Part of what makes Mrs America such a compelling show is the way that it deftly unravels some of the most complicated ideological knots of feminist history. (The other part, of course, is the dazzling array of covetable glasses.) In episode 6, we get ringside seats to a fight that will ultimately define our modern political era. Mrs. America’s “Jill” pits moderate Republicans — fiscal conservatives who nonetheless believe (or at the very least, pay lip service to) women’s rights — against the “Reaganites,” supporters of Ronald Reagan’s more extremist faction promoting return to family values and religious dogmatism.
In the first corner you have Jill Ruckelhaus (Elizabeth Banks), based on the real-life Republican co-founder of the Women’s Political Caucus and mother of five, appointed by President Gerald Ford as the head of the newly-created National Women’s Commission. Opposing her is — of course — Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who wields her STOP ERA campaign as a springboard for a much broader political agenda. Their battleground? The 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City.
It’s been three years since the Equal Rights Amendment was sent out to the states for ratification. With only four years to go until the 1979 deadline, the ERA still needs four more states to comply. To speed things along, and in honor of International Women’s year, President Ford announces a special commission headed by Jill. As Betty Ford puts it: “Who better to prove that feminism isn’t a dirty word than a Midwestern married mother of five? You’re as American as apple pie.”
But having a Republican in charge of the government’s response to women’s equality hasn’t stopped Phyllis from continuing to vocally oppose it. Early in the episode, we see her and her cronies picketing outside the White House, protesting their own party’s policies. It’s a glimpse at the bigger fight to come.
“The Republican party is in peril,” she tells Fred (John Slattery) after watching Jill on TV presenting the 1976 Woman of the Year award. We already know Phyllis supports Ronald Reagan, who wants to challenge Ford as the Republican candidate going into the 1976 election.
So, why not use the momentum she has going in her fight against women’s rights and harness it towards helping move the party to the right?
To do that, Phyllis needs to expand her reach, and for that, she needs allies. But rather than making overtures to centrist Republicans like Jill, she shifts towards the margins, courting the Religious Right and anti-choice coalitions for their mailing lists.
But back to Jill. Despite her new (unpaid) position of power within the administration, she is forced to sit out the National Convention because of her husband’s political prospects. Former Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus (Josh Hamilton, ever our favorite middle school dad) rose to national prominence in 1973, when he resigned rather than follow Richard Nixon’s order to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was looking into the Watergate Scandal. Now, it seems he’s on the shortlist for Ford’s Vice President — if only he can temper his wife’s “radical” feminist views.
The thing is — Jill’s not radical. She’s just a very capable woman who believes in fighting for the rights of all women. She also happens to be a Republican. Granted, it’s hard, from a 2020 perspective to reconcile those things. But that’s what makes this episode so interesting. It’s a window into a world where “Republican” didn’t also automatically mean “anti-science,” “anti-fact,” or “anti-choice.”
Banks’ performance is pitch-perfect (sorry, sorry), playing Jill as a pragmatist who, not unlike Phyllis, is willing to play along with the boys in order to get things done. But unlike Phyllis, she’s not blind to what that means long-term.
Jill tries to reach out to Phyllis, catching her over drinks at the National Press Club in Washington DC, and calls her out on her agenda. Phyllis has been trying to get an extremist Republican candidate into the White House since Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run. The fight over the ERA is just the best way to get people to tune in, and to reach conservative women on a wide scale. Her impact isn’t restricted to the culture wars. This is a woman who has largely managed to shape the 21st century Republican party — and it starts right now.
The friendly-ish drinks come to an abrupt end when Jill mentions the developing situation with the secretaries working on Capitol Hill. Running parallel to the drama within the Republican party is a subplot about the culture of harassment and abuse propped up by congressmen on both sides. We see shadows of it in meetings where Jill is forced to sweeten her tough negotiations with a smile, and brush off sexual innuendos and inappropriate touching as “humor.” But Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) soon reveals that she’s been talking to a number of secretaries who have been forced to trade sexual favors in exchange for their jobs, a scandal that she hopes will shake up the status quo. Spoiler: it doesn’t. In fact, once again, Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) passes the buck to the one Black woman in her circle, unwilling to really support women when that means potentially sacrificing her own political aspirations to run for Senate.
But Phyllis is unmoved by Jill’s description of these women’s plight. “Virtuous women are rarely accosted by those kinds of sexual propositions,” she says. (For all her virtue signaling, Phyllis isn’t feeling all that righteous. She’s struggling with the knowledge that her son John is gay, and later breaks down in tears in a church confessional.) Shocked, Jill responds: “You want to get ahead standing on the shoulders of men, fine. Just know that they’re staring right up your skirt.”
But the men of Mrs. America don’t have to be creeps to be disappointing. Bill doesn’t exactly ask his wife to stand down until he clinches the vice presidency, but it’s clear that he doesn’t have to. By intimating he doesn’t want her to give up her career, he’s also making clear that he has the power to do so. Theirs may be a progressive marriage, but in practice Jill still carries most of the parental responsibilities: She drives the kids to tennis; she worries about them being sick; she hosts a princess-themed birthday party while lobbying congressmen to vote with her on women’s rights.
When the phone finally does ring however, it’s not to announce news of a vice presidential nomination. It’s Audrey, calling Jill into action to save the ERA from being removed from the Republican at the behest of Phyllis and her crew. It works, but rescuing the ERA comes at the price of concessions on issues like abortion, social security reform, and childcare subsidies, which is exactly what Phyllis wanted. She has used her influence on women’s issues to push the entire party to the right, and gets an invite to meet with the Reagan campaign staff as a result. After all these years, she’s finally in.
And Jill? Well, Jill supported her husband and stayed home, watching helplessly as her party and her movement slipped away from her grasp.