It takes a moment before one recognises those first four notes in the jazzy theme music for Mrs. America. It’s a ‘switched-on’ version of Beethoven’s Fifth – in the composer’s own famous words: “the sound of fate knocking on the door.” But for whom does it knock?
Is it for Phyllis Schlafly, the formidable conservative matron who sets out to defend American family values against the feminist revolution of the 1970s, or is it for the feminists themselves?
Mrs. America has been created by Dahvi Waller, known for her work in series such as Desperate Housewives and Mad Men. Over the course of a decade it follows the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), intended to ensure womens status under the United States Constitution. It’s a war fought in public by a set of larger-than-life personalities.
The original ERA was proposed by suffragist leader, Alice Paul, in 1923, but it was not until March, 1972 that the amendment passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives with the required two-thirds majority. The first episode of Mrs. America ends with the feminists celebrating this momentous achievement, but the real struggle lay ahead, as the bill had to be ratified by no fewer than 38 states before it could become law. After a flying start, in which 35 states quickly signed up, the process stalled.
I hope it doesn’t count as a spoiler if I tell you that Virginia became the 38th state in March this year. Now the amendment only has to get through a Republican-controlled Senate and be rubber-stamped by President Trump. No worries.
If one were to nominate a single person responsible for the derailing of the ERA, it would be Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016), a genuine housewife superstar who brought up six children while writing tracts on US Defence and Foreign policy and acting as an articulate, high-profile activist for a range of conservative causes. Of course the Schlaflys were wealthy enough to employ servants to help with the domestic chores, but there’s no denying Phyllis’s intelligence and energy.
Playing Phyllis Schlafly would be a complex task for any actor, but Cate Blanchett brings out an amazing range of ambiguities and subtleties. Whether this portrait is true-to-life is another matter altogether. Schlafly’s friends and family have been scandalised by this series which they see as a wilful misrepresentation of a woman who was never so conflicted or insecure. To those who remember Schlafly as a ruthless, right-wing political appartachik Blanchett has made her seem too sympathetic.
If you begin to see Schlafly as a woman wronged, just remember that her final book, published posthumously in 2016, was The Conservative Case for Trump. Nevertheless one can’t imagine her enjoying the President’s love affair with Russia.
To form an opinion of Blanchett’s portrayal one needs to watch all nine episodes. Over the early part of the series it’s easy to feel we are on Phyllis’s side. We see her as an impressive, self-assured woman whose political ambitions have never been realised largely because of her gender, even though she would never accept this reasoning. Her response has been to work harder, becoming an expert on policy issues which she views from an impeccable rightwing perspective.
As the series moves on, Phyllis’s opposition to the ERA is framed as a way of opportunistically boosting her own profile. She suffers a series of small but significant humiliations which contradict her own strident claims that American women can do anything. She makes unsavoury allies among religious fanatics and racists, for purely strategic reasons. The further she rises as a leader of the anti-ERA movement, the more devious, hypocritical and unlikeable she becomes. By the end she’s like the villian in a James Bond movie.
There’s an excellent dramatic logic to this, but all of the most sinister or humiliating moments may be fictions or distortions of reality. In our very first glimpse of Phyllis she is on stage at a political fundraiser wearing only a stars & stripes bikini – a small act of sexist degradation that her admirers say has no basis in fact. There are wildly conflicting versions of what really happened on a talk show featured in episode 5, in which Phyllis makes a gaff. Some sources praise the accuracy of this account, others are livid with indignation. The nasty things that happen behind closed doors can only ever be imaginary, no matter how plausible they may seem.
One assumes Phyllis’s allies would not have been satisfied with anything short of a hagiography but that doesn’t justify a pattern of deliberate falsification. The filmmakers have taken the same approach as Kierkegaard took to the Bible, giving us an account of Phyllis that is “objectively false but subjectively true”. In other words, they have taken the liberty of inventing scenes that reveal a moral – or amoral – truth about the character.
The ladies who make up Phyllis’s devoted entourage are largely fictional and close to caricature. The most developed is Sarah Paulson’s Alice, who will undergo a conversion-on-the-road-to-Damascus in episode 8, during the National Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977.
The STOP-ERA movement issues spurious claims that equal rights for women will mean that men get custody of children in divorce settlements, while young women are drafted into the army. These arguments are transparently threadbare. The real power lies in stirring up fear and hatred among religious groups vehemently opposed to abortion, and bigots who think the libbers are all radical lesbians. As ever, the negative passions seem to be the ones most readily mobilised.
It’s obvious the fimmakers’ sympathies lie with the feminists, but these women are not portrayed as saints and martyrs. There are tensions and rivalries among the group, chiefly between Tracey Ullman’s Betty Friedan and Rose Byrne’s Gloria Steinhem – frictions exacerbated by differences in age, life experience, sex appeal or opportunities for ego gratification. Uzo Aduba is Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, who ran for the Presidential nomination 1972. Elizabeth Banks is Republican operative, Jill Ruckelshaus, who pitched in with the Womens Lib lobby in a display of bipartisanship that would be unthinkable nowadays.
Best of all is Margo Martindale’s Bella Abzug, who is large, loud, aggressive and big-hearted. Martindale and Ullman tend to dominate every scene in which they appear, but all the leading actors are sensational. Whatever may be missing in terms of historical veracity, there is no shortage of chutzpah in these performances.
Although it may be problematic, Mrs. America is as compulsive as anything I’ve watched over the lockdown period. There’s something thrilling about peering behind the scenes of historical events in progress, even if the details may be disputed. Schlafly scored a T-KO in this contest, but it shows the hollowness of so many political victories in which ideology triumphs over common humanity. It’s astonishing to contemplate a woman who so fiercely resisted the idea of women having equal rights under the Constitution. Although known as a “conservative icon” Schlafly was never rewarded with political office. Those who benefited from her skills apparently saw her as a dangerous weapon that when not being used was best kept locked up at home.
Created by Dahvi Waller
Starring Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, Kayli Carter, Ari Graynor, Elizabeth Banks, Uzo Aduba, Melanie Lynskey, Jeanne Tripplehorn
USA, rated MA 15+, 9 episodes
Streaming on Foxtel on Demand
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 June, 2020