FX certainly has a way with political miniseries. The People vs O.J. Simpson was a phenomenon that captured both critical and mainstream attention, fleshing out historical characters and incidents that had not yet had this breadth of exploration. Mrs. America captures the same addicting intrigue, tackling the Women’s Liberation Movement and the conservative women that defeated the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. It’s a fascinating story that’s told in an equally remarkable way.
The show starts on a high note with a character dive into Phylis Schlafly, the Illinois housewife who galvanized conservative women against the largely non-controversial ERA. Played by Cate Blanchett, Phylis is portrayed as a largely sympathetic character throughout the first episode. Her political ambitions, hurt by her gender and the pressures of being a mother of six, have left her without many options to pursue her goals. This setup and explanation for why she goes after the ERA succeeds in making her decisions understandable, albeit infuriating.
The way she inspires the anti-feminist movement using fear of change would make Donald Trump proud, while her arguments full of unrelenting confidence and devoid of fact would give Kellyanne Conway a run for her money. Schlafly’s history as a brilliant grassroots organizer makes it impossible not to have a shred of respect for her ability to unite a counter-movement. Blanchett nails the performance, making you fully aware of just how persuasive this woman was to her fellow housewives.
The expansion of the show into the feminist movement and its various key members also helps elevate the show. The dynamics between the different women at the heart of this movement, as well as the various reasons each is in this fight, is compelling in and of itself. Rose Byrne takes a wonderfully dramatic turn as Gloria Steinem and Uzo Aduba shows she’s more than her OITNB character as Shirley Chisholm. Aduba, in particular, shines as the first female candidate for president, providing a much overdue spotlight on the game-changing figure.
Perhaps the most beneficial takeaway from the show is an insight into what women went through in the 1970s to get where we are now. There is an emphasis on what has changed, as well as what has not. It gives perspective into a constant fight through one of the most important moments in its history.
In the analysis portion of the article, the goal will be to dissect what the writers and producers are trying to say. The messages that can be interpreted are as follows:
CONSERVATIVE WOMEN FIND POWER FIGHTING WOMEN’S ISSUES
Of the three episodes released thus far, the first deals with Phylis and her motivation for taking down the ERA. Notably, the ERA is something Phylis doesn’t very much care about early on. She’s far more knowledgeable and concerned about nuclear arms races than women’s issues. However, when she goes to Washington, it’s clear that no one is willing to take her seriously. Even if she was elected to Congress, she would have no power at all.
In this version of events, Phylis decides to go after the ERA because she realizes it is the only avenue where she can achieve any real power. Though women have more mobility within the Democratic Party, her sex is the only thing she has in common with them. Thus, rather than shift loyalties, conservative women become shields for conservative men to justify their opposition to feminist proposals. The passionate rebuke of feminism comes from a desire to ascend political circles, rather than genuine offense.
RESENTMENT ON BOTH SIDES OF THE AISLE HURTS WOMEN
Another aspect showcased is that the differences between the various types of women are barriers to understanding where the other side is coming from. This is true in many different groups, but Mrs. America attempts to demonstrate how women are a special case.
On one side, traditional women, like housewives, cannot relate to the feminist revolution. They are happy where they are and find the movement to be a challenge to their way of life. Equality isn’t being treated the same as a man, but instead being able to have the privileges they deserve. This happens, in part, because conservative women refuse to believe that they are at a disadvantage. Schlafly demonstrates this belief several times in the series, unable to attribute her shortcomings to her sex, as she cannot conceive of a world in which an attribute beyond her control impairs her.
On the other side, liberal women don’t understand that what they are calling for can be very insulting to traditional women. When talking about marriage and the role of a housewife as a prison, those who chose that way of life are turned off. At one point in the show, a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement calls housewives brainwashed. While women are certainly taught that their roles are different than men, the series appears to point out a certain resentment towards these traditional women for continuing in them, vilifying the stereotype they are trying to break free of.
This is coupled with the series showing how impactful women are when they work together. The power they would hold if they could get past these differences would be unstoppable.
THE ISSUES OF 1972 PARALLEL 2020
Part of what’s heartbreaking about this series is the realization that many of the issues so passionately debated in 1972 are still up for debate in 2020. The abortion debate takes center stage in the second and third episodes, with a pre-Roe v. Wade country at odds over whether abortion should be legal. Despite all the decades of fighting, the same number of people think abortion should be against the law as there was decades ago, and vice-versa.
There also appears to be an attempt to mirror the current Democratic Party and the divisions it is facing. Shirley Chisholm and her campaign appear to be a comparison to Bernie Sanders, with Chisholm calling her run a “revolution.” Though she’s inspiring for a great number of people, not enough think she can win. At the convention, Chisholm wants to keep her delegates and hold out, hoping to get more concessions from McGovern and make a stand. Eventually, when she is abandoned by the white feminists, she is left with no option but to release her delegates to an imperfect candidate.
The Women’s Liberation movement ends up supporting McGovern, who they think has a better shot at winning the election. Chisholm makes a remarkable case for why she should keep fighting, asking why a Black female president isn’t worth going to bat for. McGovern ended up losing to Nixon in a blowout, so we will see if the comparison continues.