‘Mrs. America’ and the Fight Over Phyllis Schlafly, the Woman Who Killed the Equal Rights Amendment
Bringing Schlafly to screen was always going to be fraught. But creator Dahvi Waller says, “I’d rather the show has some controversy or there’s blowback than no one's watching.”
Mrs. America creator Dahvi Waller knew going in that her series about Phyllis Schlafly’s fight to kill the Equal Rights Amendment would face blowback from both sides. Some conservatives would rail against it as propaganda, and some feminists would consider putting any kind of spotlight on Schlafly a mistake. And indeed, both sides of that argument materialized during the run-up to Mrs. America’s premiere Wednesday—but as Waller put it, “I’d rather the show has some controversy or there’s blowback than no one’s watching.”
In the FX-Hulu series, Cate Blanchett plays the woman who marshaled an army of conservative housewives against the Equal Rights Amendment—designed to grant women equality under the law by eliminating legal differences between the sexes in matters including employment and property. Passage of the ERA, first written in 1923, bloomed into a hard-fought war in the early '70s. The women’s liberation movement, including prominent figures like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, championed the amendment, which needed ratification from 38 states by 1979. That goal seemed easy, if not inevitable, at first. But then came Phyllis Schlafly.
Schlafly argued fiercely against the ERA and unleashed a horde of housewives armed with fresh-baked bread and pies on state legislatures—with a side of fresh-made jam. They also brought catchy slogans like “From the breadmaker to the breadwinner” and “Preserve us from a congressional jam; Vote against the ERA sham.” Schlafly’s strategy worked: Only in January of this year did a 38th state ratify the ERA—and by now, with the deadline long past, the ERA’s future remains unclear.
Waller noted that politically, we are in the midst of a cultural backlash not unlike the transition to the conservative Reagan era Schlafly helped usher in. “So I would argue that we need to understand what her appeal was to so many women,” Waller said, “and why so many women were willing to go to legislatures and bake bread and go to the Republican Convention and fight to take it over to help us do a better job at moving forward... I think if we don’t understand her appeal and how she tapped into anxiety among a fairly large group of women, we won’t really understand how to get through to those women today.”
Waller and her team read primary sources from all over the political spectrum during their research—works by Betty Friedan, conservative writer Donald Critchlow’s book Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, every newspaper article she could find about both Schlafly and the feminist leaders of the time, and feminist writer Carol Felsenthal’s biography The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, which she wrote after spending time with Schlafly in her home and interviewing her and some of her family members. Felsenthal even joined the series as a consultant. And finally, Waller watched a ton of footage of Schlafly herself.
“I didn’t want to start from a place of... writing a two-dimensional monster,” Waller said, “but really wanted to come at it from a place of trying to understand why she appealed to so many thousands of women. And there were all these women who back then, still today, refer to her as their Joan of Arc and think she was the most brilliant, sweetest woman ever. So just trying to understand that way into her. Even if I don’t agree with it.”
Still, the series has its detractors. One of them is Schafly’s daughter, Anne Schlafly Cori, who now serves as chairman of her mother’s anti-ERA organization Eagle Forum. Speaking with The Daily Beast ahead of the series premiere, Cori granted that Blanchett is an “excellent actress”—but expressed doubts regarding how the series would treat her mother.
“I think I’ve seen a couple of her movies, and from what I’ve seen in the trailers, she certainly has the hair, makeup, and clothing correct,” Cori said. “I think what she doesn’t have is my mother’s warmth.”
When asked why she’d begun reaching out to news outlets to oppose the series before it even premiered, Cori said, “I think we have a pretty good idea of what their agenda is because Cate Blanchett and the other producers and the writers have openly spoken about how much they disagree with the work of Phyllis Schlafly, how opposed they are to it, and have indicated that part of their purpose in doing this show was to help the revival of the Equal Rights Amendment. And so I think it’s important to put out that there is an alternative view.”
“This show is not a documentary, it’s fiction,” Cori said. “They have taken liberties with the story. And, of course, I’m very concerned that we have the truth... They have two fictional characters in this drama. And so they have a story that they are driving and they are basing it on fictional characters that they composed.”
Cori said she would have been around nine years old when her mother’s anti-ERA work began. “My mother’s office was in our home, so the phone was constantly ringing,” she said. “Whether from supporters or her volunteer Eagles or from the news media.” She recalled accompanying her mother to protests in Springfield, about a two-hour drive from their home in Alton, Illinois. “There were always mobs of people during those debates,” she said. Once, at the age of 17, she testified against the ERA herself.
On the other side of the aisle, some critics have questioned whether Mrs. America adequately answers a gaping question at its center.
As Sonia Saraiya argues in her review for Vanity Fair, “Mrs. America is a portrait of an antiheroine who replaced sisterhood with strife. She is absolutely the villain of this story; it becomes more clear with every episode. Yet her heel turn is so effortless that it’s almost indecipherable. Sure, ambition corrupts, but Phyllis’s resentment seeks to devour her entire gender—she is, with each pious newsletter, shooting herself in the foot. Why? ... Mrs. America stops short of naming what women’s liberation is up against, of identifying what Phyllis clings to as she empowers herself to tear down the ERA.”
BuzzFeed culture writer Pier Dominguez takes the thought a step further, arguing that Mrs. America follows a pernicious cultural tradition: “the liberal imagination seemingly can only understand conservative white women as failed white liberal feminists.” Dominguez praised the series for its careful work to synthesize the complexities of the political moment—many of which still reverberate in today’s political situation. Still, Dominguez writes, “it pulls its punches about its right-wing protagonist’s history of racism, ultimately making the show’s dramatic stakes and conclusion less powerful and relevant than it could have been, and more of a TV history version of Sean Spicer on Dancing With the Stars.”
The question of whether or not Schlafly herself was racist reverberates throughout the series. As Dominguez notes, her revolt against the Republican Party’s own civil rights plank and her rant against “illegal aliens” on her radio show in 2016 seem to indicate that Schlafly went further than simply allying with racists as a tactical move.
When asked how she chose to handle the question of Phyllis Schlafly and racism on her series, Waller said she referred back to Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s clever answer to the question of whether his opponent, Rick DeSantis, was racist: “Now, I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Gillum said back in 2018. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
“There did seem to be a lot of racists surrounding her organization,” Waller said of Schlafly. “And the feminists certainly believed that she was a John Birch Society member, and that she had ties to the Klan, and that the Klan were involved in planning a rally in Houston in 1977. So we always wanted to portray those accusations.”
“We could only use what we could find actual evidence for and really justify,” Waller added. “But we could, and we absolutely wanted to dramatize that these accusations were made against her. That was what the feminists believed to be true, and there were definitely members of John Birch Society in her Stop ERA organization. Because we found that in newspaper articles. I think it’s impossible to tell the story of Phyllis Schlafly without examining how race played into her organization.”
Plus, Waller said, as Bella Abzug pointed out, a large number of segregationists and people who opposed the civil rights movement went on to fight the women’s liberation movement soon afterward. “So there’s absolutely a line that could be drawn from the people who fought against civil rights and tried to keep that movement down and the people who fought to keep the women’s movement down.”
On the whole, Mrs. America is a complex, phenomenally acted series, blessed with an overwhelmingly stellar cast that includes, alongside Blanchett, Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, John Slattery as Fred Schlafly, and Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. In addition to her acting chops, Waller noted, Blanchett was a stellar producing partner who pored over research materials and often came prepared with suggestions.
One of Blanchett’s best ideas? That shot of her on stage from the back, in a dress with gauzy sleeves illuminated to look like angel wings. (That dress, Waller noted, came courtesy of costume designer Bina Daigeler, whom Blanchett herself recruited.) “I know she talked about that [shot] a lot with Ryan [Fleck] and Anna [Boden], our directors, and it eventually became part of the key art for the show,” Waller said. “It’s just a really beautiful shot.” Just one more effortless heel turn from a master.