The opening credits of Mrs. America begin like a feminist disco fever dream set to Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven." The disco instrumental, adapted from the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, came out in 1976, five years after the fierce battle over the Equal Rights Amendment began; six years before it would end. But the jittery track helps set the bittersweet tone for the fight over a law that would have guaranteed equal legal rights regardless of sex.
The song was featured on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which epitomized disco for better or worse. So maybe it's fitting that the song helps introduce us to Mrs. America, which typifies the women's movement, for better or worse. While the two are closely associated with the same decade, disco was a passing fad, while feminism has never gone away.
The opening song's title, "A Fifth Of Beethoven," is a punny nod to the measurement in which liquor is sold. It's a glittery ear worm you can dance to, not a record people take too seriously. That thumping drum track, though, conceals a classical composition that people study with great seriousness. The song was more powerful than a listener might have initially assumed, they had to dig deeper.
That's not unlike how many, specifically men, saw Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem in the '70s: beautiful women who were better seen, not heard. Taking them seriously meant they'd actually have to start listening to them and stop seeing them as just a pretty face. They'd have to acknowledge their power and admit they may know more than them.
While they disagreed immensely on the details, Schlafly and Steinem were both grassroots organizers who urged women to get involved in politics — and they were successful in doing that. Mrs. America's opening sequence lays out the accomplishments of their divided movements in a timeline that illustrates through illustrations the progress that was being made.
The public fight helped the mainstreaming of feminism, which the opening credits portray by showing women in their local beauty parlors reading magazines with Gloria Steinem on the cover. It turned many suburban women on to the need for gender equality at a time when women couldn't get a credit card without their husband or father's help.
There was a sense women were moving up in the world, hence the opening shot of a bus celebrating Shirley Chisholm becoming the first Black female presidential candidate for a major political party in 1972. The next stop was Springfield, Ill., which became an actual battleground for the ERA in 1976 when the National Organization of Women (NOW) and 8,000 supporters of protested for Illinois to become the 35th state to ratify the amendment. The coalition made up of women and men hoped it would put a national spotlight on the amendment promising equal rights for men and women, while also urging neighboring states like Indiana and Missouri to ratify the law. It didn't hurt that it was the state in which Schlafly lived, making it a particular sticking point for both sides.
With diverging rainbow paths in muted '70s colors, the opening shows how the feminist movement blossomed, but also how Schlafly's conservative campaign, led by religious housewives, thwarted them. The final images of women vacuuming up the words of the amendment is both artistically stunning and utterly heartbreaking.
The opening sequence shows Schlafly pulling a wagon full of apple pie, which is not just a playful nod to her movement's presumed wholesomeness. She and her followers actually did deliver homemade pies to political leaders asking them to vote against the ERA. She also passed out jars of jelly with the slogan: “Preserve us from a congressional jam; Vote against the ERA sham.”
It also signals to the lost opportunities, too. The show opens with a sign of female solidarity, the hope that intersectional feminism would bring all women together, but in 2020 this is a still a dream not a reality. As is a female president. Forty-four years after Chisholm's bid, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to become the nominee of a major political party.
The show is a look at America's messy history, or maybe in this case herstory, that has continued to have a major effect on current politics. Nearly 40 years after Schlafly's victory, America still hasn't passed the ERA. Not a spoiler, but a clear sign that this show is more about the journey than the destination.
The opening credits are the Cliff's Notes version of the political battle over a woman’s place in the world. You'll have to keep watching Mrs. America to understand the full story of how the battle over the ERA helped permanently alter the course of both the feminist movement and American conservatism.