Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Watch How Phyllis Schlafly Waged War on Women in "Mrs. America"

Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan debates Cate
Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America
The FX/Hulu series Mrs. America is an eye-opening, skillfully produced and acted story of the women who advanced womens' rights in the 1970s, and the woman who took them down: Phyllis Schlafly.

I had thought Schlafly was just a wing-nut like the anti-gay Anita Bryant, with a single cause: the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. But in fact, she was a foreign policy expert whose influential book, A Choice Not an Echo is thought to have been instrumental in Barry Goldwater winning the California primary and Republican nomination for president in 1964. A shrewd political strategist, Schlafly parlayed her STOP ERA campaign into enough political power to swing the Republican party so far to the right that it embraced Ronald Reagan and his "Just Say No" wife Nancy and so much more, all the way up to Trump, whom Schlafly supported before she died in 2016.

Portrayed impeccably (as always) by Cate Blanchett, who co-produced the series, we watch Schlafly forming alliances with rabid anti-abortion, anti-gay hate groups whose drivers turn out to be KKK members; finding out that her eldest son is gay and lecturing him about controlling his impulses; crossing swords with fellow Republican Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) and the ultra liberal Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman); and getting a pie thrown in her face just like Bryant did.

Women smoke pot, and take action, in Mrs. America
There isn't a bad casting choice or missed note in the performances among the largely female cast. Particularly good are Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. Sarah Paulson plays the wide-eyed innocent who, in the end, undergoes an awakening induced by drugs (as so often happens), starting with her witnessing the passing of a joint between two young women in a ladies' room (pictured).

For those of us too young to have participated in these landmark events, watching Mrs. America is like getting a birds-eye view into the inner workings of the women's movements of the time (on both sides of the aisle). I think I liked it as much as Iron-Jawed Angels, the story of the campaign to win women's right to vote starring Hilary Swank as Alice Paul.

I recall as a teenager wondering whether or not I should support the ERA, aware of Schlafly's argument that it would make me subject to the military draft (but deciding if I wanted equal rights I should take equal responsibility). She also argued that ERA would open the door to same-sex marriage, and require all bathrooms to be same-sex, causing a silly debate we seem to still be having.

Betty Friedan, Rosalynn Carter, Betty Ford, and Bella Abzug
among other supporters at the 1977 Women's Convention in Houston. 
The first version of an ERA was written by Paul and Crystal Eastman, and introduced in Congress in 1923. I'd forgotten how close we were to passing it in the '70s. It sailed through Congress in 1971, and Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter supported it, as did their wives and candidate George McGovern. By 1977, 35 of the needed 38 states had ratified it. But by then Schlafly had come in as the gadfly in the ointment.

It all culminated in a 1977 Women's Convention in Houston featuring Coretta Scott King, Rosalyn Carter and Betty Ford, but it's said that Schlafly's counter convention was as well attended. Mrs. America ends as that event begins, and although there is talk of a second season for the critically acclaimed series, it seems to me we will have to wait and work for a new chapter to be written in herstory before we see that happen.

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