Mrs. America’s Cate Blanchett and Creator Dahvi Waller Find a Feminist Ally (of Sorts) in Phyllis Schlafly

The new FX on Hulu series dramatizes how Equal Rights Amendment opponent Schlafly played the feminist system.

by | April 9, 2020 | Comments

There are certain faces who are iconic to the second-wave feminist movement from the 20th century. Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, with her aviator glasses and her outspoken views on relationships and birth control, is a hero to many. Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, was, arguably, the pin in the movement’s explosive grenade.

And then there’s Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly used all the techniques that these women did to get her voice heard, such as publishing her own newsletter and speaking eloquently to the masses and to legislators about her agenda. She, too, was routinely undermined and pushed aside by those with more power who thought they knew better. But the difference is that she was working for the other side, arguing against the Equal Rights Amendment and for sticking points like “family values”; she is, therefore, not remembered as favorably by feminists as her counterparts.

So it’s an interesting choice that the new Hulu miniseries Mrs. America — which premieres the first three episodes on April 15 — will tell the story of the people of this era with Schlafly as an entry point, documenting her own struggles for acceptance in a man’s world, while also looking at the dichotomy of how (and at who’s cost) she achieved recognition.

MRS. AMERICA stars Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan
(Photo by Sabrina Lantos/FX)

“As a writer, I like the challenge of getting inside the mind of a character who is completely different from me and who, ideologically, I completely oppose,” creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) told Rotten Tomatoes about her series, which features an all-star cast that includes Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Rose Byrne as Steinem, Tracey Ullman as Friedan, and Uzo Aduba as politician Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress and the first black candidate to receive a major party’s nomination for U.S. president.

“I do want the audience to be rooting for Phyllis, certainly at the beginning,” because, she said, “if we’re going to understand women like Phyllis, who had quite a bit of influence on the polarization of the country, then we have to understand her appeal.”

Women who had worked with Schlafly, who died in 2016, told Waller that she had been their Joan or Arc. But, both on the show and in real life, Schlafly used contradictory rhetoric, telling her followers to stay home and be with their husbands and children while she left hers to tour the country.

“She’s such a polarizing figure and quite contradictory, but it’s undeniable that she’s a contemporary woman who’s really changed the course … of the American political landscape,” Blanchett told Rotten Tomatoes and others during a phone conference. “And I think she did that by shifting the language. She really did move the notion of anti-abortion, which then became pro-life, as a central plank into the Republican party and labeled everything ‘pro-American’ and ‘pro-family’ and characterized the feminist movement as being anti-family.”

Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly in MRS. AMERICA
(Photo by Pari Dukovic/FX)

Mrs. America concentrates on a timeline starting in 1971, when Schlafly got involved in striking down the ERA, to when Waller says Schlafly completed “her greatest goal, which was to be appointed to [the] Reagan cabinet.” It is also not a straight historical biopic and comes with a disclaimer. Still, all language and events are taken from documented speeches or biographies, including Schlafly’s penchant for fudging the truth; in one instance in the series, she tells her husband, Fred — played by John Slattery — that she was accepted to Harvard Law School, even though the institution didn’t accept women until some years later.

The series is also careful with potentially libelous material, such as not outwardly stating that Schlafly was a racist, because the writers and researchers couldn’t find any documented evidence of such views beyond innuendos and rumors that she was a member of the John Birch Society. They also didn’t speak with movement leaders who are still alive, like Steinem, or speak with family members.

mrs. america uzo adubo fx- Photo Credit: Sabrina Lantos/FX
(Photo by Sabrina Lantos/FX)

It’s also hard to ignore the parallels between the era in which Mrs. America is set and today’s political climate. In the show’s third episode, Chisholm is urged repeatedly to drop out of the Democratic race for president lest they risk splitting a vote and giving the White House to the Republicans — not unlike the threats lobbed at senators and 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders.

“One of the reasons you want to focus particularly on the four days in the [1972] convention was because it had so many parallels to today and that tension within the Democratic party between pragmatism and idealism,” Waller told Rotten Tomatoes. “Should you go for what you believe to be right and true? Or do you go for what you think you can get? You know, that is still so relevant today.”

Similarly, she says it was important to include Republican faces in the feminist movement, such as Jill Ruckelshaus (played by Elizabeth Banks), as a reminder that “the women’s movement used to be bipartisan and that there were a lot of Republican feminists leaders.” Other people, like Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (played by Ari Graynor) may not have been major players in a miniseries just about the feminist movement, but Waller and her team found her important to include because she and her husband debated the Schlaflys.

Mrs. America keyart
(Photo by FX on Hulu)

All of this may make it seem puzzling why, given her ambition, Schlafly didn’t seem to publicly acknowledge how much the ERA – which set out to given equal protection to all U.S. citizens regardless of gender — would have helped her.

Blanchett says Schlafly grew up in a household where her mother was the breadwinner, but her frequently-unemployed father was still considered the patriarch and that she used to say of Fred that he “saved her from the life of a working girl.”

“I think that she had a foundational understanding that she needed to be able to take care of herself; that she needed to be incredibly capable and able to earn a living should she be abandoned should be left alone,” Blanchett said of the mother of six. “So she was always the most overqualified person in the room.”

This isn’t to say that one cannot learn anything from Schlafly — or her tactics.

“The thing that Phyllis did identify, perhaps more roundly and more realistically than the feminists [at that time], is that in order to reach equality, certain white men power are going to have to share their privileges,” Blanchett said, adding that “she knew which side she was going to stand on.”

Mrs. America launches on Wednesday, April 15 on Hulu.

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