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‘Mrs. America’ Is an Expert Study on Power and Who Actually Wields It

‘Mad Men’ alum Dahvi Waller’s series revisits the women’s lib movement of the 1970s—and delivers one of the best new shows of 2020

FX/Ringer illustration

History is written by the victors, the saying goes. But there are always exceptions, especially in a place as uniquely contradictory as America. Right now, conservatives control the levers of “hard” power—the courts, most state legislatures, much of Congress, and the White House (for now)—while liberals get the consolation prize of being the primary gatekeepers of popular culture. Most Americans support keeping abortion legal, gun control, and the legalization of marijuana, yet not all those left-leaning policies are the law of the land. It’s a state of affairs that suits the right just fine: The losers have been allowed to write the history books, while the winners run the show from behind the scenes.

This status quo marks a seismic shift from where things stood in the 1970s, when government was often to the left of the governed, instead of the reverse. One of the individuals most responsible for kick-starting this change was Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist conservative firebrand who led an ultimately successful campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, a once-bipartisan resolution stating that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged … on account of sex.” But she also fell victim to her own accomplishments. Many of Schlafly’s opponents—Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan; writer and activist Gloria Steinem; groundbreaking presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm—are now cultural icons, the stuff of sloganeering T-shirts and loving tributes. Schlafly herself is but a footnote.

It’s a fitting outcome—self-abnegation is the logical end point of a woman’s crusade against women’s liberation—but for the sake of our reckoning with the decades that followed, it’s not a desirable one. “If political influence consists in transforming this huge and cantankerous country in one’s preferred direction,” the political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in The New Republic of a 2005 biography, “Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century.” Fifteen years later, however, she still isn’t, even though the arc of history has bent ever further in her favor.

Mrs. America, the new limited series from FX—sorry, FX on Hulu—wants to fix this. Created by Dahvi Waller and starring Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Mrs. America understands that Schlafly is hardly worth celebrating. It also understands that she won. The progressive movement she detested had its victories—Title IX, the liberalization of divorce laws, Roe v. Wade—but also stalled out three states short of ratifying the ERA. Today, Roe hangs on by a thread, with draconian state bans racing their way to a conservative Supreme Court. The dream of government-subsidized child care and paid family leave remains unrealized. And though Schlafly died in September 2016 at the age of 92, her final, posthumous publication was titled The Conservative Case for Trump.

Blanchett transforms herself into a hawkish Midwestern housewife with signature aplomb, but to Mrs. America’s credit, this isn’t a singular showcase in the vein of most Movie Star TV, or even a curated Mt. Rushmore á la Big Little Lies. The show is a sprawling, proper ensemble, with a deep bench of players on both sides of the ideological divide. On Team Feminist, there are a host of familiar faces that elevate their performances above mere impression: Rose Byrne as Steinem; Tracey Ullman as Friedan; Uzo Aduba as Chisholm; Margo Martindale as former representative Bella Abzug. But Schlafly, too, has her compatriots, both real and fictitious. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays Schlafly’s sister-in-law Eleanor, while Melanie Lynskey portrays Rosemary Thomson, a leading capo in Schlafly’s Eagle Forum organization. Sarah Paulson and Kayli Carter round out the crew as composite characters, housewives drawn into an unlikely second life as political activists.

Mrs. America positions the two camps as mirror movements with more in common than either side would like to admit. (Schlafly’s two failed congressional campaigns had the exact same slogan as Abzug’s successful one: “A woman’s place is in the House.”) But Waller and her writers do far more with these parallels than point out the hypocrisy, and cognitive dissonance, of Schlafly’s campaign, though they make room for that as well. (“She might be the most liberated woman in America!” scoffs Abzug.) Instead, Mrs. America is a shrewd, clear-eyed exploration of power and politics, with a level of insight and detail that place it among the finest TV series to debut this year. This isn’t a hagiography of second-wave feminism any more than it is a hagiography of Schlafly. It’s a loving, tragic dissection of that movement’s failures—some inevitable, some not.

“The left is splintering,” Schlafly coldly observes to a potential ally. “Too many voices.” She’s cannily identified the weakness that is also her adversaries’ greatest strength, and vice versa. Waller is an alumna of Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire, and while Mrs. America shares those shows’ fabulous period details, it also has their fundamental ethos: complicated people with overlapping, though not identical, interests working toward a common goal and coming by their conflicts honestly. Mrs. America is structured so that every episode centers on a different woman who fought for or against the ERA through the 1970s, a decade the show condenses into nine episodes. These portraits add up to a patchwork of personalities who respect each other, sometimes grudgingly, and make it tough to pick a side when they inevitably butt heads.

Those disagreements are more pronounced on the feminist side, a big tent whose inclusiveness makes the movement as fractious as it is righteous. Friedan resents Steinem for becoming the glamorous figurehead of the movement she started. Steinem resents Abzug, a hardened institutionalist, for compromising their principles in the name of political pragmatism. Abzug resents idealists like Steinem and Chisholm for not understanding the art of forging alliances and building coalitions. Women of color, queer women, and even Republican women try to see where they fit in, or whether they should strike out on their own. Still, there’s a tangible affection that underlines all these arguments, and the little moments of solidarity make Mrs. America more than a recitation of opposing points of view. During a meeting in the Capitol, Abzug remembers how her mother told her to always wear a hat and gloves so men wouldn’t take her for a secretary. “So when did the gloves come off?” Chisholm shoots back. Abzug just smirks.

Chisholm is the subject of Mrs. America’s third and strongest episode, an hour chronicling the end of her historic presidential run at the 1972 Democratic Convention. Mrs. America is the kind of show that doesn’t echo current events so much as current events echo its source material. Those parallels are especially rich in Chisholm’s story, that of an unabashedly progressive primary challenger trying to negotiate a graceful exit. Well-meaning supporters tell Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to participate in a presidential debate, that she’s “made her point” and ought to concede in the name of party unity. Chisholm argues the only way to influence the platform is to hold onto her delegates—that concrete leverage gets more than gestures of goodwill. When George McGovern’s campaign shuts down a floor debate over abortion, she’s vindicated too late. Mrs. America isn’t as simple as Pollyannas against political professionals. It’s a debate over how to gain and use power, and how compromising starts to look no less naive than sticking to one’s principles.

The person who understands power best, unfortunately, is Schlafly. Unlike so many liberals, Waller and her collaborators get that pointing out a bad faith argument does nothing to sap its pull. The ability to get away with lies, half-truths, and appeals to emotion over logic is a show of dominance in itself. Before Schlafly seized on defeating the ERA as her cause célèbre, she was a Cold War jingoist, and she applies the same Manichean worldview to her new struggle against the godless “libbers.” She is good, her opponents are evil; any ruthlessness or subterfuge is justified for the cause. Schlafly looks the other way when her conservative values resonate with white supremacists. She puts a populist veneer on an anti-democratic push for elite interests. (The ERA passed both houses of Congress and 35 state legislatures before Schlafly halted its momentum.) She does not tolerate the kind of dissent her opponents let grow within their ranks. These are strategies others have learned from. And, ultimately, Schlafly got what she wanted.

Mrs. America only errs in its efforts to make Schlafly as ghoulish in her private affairs as she was in her public life. One by one, the show lines up supporting characters for Phyllis to throw under the bus: the unmarried Eleanor, who looks on helplessly as Schlafly sneers at feminists who can’t find a man; Paulson’s Alice, who begs her friend to distance herself from open bigots; an abused woman who sits by meekly while Schlafly makes cruel jokes about husbands beating their wives. The personal is political, as Schlafly’s enemies liked to say. The political is also personal. Schlafly’s sacrifice of other women’s agency for her personal gain is monstrous enough on a conceptual level not to need demonstrations on a smaller one.

Whatever her faults, Schlafly was a true believer. But Mrs. America is especially perceptive on how collective action and individual gains can go hand in hand, often uncomfortably so. Schlafly latches onto the ERA because it’s the one issue in which her gender makes her more credible to the men in charge. For once, they need her to cover for their misogyny as much as she needs them to grant her a seat at the table. When feminists saw they were the only women in the room, they tried to open the door for others; when Schlafly saw the same, she locked the door behind her. By the dawn of the Regan era, Phyllis Schlafly had remade American politics—and therefore America—in her own image. Now, Mrs. America wants us to take a look in the mirror.