I was ready to hate Mrs. America. A show that stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, one of the most disruptive conservative forces in modern American history, felt potentially dangerous. Blanchett is a talented and beloved actress. What if, in her hands, Schlafly became a sympathetic figure? Spending eight episodes with a character – no matter how antagonistic or unlikeable — requires a certain amount of empathy. Is Schlafly really someone I want to get to know on a deeper level, especially now, as the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment is just starting to gear up again?
But by the end of the series premiere, written by creator Dahvi Waller and directed by Captain Marvel’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, I was hooked.
Blanchett’s Schlafly is no ideological purist, propelled to the cause by deeply held beliefs. She’s a pragmatist and a hypocrite, a woman with political ambitions who realised that the only way to be taken seriously on a public stage was to take a stance on women’s issues. And though she does end up convincing herself, watching her undergo that transformation doesn’t inspire sympathy so much as understanding of what we were up against then and now.
When we first meet Phyllis, she’s walking in a Republican fundraiser fashion show, wearing the stars and stripes and nothing else. The year is 1971, and fresh off a failed run for Congress, she and her husband Fred (John Slattery) are there to support newly elected Congressman Phil Crane (James Marsden), one of the few successful Republicans in Illinois that cycle.
Almost immediately, the contradictions at work within Phyllis are revealed. She’s a woman who embraces the conservative ideals of family, country and religion, and also one who is more comfortable holding a conversation about American nuclear policy with the men in charge than talking baking with housewives. She submits to Crane’s creepy advances and sexual innuendos one moment, but then schools him on American nuclear policy on his TV show the next. She enlists her husband’s social connections and financial support to help her further her political agenda, but never really questions the fact that she still has to get his signature in order to apply for a credit card. (Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, women couldn’t get credit without their husband or father co-signing.) And although she does chafe at her mother’s suggestion that she’s lucky to have a good provider in Fred, Phyllis seems content with the status quo of gender relations overall.
Still, there’s a veneer of progressivism to the Schlafly couple that the episode cleverly cuts through about halfway into its runtime. Thus far, we’ve seen Phyllis as somewhat ahead of her time, with Fred as a supportive force in her ambitions. But that shifts during a conversation about what a new run for Congress might mean for their family. Fred refuses to even consider moving to Washington DC, essentially forbidding his wife to run without explicitly telling her she can’t. “I don’t understand what’s changed, you supported my run two years ago she said,” realising as the words came out of her mouth that he only did so because he never believed she’d actually win. Later, he pressures her into having sex after she’s implied she’s not in the mood, cementing the reality that no matter how educated or powerful Phyllis thinks she is, ultimately, she’s there to serve her husband’s needs.
What’s initially confusing, however, is why a woman with her lofty aspirations would oppose a feminist movement that might help her get there. And indeed, when her friend Alice (Sarah Paulson, whose genuine outrage is a great foil for Blanchett’s more calculated moves) first expresses her concerns over the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis dismisses them. She’s a national security expert! She wrote four books about nuclear strategy and helped Barry Goldwater secure the Republican nomination in 1964! She rejects the idea that she’s a “woman candidate” and shies away from issues that might box her into that label. Why should she care about a bunch of feminists trying to get a symbolic law passed?
But things change when Phyllis travels to Washington for a meeting with Crane and Goldwater. From the second she steps into Crane’s office, it’s clear that he extended an invitation only to lure her into getting drinks with him without their spouses present. To add insult to injury, she’s ignored in the actual meeting, treated not as an expert in her field but as a secretary, there to take notes while the grown up men talk seriously. What’s interesting about the scene is that it’s simultaneously infuriating and satisfying to watch. Yes, as women, we’ve all been in similar situations. But it’s hard to feel bad for a woman who would then do everything in her power to make sure that things would never change. (The power dynamic between her and the assistant who hands her a pen is particularly telling. Phyllis considers herself superior to other women, and resents being lumped in with those she will later try to keep in their place.)
Phyllis’ only real contribution to the meeting comes when she’s asked about the ERA, which initially annoys her. But soon enough, she spots opportunity. If people want to hear from her on this subject, then why not own it?
Soon enough, Phyllis is hijacking the mother-daughter luncheon of the Daughter of the American Revolution in her hometown of Alton, Illinois, using it as a launching pad for her cause. It’s there that Phyllis’ cruel hypocrisy becomes apparent. Having spent an entire episode compassionately reassuring her unmarried sister-in-law Eleanor (Jeanne Triplehorn) of her value to the family and society, she makes cracks at “pathetic,” “bitter” “libbers” like Gloria Steinem, implying feminism is their way of hiding the fact that they couldn’t catch a husband. By the end of her speech, Phyllis has finally found a cause, and an audience that matches. And if she hurts a few feelings along the way then, so be it.
The structure of Mrs. America is designed to highlight one woman per episode, with some subplots weaved in. Having gotten to know Phyllis, the final moments of the premiere are devoted to introducing her opponents.
The only person of colour we’ve interacted with up to this point is the Schlafly’s housekeeper, who, ironically, is the one taking care of the kids while Phyllis is out calling for women to remain in the home. That changes with the arrival of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), introduced during a newscast as the first Black woman to run for President. (And if you really want 2016 PTSD, listen closely to man-on-the-street interviews asking people if they’re ready for a woman president. If this show has one theme, is that things change — but they also don’t.)
Chisholm has the backing of the Women’s Political Caucus, co-founded by Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martingdale), and Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), who, in March 1972, are celebrating the ERA passing through Congress without a hitch. The ERA’s bipartisan support is made clear with the introduction of Republican member Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and ratification seems like a certainty at this point. So, when an aide hands Bella and Betty a newsletter by a woman claiming to be the opposition, they laugh it off as nonsense from a “right-wing nut” on the fringe.