CBS did not acknowledge the documents were forgeries but that they could not confirm they were not. Nonetheless, the firestorm resulted in Dan Rather’s “retirement”. Mary Mapes never worked in TV news again.

Starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, “Truth” raises the question: “What is truth? And how do we know?” In an exceptionally well-developed narrative, much like a crime drama, the viewer follows the clues and the trail to the usual suspects. In perhaps one of the most cruel tactics to discredit Mapes, a conservative talk show host interviews her alcoholic and abusive father who states he is ashamed of what his daughter has become: a feminist with an axe to grind.  Emotional manipulation arises when facts are slim or too complex to be easily grasped.   Although told from the perspective of Mapes, different versions of events are presented so the viewer has to draw his or her own conclusions.

“Truth” is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” It’s a 12-year-old case, but the wounds are still unhealed.

Worth seeing.

 

Footnote: Some at CBS News were “angry” with the film’s implication that news executives were pressured to revoke the story by corporate owner Viacom, which had a business incentive to remain on friendly terms with the Bush administration. Although the financial backers of “Truth”, CBS Corporation did not promote or advertise the film.

“Carol”—A Salty Portrayal

Carol

 

The Academy-Award nominated film, “Carol”, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese, a department store “shop girl” deals with a lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. First titled “The Price of Salt” (and retitled “Carol” in 1990) , the novel was controversial when first published in 1952 prompting the author, Patricia Highsmith, to use a pen name. Other books of the time exploring the same subject, tended to have the heroine devolve into suicide or madness, if lesbianism was even hinted at .

Highsmith apparently drew from her own experience to portray that even a very wealthy woman had to stay under the radar. “Carol” ferociously depicts the discrimination and personal torment that lesbian women faced in the fifties. The romance between Carol and Therese is the major plot, as well as the entrapment in a society’s mores that doesn’t allow them to love.

This could easily have been one of the best movies of 2015, but it is not. I liked it but it wasn’t as good as it could have been. The family dysfunction beautifully displayed at Christmas time (symbolic of family and stress) is not balanced. What should have been a torrid love affair implied between Therese and Carol falls flat. The chemistry between the two actresses was glaringly missing.

Tightly controlled and magnetic performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (as well as Kyle Chandler as the offended husband of Carol) are slowed down by director Todd Haynes (of “Far From Heaven”) who seems to focus on visual scenes at the expense of the storytelling. “Carol” expresses not only a story about two generous souls falling in love but also the mindset of a society entrenched in hard-hearted “values”.