30 May 2020
“You wanna get ahead climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis? Just know, they’re looking right up your skirt.”
Mrs. America has been embroiled in controversy surrounding the notion of sympathy. In storytelling, explanation often walks a gossamer-thin line against excuse. What I have come to learn through the evolution of the miniseries, is that what’s missing from Mrs. America is not condemnation, but context. Without proactively providing background on what’s real and what isn’t in the series, some nuance can be interpreted as ignorance. So let me provide some context:
Phyllis Schlafly was a horrible woman. She was a racist, misogynistic, self-serving husk of a woman who died hated by generations of feminists. She is still taught in Women’s Studies programs as the pinnacle not of what we’re up against, because that would imply her ideas had any relevance today, but a relic of what 2nd wave feminists beat down in order for us to thrive, a reminder of the vile stupidity that festered in the time of this series and laid the groundwork for the more subtle misogyny that pervades our fights today. Sure, maybe she “single-handedly killed the ERA,” as the series proffers, but the show also fails to provide context about the other battles that already existed within the ERA movement. Splinters of working class dissonance with the white-collar protections the ERA focused on, the lack of solidarity with the black community, cleverly reflected in the working environment at Ms. Magazine but never clearly addressed within the ERA discussion, and other factions made the ERA not as wildly unifying as Mrs. America suggests. The show does a decent job of unpeeling the layers of the generational battles within feminism – Betty Friedan serving as the behind-the-times, homophobic portrait of white feminism, with Gloria Steinam blazing a new, more inclusive trail filled with more color and forward motion. What Mrs. America glosses over while busy highlighting its symbolic significance is that the ERA was not the be-all and end-all of women’s lib, and to give Schlafly the credit of dismantling it isn’t the Herculean feat the show posits it was. She was able to exploit fear and resentment within uneducated and unambitious housewives, not exactly the most difficult group to wrangle, but she did not deliver any death blows to feminism. The finale states that feminists never regained as much power within government as they had in the 70s, as if this is some horrible tragedy, when the show itself demonstrates that working within the system was never going to be the way to liberation.
Phyllis Schlafly was by no stretch of the imagination a feminist. There are no conceivable mental gymnastics that can make her into one. The use of “You Don’t Own Me” on a close up of Phyllis Schlafly’s face is the most laughably pathetic misuse of music I have ever seen, and is in such poor taste that I have to imagine it’s a wink at the audience, but the problem is that without appropriate background on Schlafly, Mrs. America doesn’t give you enough to understand that this isn’t just conservative propaganda. It takes too long for it to dawn on us that this is an evil woman if you didn’t already go in with that notion. While the series sticks the landing, it loses too many viewers to the notion that perhaps Schlafly is herself empowered, which she of course was not. I want to put to rest any short-sighted notion that Phyllis Schlafly could be considered a feminist. Feminism is a verb. It is something you do, and you have to do it all the time. It is difficult, it is work, and it is something you do for the advancement of women as a whole. Any act detrimental to women as a whole cannot be feminist, no matter how much it advances one single woman. The more famous Phyllis became, the more resistance the overall progress of women faced. Therefore, no individual successes of Phyllis’s could be considered feminist. Calling yourself a feminist while only helping yourself is no more accurate than calling yourself a vegetarian with the blood and juice of a steak dripping down your chin.
Despite the often too self-possessed portrayal of Schlafly herself, Mrs. America succeeds in its representations of several of the other women centered in the show. Specifically, its powerful (though inconsistent) refusal to buy into stereotypes about women’s libber presented some of its highest peaks. It would have been easy to say, “Look! Feminists aren’t really lesbians who will destroy families!” But instead, it understood that some feminists were lesbians, and sometimes it did hurt their families, but this is the reality, and to be a lesbian isn’t an insult, no matter what the anti-feminists say. The story of Brenda Feigen Fasteau, an ACLU lawyer who appears contentedly married to Adam Brody (who wouldn’t be?), a modern man who supports and even writes about feminism, shows her falling for a woman while pregnant with her husband’s child, and navigates through the complicated waters of being a feminist but happily married, loving a man but being attracted to a woman, being pro-choice but wanting to have a baby, all delicately supported by Gloria Steinam and the rest of her feminist support network. The show succeeds here because it shows that Steinam’s feminists allow for nuance and complication, while the Schlafly camp turns practically hostile when one of its own has struggles, including domestic violence (merely hinted at), and singledom in adulthood (a running thread about Schlafly’s sister that ultimately goes nowhere).
Unfortunately, this bold refusal to rebuke stereotypes that aren’t actually harmful gets a little messier when we dig into the aforementioned Steinam’s personal life. A great insult leveraged by the Schlafly camp is that these libbers cannot find a man to marry them, and the show takes great pains to show us that that criticism is untrue. We see multiple relationships of Steinam’s, and we are reminded again and again that she is in fact very beautiful, that men want to marry her, and if she wants a husband she can have one. The question that kept coming to mind was simply: Why are we seeing this? Why do we need to know that Gloria Steinam has a lot of sex? It’s enough to be constantly reminded that she is very beautiful (which of course is undeniable looking at the breathtaking Rose Byrne, whose beauty is matched only by her deeply grounded portrayal of Steinam), but we must also be assured, “Don’t worry! She could have a husband if she wanted to!” While the show takes the correct stance on the lesbian issue, it does the opposite on the marriage issue. The true feminist answer to the insult of singlehood is to not engage with it at all, to reject it as a criticism. To incessantly assure us that Steinam could have a husband is to tacitly accept Schlafly’s critique of feminism by refuting it, rather than casting it out as completely invalid. I’m here to tell you it’s okay to be single and unbeautiful, and I don’t give a shit whether or not Gloria Steinam had sex or a boyfriend, because it isn’t relevant to her activism, despite this show’s insistence.
While Brenda is an example of a successful story that veers off from our main characters, the Story of Sarah Paulson’s “Alice” is much more confounding. Far be it for me to complain about an episode where Sarah Paulson gets to act her face off as an uptight conservative who takes a drug trip to become a cake-eating, drum circle-participating feminist ally, but this episode is more of a Ryan Murphy fever dream than anything that lends itself to the story. I suppose the point is that even the women closest to Phyllis can be swayed when they understand the hypocrisy of her “movement,” except that in the next episode we’re left with little more activism from Paulson’s character than some disapproving looks when the Schlafly camp is making fun of feminists, followed by a single outburst regarding Phyllis’s willingness to look the other way re: domestic violence. Nothing actually changes. Phyllis doesn’t really seem to mind losing Alice’s loyalty, because why would a cold-hearted lizard like her be capable of love for a friend when she openly humiliates her own sister? There are no consequences to Alice’s change of heart. Ultimately, far too much time is spent on Paulson’s character, who was not even a real person without much payoff. If she’s meant to represent the deterioration of Schlafly’s circle, then we would have seen it deteriorate. Perhaps she is supposed to represent that the anti-feminists have souls too, but takes the easy way out by bringing out that humanity through a non-consensual drug trip rather than through any actual introspection. This is time that could have been spent on real life contributors to the movement. Angela Davis, for example, perhaps the greatest feminist hero of our lifetime, is mentioned a single time in the entire series. It’s true that Davis was in jail for a portion of the series’ run, and that Davis perhaps had more important fights than the ERA as a prison abolitionist and black power advocate, but is the series really so scared of showing the broader scope of the second wave feminist movement that to visit Davis would be a distraction? It’s disheartening, though perhaps quite apropos, that a series on 2nd wave feminism would focus more on fictional white women than the real black heroes that were working outside of the system.
What twists the knife on this erasure is that the one black-centric episode, focusing on Shirley Chisholm, played immaculately by Uzo Aduba, is one of the strongest of the whole series, showing us what a real treat it can be to focus on the black women’s women. Chisholm, a personal hero of mine, ran on the slogan “unbought and unbossed,” and refused to drop out of the race against McGovern even when it was clear she did not have the numbers to be competitive. It’s worth lingering on this point because I fear that something will get lost in translation when we attempt to transpose second wave feminism on the current fourth wave movement: Comparing Chisholm’s decision to Elizabeth Warren’s is a mistake, and I would like to head it off now: While Warren still had someone further to the left of her, Chisholm’s supporters had nowhere else to go, and so staying in the race brought the establishment further to the left. Even as a Warren supporter myself, I urge modern feminists to read into this series with a close eye, and try not to copy and paste historical moments onto the present landscape. Relevance and a mirror image are different things, and, as always, context matters. While the series does leave some historical blank spots, I applaud them on their portrayal of the black heroes within the movement, which unfortunately only makes it more confounding that it dedicates so little time to them.
One thing the show never fails to provide context into, however, is the personal life of Phyllis Schlafly – her interests, her areas of expertise, her marriage – everything to make her seem more humane. I don’t know or care if Phyllis Schlafly was smart. Maybe, as the series suggests, she knew a lot about national security. It doesn’t matter. Schlafly herself ensured it would never matter by taking up an issue that would make most women hate her, and never be good enough for men. Through the finale, I learned that this message is the series’ greatest triumph. Mrs. America’s quiet revolution takes place not within the story of the particular issues that either side was fighting for, but by demonstrating that acquiescing to the men in power, to work with the government, the existing organizations, or even the President himself, was still to accept the existing frameworks of patriarchy. Schlafly and Bella Abzug (wonderfully played by Character Actor Margot Martindale, who builds on an existing striking resemblance), are two sides of the same coin. They both spent their careers working within the system to hope that men would grant them true influence as a reward, only to be let down, humiliated, and left with no such power because they were still ultimately too female.
Ultimately, where Mrs. America fails in placing its energy in the right vessels, it comes through with its central message: Using your oppressors to achieve your goals will never get you to the top. They will always build another step. As Bella, Shirley, and finally Phyllis come to learn, the patriarchy will never be the arena for the feminist movement. The men looking up your skirt will never be the ones to hand you power. While Phyllis spent her whole career touting how men, specifically her husband, have “let” her do things, the one thing they won’t let her do is have the influence she craves. They will make small concessions as far as women can help them to look good, but Gloria always knew we would have to create our own channels. The true story of Mrs. America is not that 50 years ago there was an evil woman who made life annoying for my heroes, but that your warden will never give you the keys to your own cell. Mrs. America brilliantly illustrates that when you worry so much about alienating those on the fringes, you lose your base and your movement dies. Feminists could ring their hands all they wanted about isolating people who didn’t like lesbians, black people, abortion, and not even notice that the Schlafly’s of the world lapped them in the race while they were busy turning over every stone on the course. Or, they could understand that the movement isn’t for everyone and march on anyway, understanding that they will lose those who were not in the fight for the long haul to begin with, and keep moving with or without permission from their oppressors. Gloria always knew this too. The government, the police, the status quo does not want us to be free, and so we must find our own way, and when we walk out, we better hold the door for the next bunch.