Power, seduction, and lies. All are on painful display in Mrs. America.
Dahvi Waller, a producer and writer on Mad Men, created and runs this astounding show. The show is set during the second wave of the Women’s Rights era in the 1970’s up to Ronald Reagan’s election. The series quite possibly has the best group of actors I’ve ever seen gathered on a television show, beginning with the impeccable Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti- women’s rights crusader, facing off with Rose Byrne as a note perfect Gloria Steiniem, Margo Martindale as the tough as nails Bella Abzug, and a fantastic turn from former Stiff Records’ artist Tracey Ullman (tinyurl.com/zubdontknow) as Betty Friedan.
That’s just scratching the surface, as John Slattery, Sarah Paulson, Uzo Aduba (Shirley Chisolm!), Jeannie Tripplehorn and Elizabeth Banks are on board too. The nine episodes of Mrs. America are all wonderful, beginning with episode one, 'Phyllis', we meet this extremely intelligent expert on arms control. Indeed she advises actual generals and admirals about nuclear policy. It’s clear Phyllis wants to get somewhere, and when this Equal Rights Amendment appears, she sees an opportunity to gain the spotlight.
Phyllis and her (Eagle Forum) group quickly made a name for themselves, blocking the ERA ratification in her home state of Illinois, bringing the Forum to the attention of Gloria Steinem and the National Women’s Political Caucus, and her Ms. magazine cohorts. The series moves into gear when these grass roots organizations try to work with real, Washington politicians. As McGovern is seeking the nomination, he wants Shirley Chisolm, a fellow Democratic presidential candidate, to release her delegates. Shirley’s room is bugged and the Democrats are playing hardball. Gloria and her people get involved, brokering a deal. When the McGovern people get what they want, they screw the feminists out of their part of the deal. Welcome to Washington, D.C.
Betty Friedan agrees to debate Phyllis Schlafly, and is winning until Phyllis gets her worked up, and Betty loses her composure (and the debate). It’s not a good look for the pro-ERA forces. A second debate, involving Phyllis and her husband (Bobby Cannavale as Tom Snyder is a complete gas!) goes poorly for Phyllis, who cites a court case that doesn’t exist. Phyllis responds to this setback by returning to school for a law degree. In episode six, Phyllis is seduced by power, joining forces with a much more radical, anti-feminist, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual group that is thinly aligned with the KKK. It’s amazing what she would do to get 15,000 more names on her mailing list.
Phyllis is never made out as a monster, more of a woman who is looking for validation in a man’s world. There are a few scenes with her (scary) fallout shelter in the basement, and when she realizes her son is gay, she’s heartbroken but doesn’t reject him. The music in the show is almost always perfect. In 1977, Phyllis is at a luncheon, and gets ‘pied’ in the face (that was a thing in the 1970’s) as the Ramones ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ (tinyurl.com/zubheyho) is blasting. Later in the same episode, Phyllis opens a package addressed to her rebellious teenage daughter (who changed her name at Princeton) to find a mixtape. There is a fantastic, long scene where Phyllis sits and listens to The Runaways ‘Cherry Bomb’ (tinyurl.com/zubcherry), you can see the gears working in her head, and from this tape she somehow gets the idea to make ‘doctored’ tapes of the feminist leaders saying things they really didn’t say. Seduction of power. Only Blanchett could pull this off.
Margo Martindale is fantastic as Bella Azbug. When the Women’s Rights Commision, which she leads, is offered a fifteen minute meeting with President Carter, she cancels and gets a two hour, substantive meeting. After the meeting, the ‘Georgia Boys’ call her into the office and fire her, saying they “won’t let a woman tell them what to do.” Bella realizes they had already fired her before the meeting but hung her out to dry. Welcome to Washington, D.C.
The series ends with Reagan’s election in 1980. Phyllis has thrown her organization full force behind Reagan, and is fully expecting a cabinet position. She gets a call directly from Reagan, who explains she’s too divisive to put in the administration. Welcome to Washington, D.C.
This is one of the most fascinating, well acted series I’ve ever seen on TV. Dahvi Waller and FX have created a gem. This conflict, feminist versus anti-feminist, was perhaps the original ‘culture war.’ The mini-series is written well and seems to give all involved a fair shake, even someone as polarizing as Phyllis Schlafly.
Just as a side note, in the real world, the ERA has now been ratified by 38 states, but the deadline for its passage has run out and some states have attempted to revoke ratification, leaving a great deal of legal uncertainty. While the House Of Representatives has passed a bill to further the ERA acceptance process, the Senate does not appear willing to take up the bill.
Welcome to Washington, D.C.