Mrs. America and the Messiness of History
The Hulu series shows that history is rarely as clean-cut as many of us might wish.
When I heard that Cate Blanchett was going to be playing Phyllis Schlafly, one of the most notorious voices of the conservative movement and one of those responsible for keeping the ERA from getting enough votes to pass, I was a little concerned. I am a devout admirer of Blanchett’s, and I worried both that the series was going to make her an object of sympathy and that she was going to dominate the entire story to the exclusion of everyone else.
To some extent, my fears were justified. Blanchett, unsurprisingly, is simply radiant as Schlafly. It’s not just that she has managed to capture the mannerisms of this woman, but that she makes her explicable, rendering all of her contradictions visible for those of us in the audience who don’t really know her as anything else than as the nemesis of progressive values. For make no mistake, Schlafly was a hypocrite, using all of her considerable influence and her public persona to vilify the very women who were working to make such a public position possible. And the series, while focusing a great deal on her actions and her mentality, is a far cry from a hagiography. Again and again, we see Phyllis subjected to the very forces that she works so indefatigably to support, from the moment when a group of senators ask her to take notes to her husband’s frequent dismissals of her independence to the fact that she ruthlessly uses her unmarried sister as childcare so that she can continue her political crusading.
Indeed, in the final episode the chickens come home to roost, as Phyllis is betrayed by the very people that she has done so much to bring to power. Reagan denies her a place in his cabinet, claiming that he can’t afford to alienate those women who were in favor of the ERA. After that fateful phone call, she sits staring out the window, her face framed in the panes of glass, a prisoner in the home that she has defended so staunchly from the encroaching hordes of radical liberal feminists (one can’t help but think it’s an homage to Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows, in which Jane Wyman sits staring out the window, her face similarly framed in the window, imprisoned by the expectations of middle-class domesticity). She then begins moving through the motions of baking an apple pie, and the last image of the series sees her sitting at the table, peeling an apple. Schlafly, who has spent so much of the past several years working to bring about the defeat of the ERA — and supposedly defending the dignity of housework — finds herself relegated to that very sphere. For many viewers, it no doubt seems that she has finally received her, ahem, just desserts.
Yet for all that Blanchett’s Schlafly occupies a center place in the narrative, the other women who were key fighters at this moment also get their due, including Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Bella Abzug (played by beloved character actress Margo Martindale). Most of them, it should go without saying, are Phyllis’ devout opponents, tirelessly working to get the ERA passed while also contending with the fissures opening up within the women’s movement and within the Democratic Party more generally. As the series makes abundantly clear, this was a moment of flux, when other marginalized groups such as people of color and queer people were agitating ever more forcefully for their rights, even as the women’s movement itself was trying to create a center that could hold against the assaults from the right.
Needless to say, each member of the ensemble cast is truly superb, though it must be said that both Ullman and Martindale blaze with their familiar brightness, while the performances of the others are subtler (though no less effective). Indeed, it is precisely the differences in their acting styles that brings the divisions to vibrant life. While Friedan and Abzug are more attuned to the demands of political practicality, Steinem and Chisholm are more aligned with the firebrands, forever pushing their colleagues to aim bigger and higher, to really commit to the societal transformation that they view as necessary. This moment in history, the series suggests, was far messier than the pro- and anti-ERA mindset would suggest.
However, as excellent as the cast is, to me one of the most interesting characters — and, in many ways, the embodiment of the series’ argument about history — is the fictional character of Alice, a good friend of Schlafly’s and one of her most loyal lieutenants. She is, in some ways, the sort of everywoman figure that is so common in historical fiction, a surrogate for the presumed audience member. Thus, while she begins a firm ally of Schlafly’s, after a fateful trip to Houston to attend the 1977 National Women’s Conference, her faith in the cause is substantially shaken. Unlike her fellow soldiers, she starts to see the logic to what the pro-ERA women have been working for and, as a result, she begins to see the flaws in Schlafly that should have been obvious from the start.
It helps that Alice is played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson, an actress who’s always able to bring out the strength and sensitivity of her characters. Through her eyes, we see what this moment must have been like for the millions of women who were, for the most part, bystanders of history. When, toward the end of the series, she mostly disavows Schlafly and her methods, it’s a cathartic moment. She is not, perhaps, ready to go out and join NOW, but she is ready to embark on a new part of her life on her her own terms, not those dictated by either her husband or Phyllis.
Mrs. America does many things well, and one of those is to demonstrate just how messy history is, particularly when you’re living in it (as, presumably, many audiences feel that they are while watching a television drama about the past). History is rarely quite as clear-cut as we might wish it were. It’s very easy for those on the left and the right to vilify the other side, to paint them as some sort of faceless other that we can condemn with impunity. Sometimes, of course, that repudiation is deserved, but more often things are complicated, messy, and unpleasant. Mrs. America forces us to confront that messiness head-on.
A friend of mine remarked on Facebook that Mrs. America let him understand the perspective of the women who fought against the ERA in some surprising ways, and I had much the same response while I was watching it. While I would have liked to have seen a more thorough engagement with issues of both race and sexuality — both issues get some airtime, but not nearly enough — overall Mrs. America is a sophisticated rumination on how complex political battles are and how even those we might see as enemies have their own inner lives.
It’s a fitting reminder for these polarizing times.