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The Unfinished History of ‘Mrs. America’

The limited series featuring Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne accomplished the feat of retelling historical events and digging into who gets to decide how those stories are told

Hulu/Ringer illustration

The only thing I remember about the time I saw Gloria Steinem speak in the mid-1990s is the unamused reaction I got from my sixth-grade teacher when I declared the feminist icon to have been kinda boring. It was 1996, by my math, when I found myself in a room with Steinem on a Merrill Lynch corporate campus in Plainsboro, New Jersey. She was there as the featured speaker on Take Your Daughters to Work Day, a national initiative she had helped launch a few years before, and I was there as a daughter.

Certain elements from that day linger in my mind with vivid specificity: trying to keep up with my dad’s long stride as we trekked from the parking garage to his office, across blank lawns, and through endless hallways. Or being assigned to a real-live cubicle with an actual working phone line. (When word spread among my fellow daughters about how to dial 9, we all called our home phone numbers with unbusinesswomanly glee.) Or copping sweet merch, like a fat notepad bearing the firm’s taurine logo and the words BULLISH ON AMERICA.

None of these memories involve Steinem. If it weren’t for the “What I Did on Take Your Daughters to Work Day” assignment I had to complete in order to be excused from skipping school that day, I probably would have forgotten about her appearance altogether, just one more adult passing unremarkably through my tween life. My “boring” ruling was made in earnest, not out of snark. But I can picture exactly where I was standing when my teacher returned my paper, with the word boring circled, and suggested that I might one day reassess. She wasn’t mad, and she wasn’t even disappointed; she just had the professional skill of knowing when a student clearly has a whole lot to learn.

I’ve been thinking about this cringe moment a lot lately as I’ve watched the FX-on-Hulu limited series Mrs. America, a sprawling and generous examination of the 1970s-era fight over the women’s liberation movement. Steinem may be a lot of things, but boring is certainly not one of them, something I’ve come to appreciate both through the show itself, in which Steinem is played by a droll, cool Rose Byrne, and also through all the side research the program has inspired. (Like this 2015 New Yorker profile I came across, which contains this sentence: “Gloria had a ring, from her friend Wilma Mankiller, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, to give to the queen, and she did.”)

“I’m starved for television shows that are centered on women, told from the point of view of women,” said series creator Dahvi Waller in an April conference call with reporters, “and aren’t about women running after men.” (When women do run in Mrs. America, it’s for office.) Those points of view include not only Steinem’s, but also the gazes of so many other painstakingly drawn characters, from the determined 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm to the grumpy, trailblazing feminist Betty Friedan. At its root, Mrs. America is about the memories that fade, the narratives that persist, and the stories we tell to the world and to ourselves.

“The Phyllis Schlafly archive is enormous,” Cate Blanchett told reporters in that same conference call, “and it was almost … I almost sank under the weight of it, actually.” She was describing how it felt to parse the life and times—the literal rich texts—of the hyperproductive, überdestructive conservative queen bee Schlafly, whose crusade against the Equal Rights Amendment led to a realignment of the Republican Party that persists to this day. But even I, a mere viewer, could relate to how Blanchett felt. All nine episodes of Mrs. America hum with so much historical information and sparkle with such precise visual detail that it can feel like a TV show and a grad-school history course, all in one. “It felt like we were doing one feature film after another,” set decorator Helen Britten told me.

Waller, the series creator, is one of the driving forces behind this commitment to fidelity. Her past work includes time on Mad Men, where she watched Matthew Weiner fiddle with every last detail on set, and Halt and Catch Fire, a Texas-and-California–set series about the early years of personal computing that was widely admired for its world-building. “The remarkable thing about Dahvi,” production designer Mara LePere-Schloop told me, “is her relentless pursuit of information and accuracy and authenticity.” As for this particular subject matter, it’s broadly the sort of thing Waller has been interested in for quite some time.

As a senior at Princeton in 1993, she wrote her 101-page thesis on “Feminists and the State: Abortion and Birth Control in Britain and France in the Interwar Period.” As a young TV writer, she spent a little time on Desperate Housewives. And as she prepared for her latest project, which was developed with storied Hollywood producer Stacey Sher, she read every feminist memoir and every last article she could possibly find. All of these influences are present in Mrs. America.

Like so many other top shows on television lately, Mrs. America is the type of programming that is greatly enhanced by watching with Wikipedia at the ready. There are enough shows that fit this mold—from Waco to The Crown; from Chernobyl to The People vs. OJ Simpson—that the genre might need a name. Historicore, maybe? Après-see, in honor of the way I finish an episode and immediately look everything up? We already have mumblecore out there, so what about tumblecore, for TV that pushes you down one rabbit hole after the next, leaving you forever changed?

Did Steinem really tuck her hair into her glasses like that? Yes. Did a whole bunch of women resign from President Jimmy Carter’s women’s council over Bella Abzug’s ousting like the Notre Dame football team handing in their jerseys in Rudy? Hell yes! Where can I learn more about Marc Fasteau and his wife, Steinem associate Brenda Feigen, who satisfyingly upstaged Fred and Phyllis Schlafly at a 1974 debate? Right this way to a 1974 People article about their marriage that includes a detail about what Marc did for love: “boycott[ed] the then male-only Harvard squash courts ‘until I got the athletic director to integrate them.’” That’s praxis! (So is divorce, which the couple did in 1987.)

Did Friedan really tell Schlafly during a live debate that she wished she could burn her at the stake? She sure did, and while there’s no footage of that blowup, I can watch the two IRL adversaries argue a different time, on Good Morning America, and marvel at how accurately Blanchett and Tracy Ullman have internalized the cadences and quirks of their real-life characters on-screen.

Did prim, proper Alice Macray really get high on pills and booze at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston and start singing Woody Guthrie with some friendly lesbians? OK, fine, that character, played with conflicted soul by Sarah Paulson, is one of the show’s very few made-up people, although Waller says it’s a composite based in part on a real woman who did a 180 from being a Schlafly acolyte hell-bent on stopping the Equal Rights Amendment to opening a pro-ERA spite-headquarters across the street from Fred Schlafly’s law firm.

When it comes to the topic of Ms. Magazine, the periodical helmed by Steinem, I learned via Google that two alternative titles in the running included Bimbo and Sisters, the latter of which didn’t test well on people: “They thought,” Steinem once said, “It was about nuns.” And when it comes to the topic of nuns, I learned while looking up a briefly featured Mrs. America character named Jean O’Leary that before she became a radical lesbian activist, she lived and served in a convent called the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary.

It’s not that these stories weren’t already out there. “They were a very prolific bunch,” Waller said about the women featured in the series. “They all wrote more than one book.” But by weaving all these narratives, from so many sources, Mrs. America makes all their stories feel that much more fully realized. And by centering so many different women, the show creates its own gravitational pull. Uzo Aduba, whose Shirley Chisholm vibrates with righteous anger and moral clarity, told reporters that she hadn’t heard of all the women featured in the program before she took on the project. “Which is, in all sincerity, across the board a travesty,” she said. “Like, just, we should know these women, all of these women and their names.”

A lot of entertainment options feel unsettling these days, as my mind struggles to reconcile even the most mundane “old normal” images on my screen—crowds, handshakes—with the new, weird reality of my life. But Mrs. America, by being set in such a specific slice of the past, sidesteps this issue. Watching its blend of archival footage and winning performances, I felt so immersed in the world of 1970s feminist politics that I forgot to ever stop to fret about germs.

But that doesn’t mean that the series didn’t still leave me a little bit rattled. What stands out most about Mrs. America is how thoroughly, depressingly modern all of its most retrograde aspects, from the battle over abortion rights to the weaponization of women against one another, are. One of the through lines of the show is the plight of the Equal Rights Amendment, which to this day has still not been ratified nationally. “We did often sit around on set,” Byrne told reporters at the start of the season, “going, ‘Wow. We’re still talking about the same things in 2019,’ when we shot it, ‘as we are in the show, which is in 1970 to 1979.’”

At one point in the finale, a young Roger Stone and Paul Manafort briefly appear. But it feels gloomy to contemplate just how long men like them have been around, pulling strings. On the one hand, it was a true thrill to look up the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami that is depicted in Episode 3 and find a 2015 Rebecca Traister article with footage from a long-lost feminist documentary that includes a “You’re So Vain”–era Warren Beatty in full smarmy splendor. On the other hand, as I watched Beatty go from aggressive to slick to accusatory to charming, I just hated how familiar his tone and tactics felt, expecting to hear the words “nasty woman” any minute.

When Waller and Sher began developing the series, it was 2015 and Hillary Clinton seemed destined for the White House. Waller told Esquire that when she started writing the second episode, which chronicles Steinem’s fight for abortion rights, “one of the notes I got back was: ‘How are young women today even going to relate to the idea of abortion being illegal?’” A few years into the Trump administration, as some states have clamped down on access and tightened laws, things have changed. “Can you believe that was a note I got?” Waller said in Esquire. “I think they’re going to relate, which is a very scary thought.”

Mrs. America documents some of the early battles in what has become a decades-long culture war. On one side is the haughty, poised Schlafly, who delivers baked goods with her pastel-clad minions, attends law school, and fears that her gay son is a pervert. The biggest criticism of Mrs. America has centered on whether the show portrays Schlafly in too glowing a light, but I found that as the series goes on, her dishonesties and weaknesses are increasingly exposed, including by her own followers. Mrs. America strives to point out that the differences between Schlafly and Steinem were more a matter of marketing than function. Schlafly went to law school, made a career studying nuclear defense policy, flew around the country professionally, yet sold herself as a homemaker. Unlike Steinem, she preferred to be photographed in her kitchen, not her study. “It’s just a really contrived but kind of amazing feminine armor that she puts on,” LePere-Schloop told me.

On the other side is the movement disparaged as “the libbers.” In a conference call with reporters, Ullman said that she recognized this sort of tone from growing up. “I was like 16 when it was all really at its heyday,” she said when I asked what she remembered about the time. “And, you know, you just didn’t say you were a feminist back then because the men all made jokes if you were a feminist—you had hairy armpits and, you know, no sense of humor.”

When Ullman said this, it made me think of a famous passage from the book Gone Girl, in which the narrator describes the concept of the perfect woman, the “cool girl”: “a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.” And I thought of the Cool Girl passage again during one post–Mrs. America après-see session when I stumbled on a 1959 essay in The Atlantic that defines the “ideal woman”:

She must be a successful wife, mother, community contributor, and possibly career woman, all at once. Besides this, she must be attractive, charming, gracious, and good-humored; talk intelligently about her husband’s job, but not try to horn in on it; keep her home looking like a page out of House Beautiful; and be efficient, but not intimidatingly so. While she is managing all this, she must be relaxed and happy, find time to read, paint, and listen to music, think philosophical thoughts, be the keeper of culture in the home, and raise her husband’s sights above the television set.

That was written before Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and before Roe v. Wade, and before the Equal Rights Amendment. And yet as I read it, it strikes me that not much has changed.

In 1972, an at-the-peak-of-her-powers Nora Ephron covered the women’s movement at the Democratic National Convention. “Every so often, someone suggests that Gloria Steinem is only into the women’s movement because it is currently the chic place to be,” Ephron wrote. “It always makes me smile, because she is about the only remotely chic thing connected with the movement.”

The most interesting parts of Mrs. America have less to do with the battle between conservatives and liberals and are more concerned with the rivalries and intersectionalist factions within the latter group. In interviews, Waller often says that women are not a monolith. “I remember reading about the conflict among the leaders of the [2017] Women’s March while we were in production,” she told reporters in April, “and it just felt so resonant to the discussions we were having about the 1970s in the writers room.”

Betty Friedan resents Gloria Steinem in the show; she also stubbornly dismisses, before finally supporting, the ascendent lesbian movement. Margaret Sloan-Hunter tries to pitch a piece about tokenism in the workplace to her progressive sisters at Ms. Magazine, who don’t quite take the hint. (This wasn’t the only criticism of the magazine from an employee; in real life, Ellen Willis resigned from Ms. in 1975, calling its politics “a mushy, sentimental idea of sisterhood designed to obscure political conflicts between women.”) By bringing all these disparate narratives to the forefront, the series highlights the messy nature of revolution and change.

Jill Ruckelshaus struggles to keep afloat the moderate feminist presence within the Republican Party. Shirley Chisholm has harsh words when the women who are ostensibly on her side abandon her historic push for the presidency. (“Unbought and unbossed” has to be a top-five political slogan of all time, as a side note.) “Shirley has a line to Gloria where she says, ‘Real power concedes nothing,’” Aduba said when I brought this up, that line being a Frederick Douglass line that Chisholm liked to quote. “And like if we don’t stop,” Aduba said, “we’ll always be asking the men for the few crumbs from the pie.”

Later in her 1972 article, Ephron describes a frustrated Steinem bursting into tears after butting heads with some of George McGovern’s people. “They won’t take us seriously,” Steinem complains. “We’re just walking wombs.” She tells Ephron what she heard a man say about the existence of a woman’s caucus: “Next thing there’ll be a caucus of left-handed Lithuanians.”

Now in her 80s, Steinem remains a tough nut to crack. Waller opted not to reach out directly to Steinem or any of the other still-living main characters, preferring to engage with their contemporaneous writing in her research so as not to become, as she put it, “beholden” to their esoteric memories or biased points of view. But recently, in an interview with The Guardian, Steinem objected to the show, calling it “ridiculous.” Schlafly, she said, got way too much credit for stopping the ERA, claiming it was actually the insurance industry lobby flexing its muscle that did so. And Steinem argued that the show’s focus on the infighting between groups of women missed the mark.

“The series makes it seem as if women are our own worst enemies, which keeps us from recognizing who our worst enemies are,” she said. “Not that we aren’t in conflict, yes we are in conflict, but by and large we don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies.” And while I would argue that Mrs. America ultimately makes this point—showing, for example, a devastated Schlafly getting passed over for the spot in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet that she was sure she’d get—it’s heartening to see Steinem as on-message, and as not-boring, as ever.

I found my sixth-grade teacher on Facebook and messaged her, wanting to see whether my memory of Take Your Daughters to Work Day and its aftermath matched up with hers. It seemed appropriate, considering how important the concept of narrative and memory and point of view is to Mrs. America. It was because of the show, after all, that I’d even dredged up this embarrassing recollection in the first place.

“It’s so funny you ask about Gloria Steinem,” she wrote back. A few months ago, she wrote, she and some friends from her book club had gone to see a play about Steinem called Gloria, starring Mary McDonnell. “I said to my group I remembered a student had seen her in person and how lucky she was. I did not however remember who it was, or that you thought that she was boring at the time!! LOL..I’m glad it made a memory for you, however!” Honestly, I am too. Some consciousness-raising just takes longer than others, and if anyone would understand that, it’s probably Steinem.