Hello from June 1972, where 18 out of the 38 necessary states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and the Democratic National Convention is gearing up in Miami, FL.
Directed by Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom), Mrs. America episode 3, “Shirley,” focuses mainly around the travails of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), a founding member of the Women’s Political Caucus and the first Black woman to ever run for president. Shirley’s campaign feels achingly familiar — real news footage from the time shows that she’s popular with young college voters and Black women. And yet, she’s being told by the party establishment that she needs to step aside so as not to take away votes from more “mainstream” candidates like frontrunner George McGovern. It’s an exhausting message coming on the heels of a primary election cycle that saw yet another tiresome debate over women’s “electability” a full 38 years after the events we’re about to see unfold. It’s hard to watch Shirley be harangued and not make comparisons to 2020 candidates like Elizabeth Warren, in third place when calls for her to stand down in favor of Bernie Sanders started to ring out.
Shirley is pragmatic. She knows securing the Democratic nomination is unlikely, but she’s unwilling to step down before she’s had a chance to make an impact. If she can harness enough delegates’ support, she can push for a more progressive party platform, ensuring that the voices of marginalized voters get heard.
“You can show up to the Convention yelling ‘Black Power here I come!’ ‘Women Power!’ or any kind of thing,” Shirley tells a group of supporters early on in the episode. “But the only thing that those hard-nosed boys are going to understand is: How many delegates do you got?”
It’s not that easy — Shirley faces opposition not just in the upper echelons of the party, but in her own backyard. Black Caucus leaders would rather endorse a white male candidate who promises them concessions than a Black woman who they believe will prioritize women’s issues. And most revealingly, white feminists like Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) are willing to make sacrifices on issues that concern people of color in favor of a more comprehensive (read: serving the needs of affluent white women) agenda.
In one of the episode’s most telling scenes, Bella calls Shirley to congratulate her on a well-run campaign, assuming that she’s going to take one for the team and endorse McGovern. “You know how it goes,” she says. “Party unity! We can’t look divided.”
“We are divided,” Shirley replies.
In Miami, things go from bad to worse. The Black Caucus endorses McGovern, and Gloria and Bella go behind Shirley’s back to make a deal with his campaign, ensuring they can hold a floor vote on the abortion issue. That too, backfires. When it appears the Women’s Political Caucus might actually win on the issue, male delegates who gave up their seats for women to vote suddenly flood back into the room on McGovern’s orders, shutting down the vote before it begins. Shirley was right — if you roll over for the man once, he keeps on pushing, and you keep rolling over. She says as much to Gloria later in the episode. “Unless we demand true equality, we are always going to be begging men for a few crumbs from the pie, trading women for an empty promise.”
Aduba gives a spectacular performance that drives home the frustration and fury of a woman who keeps being told that what she is doing is symbolic when, for her, it’s a matter of survival.
Just like Gloria’s personal stakes in the abortion debate in episode 2, Shirley knows that a Black woman running for president isn’t just a nice statement to make. It can change the world. (Fittingly, 35 years later, Ayana Pressley would get Chisholm’s old office after being elected to Congress in the biggest wave of women candidates ever seen.)
Asante’s direction is subtle — there’s a lot going on here, and many political issues and struggles to unpack. But the most powerful moment comes when Shirley is in her Miami hotel room, and overhears her white male FBI escort (sent by President Richard Nixon for her “protection” in the aftermath of Republican candidate George Wallace’s assassination attempt), laughing at an episode of Three’s Company. In it, noted racist curmudgeon Archie Bunker is making some crack about white people being superior. And as Shirley shuts the door, we hear the agents laughing, not at the joke but with it. This is what she’s up against.
What’s more, Shirley’s being watched. It starts out as a suspicion, with brash lawyer Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash, who injects a burst of adrenaline in her brief time on-screen) hinting that Nixon doesn’t know the difference between protection and surveillance. But as the episode unfolds, there’s an eerie sense of dystopia afoot. Shirley picks up the phone, only to hear a tell-tale click. She dismisses it — only to hear it again later. And then she spies the vent in her hotel room. What if they’re listening through there? Defiant, Shirley opens the grating and boldly declares: “My name is Shirley Chisholm, and I am a candidate for President of the United States.”
In the end, let down by Gloria and the women she considered her friends and allies, Shirley concedes the nomination and ends her campaign, releasing her delegates to McGovern. It’s a crushing moment, but Mrs America doesn’t want us to despair. “Shirley” does a phenomenal job of showing the failings of the movement, while also taking care to adequately celebrate its achievements. Yes, McGovern wins the nomination. But when he brings out his opponents — now allies — on-stage, Shirley is front and center, a Black woman at the front of a column of white men, showing the world that she can run for president. The significance of the moment is reflected on Gloria and Bella’s faces in the audience. This is clearly something they never thought they’d ever get to see. (Contrast that with the scene that immediately follows: Phyllis Schlafly giving expired canned goods to her Black housekeeper in what she believes is a magnanimous gesture.)
The Miami events are juxtaposed against the first-ever national meeting of Phyllis Schlafly’s (Cate Blanchett) coalition in St. Louis. But first, they need a name. Having defeated ratification in Illinois, Phyllis thinks it’s time the movement solidifies its platform and leadership. She suggests the “Schlafly’s Eagles,” a transparent attempt to raise her own political profile through the movement. When that’s rejected — ”Schlafly” is, to put it mildly, a mouthful — the group lands on the much more pithy “S.T.O.P. ERA” (Stop Taking Our Privileges).
It soon becomes clear however that the anti-ERA movement is just as fragmented as the Women’s Political Caucus. What’s different however, is how they deal with that conflict. Among the speakers slated for the conference is Mary Frances, a Louisiana activist whose speech starts with references to “commie radical lesbians” trying to erase traditional family values, and devolves into a racist screed about the dangers of integration. That makes women like Alice (Sarah Paulson) — who, despite their opposition to the ERA, do not endorse hateful rhetoric — uncomfortable. She shares her concerns that such talk will eventually harm the movement with Phyllis, who encourages her to confront Mary Frances.
It goes about as well as you’d expect, and of course, that is exactly what Phyllis was counting on. In a deft bit of political maneuvering, she gives Mary Frances a leadership position in the South, and taps Rosemary (Melanie Lynsky) as head of the Illinois chapter, snubbing Alice who was also vying for the post. If we had any doubts about Phyllis’ true nature or beliefs, this episode quashes them soundly.
“Shirley” ends on an especially eerie moment given our current situation. After listening to a news report about the danger of nuclear attack, Phyllis takes a trip to her basement, revealed to house a bunker full of supplies — her safe space. This is a woman who is prepared for the worst. Are we prepared for her?