“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” –Gloria Steinem
The Pitch: Mrs. America begins with a spark. A Strawberry meringue Cake decorated with lit sparklers and American flags is the desert for the patriotic fashion show kicking off Hulu’s eagerly anticipated miniseries. This docu-drama chronicles the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s and the ongoing attempt to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing Americans equal rights regardless of sex. There are women who oppose this equality. Many of us grew up in the households they so carefully managed. They are still fighting today to take the rights of others and secure their place in a racist patriarchy. Mrs. America exposes these women and explores the war over who gets to define Womanhood in America. A war that nearly 50 years later is still raging.
By depicting the historical figures on the front lines — Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) not as man-hating bra-burners, but rather courageous leaders seeking to use their personal experiences to improve the lives of other women — this limited series attempts to heal the generational divide between the different waves of feminism. It also demonstrates how failing to understand political intersectionality and accepting empty gestures in the name of progress hinder the movement and argues that only in true unity will we gain the legal rights we deserve.
’70s Style: Mrs. America begins in 1971, shortly before the ERA passed both houses of Congress and ends with the dawn of the Reagan era of the ’80s. This decade is brought to life by a star-studded cast. Though there are captivating performances by the men, James Marsden, Adam Brody, and most notably, John Slattery playing Phyllis Schlafly’s (Cate Blanchett) charming, but controlling husband, Fred, this show belongs to the women. A mostly female production team, led by creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller, ensures that this is a story told about women, by women.
The set design and cinematography give episodes a lived-in, retro feel without sacrificing the nostalgia of aviators and bell-bottoms. A killer soundtrack keeps episodes moving and adds an injection of fun into a show that could quickly become heavy given our current political landscape. Footage from actual events grounds the show in reality and allows the dramatized scenes to bring life to events that may have happened before most of the audience were born but feel relevant today.
Particularly moving is footage from the 1977 National Women’s Conference, an event meant to change the world that has been largely forgotten. Direct parallels to recent events — the Me Too Movement, the recent Democratic Primary, and countless attacks on reproductive rights and the LGBTQ community — depressingly show that in almost 50 years, we are still fighting the same battles. The “I Can’t Believe I Still Have to Protest This Shit” sign has never felt more true.
Phyllis: Leading the charge to restrict the rights of women is ultra-conservative “housewife” Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett). The wife of a successful lawyer, she has firmly internalized the patriarchy by deciding that life is a ladder and as a woman, she will never reach the top. But she will get as high as she can no matter how many women she has to sell out. She cloaks herself in righteousness, shaming those less fortunate for “not trying hard enough” and confusing the luck of her birth and privilege as some sort of hard-fought victory. Beginning her speeches by thanking her husband for “letting” her make them, she traffics in slogans like “we want roses, not rights” and names her organization S.T.O.P. ERA (Stop Taking Our Privileges). Yes, really.
In more human moments she laments over the choices of her children, showing how this misguided belief system damages everyone, and submits to the unwanted sexual advances of her husband because it’s just easier than fighting about it. In her darker moments, she openly courts racist groups, including the John Birch society and the KKK, as long as their names cannot be linked to her. Because she and her followers believe that life is a zero-sum game, in order to gain she must take away from others. The lie begins by deeming housewives fundamentally inferior to men and leads to white supremacy. Unfortunately America is full of these traitorous women, many in the Evangelical community who use a perverted interpretation of religion to protect their personal power. One of Phyllis’ allies preaches that a fundamental element of Christianity is learning to hate properly. But all that toxicity and fear mongering have consequences. Those worried that Phyllis will be celebrated with a hero’s edit may rest assured that she is clearly the antagonist.
Shirley: One of the show’s most moving performances comes from Uzo Aduba in the role of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American Congresswoman and the first African-American to seek the Presidential nomination from a major political party. Aduba perfectly encapsulates the mix of strength and honesty necessary for that mountainous uphill battle along with the vulnerability, paranoia, and heartbreak when it ends in disappointment.
If the show itself has a flaw, it’s sidelining Shirley too soon. We see her battle to be taken seriously as a politician and a person and her groundbreaking primary run, but afterwards, she becomes an afterthought. Characters check in with her occasionally, but she fires some of the first shots of the Me Too movement off camera. We hear about these events, but they, and Shirley herself, are not given the time and attention they warrant.
Other African American leaders, Florynce Kennedy, lawyer and co-creator of the Black Feminist Organization (Niecy Nash) and Margaret Sloan, editor of Ms. Magazine and activist (Bria Samoné Henderson) are similarly relegated to the outer edges of the story. In a pitch meeting, Margaret suggests writing about tokenism in the workplace only to have the white women scramble to make sure she knows they’re not racist then almost immediately dismiss her point. An on-the-nose critique of white feminism then and now.
Perhaps this was meant to honestly show the lack of inclusion second wave feminism has been criticized for, but the minimized inclusion of these groundbreaking women errs dangerously close to the tokenism Margaret describes. Where is the episode about Margaret’s experiences with intersectionality, Flo’s grass-roots organizing, or Shirley’s fight to stop sexual harassment in government?
Gloria: In what may end up being the most controversial aspect of the show, the importance of reproductive rights are front and center, including Gloria’s personal experiences to her successful fight for Roe v Wade. Those not alive when this landmark case was decided may celebrate vicariously with Gloria and her allies. The complexity of abortion is clearly shown as is the ill-informed resistance to it. Phyllis’s sister group performs an insultingly reductive bit of performance art meant to villify abortion seekers with no concern at all for the women who’s lives are turned upside down by pergnancy. Gloria laments feeling like a walking womb and it’s easy to feel that way today, with the near constant attacks on women’s ability to make choices over our own bodies. In one of the more touching moments, a woman on the street thanks Gloria for pushing the legislation and recounts the horrifying illegal abortion she recieved in a crowded hotel room. Along with Pamela, a member of Phyllis’s army (Kayli Carter), she shows the terror and desperation pregnancy can cause in women who will not be supported as mothers and must make painful decisions.
These stories are crucial in the fight for reproductive freedom. You most likely know someone who has had an abortion but is too afraid to talk about it. This justified fear eliminates the possibility of putting a human face on a complicated but necessary issue. No one wants to have an abortion. It’s not fun and it’s not easy. But women have them because they’re scared. Or poor and unable to afford the seemingly insurmountable cost of hospital bills, diapers, and child-care (to name a few). Because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. Or getting kicked out of their homes. Or because they truly cannot handle caring for another life. They are not child-murderers seeking enjoyment in a painful and life-changing medical procedure. We are people. Just like you. If you actually want to stop abortions, focus on supporting new mothers and preventing unwanted pregnancies. Otherwise, you’re just trying to control women, like Phyllis.
Feminists: Each episode focuses on a different woman influential in the fight, including Betty Friedan, mother of the Women’s Movement and author of The Feminine Mystique, who despite writing this life-changing book holds some controversial opinions that possibly set the movement back. Jill Ruckelshaus is a Republican feminist who shows that some conservative women also want equality and provides a counterpoint to Phyllis. Civil rights lawyer and co-founder of Ms. Magazine, Brenda Feigen-Fasteau (Ari Graynor) makes choices that challenge traditional family norms, shows that some feminists do want to be mothers, and provides one of the most cathartic moments of the show as she wipes the floor with Phyllis during a “couples” debate on equal rights; a concept so laughable, the irony almost smacks you in the face. Presidential advisor, Margaret “Midge” Constanza’s unwavering committment to LGBTQ rights shines a bright light on a fight still raging. We may have made progress in accepting same-sex relationships, but we are far from victorious.
Bella Abzug, is a civil rights lawyer and politician who leads the Women’s Task Force Commission and makes concessions from the position of pragmatism that alienate her fellow feminists. Bella’s story, in particular, shows the sky-high expectations of women and people of color. Because society so firmly believes that giving non-white/male but otherwise capable people opportunities to lead is a risk, things must go perfectly or it will be years before another chance is available. Over and over, we see our characters make concessions to make their position more comfortable for the close-minded. To seem like less of a threat. And though there are some victories, like the right to a safe abortion, many important peices of legislation are abondoned for empty promises in the name of undefined progress.
Alice: If Phyllis is Mrs. America’s villain, her right-hand woman, the fictional Alice, may well be its most effective protagonist. She is the one who brought the ERA to Phyllis’ attention, but she is also the one to speak up against the racist leanings of the organization. It’s not until her eyes are opened by the many diverse and accepting women she meets at the convention in Houston and is confronted with the heartbreaking reality of her friend’s home life that she is able to see her privilege and the hypocrisy in her argument.
Played by the always fantastic Sarah Paulson, Alice tries to warn Phyllis and Rosemary that they are creating enemies and fabricating their victimhood. Her attempt to find common ground with the women they are fighting against is commendable but unwelcome with Phyllis’ gang of oppressors. Her realization that “there’s a lot of land” shows that she cares about women rather than power and is able to fundamentally re-evaluate her beliefs.
Verdict: Mrs. America dares us to not let these brave women be the last word in the fight for our own equality. The tide may have turned against them, but we are in the midst of the fourth wave of feminism. Let it be a tidal wave that washes over us all. We must pick up the torch carried from Seneca Falls to Houston and carry it to every state, every city, and every home. We are the daughters and granddaughters of this revolution, and we must do our part to see it through for the sake of our own daughters and sons. And we need the help of male allies to show that feminists are not simply man-hating hags who couldn’t find a man. They are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters. Husbands, sons, fathers, brothers. Anyone who values human equality is a feminist.
To date, the ERA has been ratified in 38 states and upheld by the House of Representatives. If removal of the original time limit to ratify is passed in the Senate, it will become the law of the land. We are not there yet, but we can get there. We can stand on the shoulders of courageous giants like Gloria, Shirley, Betty, Jill, Bella, and even Alice to recreate our country as a land where women are free to control their own bodies and lives. It won’t be easy, but it is our work to pick up the torch.
“We are just beginning to discover, each of us, who we can be. And no matter how long this revolution may take, there can be no turning back.”
Where Is It Playing? The first three episodes begin streaming April 15th via FX on Hulu.