Why make a show about Phyllis Schlafly now? Schlafly, a Catholic who campaigned against feminism and abortion, is the subject of a new series, Mrs America. It’s set in the 1970s, when Schlafly led the movement against the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have ended several legal distinctions between men and women. To one side of our political divide, the series’ appeal lies in showing Schlafly as a precursor to Trump, as an attention-seeking controversialist, willing to bend the truth to further her ambition. To the other side, the story itself is appealing: Schlafly led a group of housewives to defeat the ERA through grassroots activism; she was fierce and extremely intelligent. Liberal critics of the show think Schlafly has received too much airtime already, while conservative critics contend that many of the show’s negative characterisations of Schlafly are simply inaccurate.
“Phyllis” (Cate Blanchett) and her followers are sure to wind up as the unambiguous villains of the show, but in the first couple of episodes, Mrs America is surprisingly evenhanded. The show alternates between covering Phyllis’s “STOP ERA” group and the group of pro-ERA feminists, including Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. The show portrays both groups of women as being genuinely concerned with women’s rights. “Gloria” (Rose Byrne) wants universal access to abortion, and Phyllis’s friends express their fear that the ERA will discriminate against housewives by eliminating alimony.
The show is also evenhanded in showing how political activism creates a sphere of flourishing for both groups of women. Outside of their activism, we see women in each group harassed and overlooked in their public and private lives: housewives are snubbed socially for not having careers while feminists are asked why they don’t have babies, and we see men overlook, deceive, and sexually mistreat women. But when the women of either group are engaged in activism, real solidarity is possible: they have meaningful work – and can engage in meaningful conflict – within a female community that takes them seriously. Here, their status as mothers (or as non-mothers) can be accommodated and respected: the feminists have a daycare set up at their rallies and the STOP ERA activists make phone calls and send letters with a passel of babies and small children underfoot. The political energy of these all-female gatherings is one of the show’s delights.
The show’s other great pleasure is watching Cate Blanchett act. Phyllis and Gloria are both compelling characters and, at least at the beginning, you can’t help but root for each of them. Phyllis is just so fierce! And Gloria is so sweet. (We see her doing a dorky tap dance while she waits nervously for a phone call. Phyllis, in contrast, is doing military-style sit-ups when she gets a phone call in another scene.) This inversion is part of the show’s appeal: each woman’s political success rests in part on something which her ideology insists isn’t normative for women: Gloria is put forward as a feminist leader because she’s beautiful, and Phyllis leads the fight against the ERA by outsourcing her domestic work.
While this is a charming inversion, it doesn’t speak well to the show’s average viewer. This viewer can accept a woman who argues that women can be housewives (as long as she isn’t a housewife herself) and can accept a woman who argues that women don’t need to be feminine (as long as she happens to be feminine). In other words, this viewer doesn’t accept these women’s arguments, but is happy to accept the women if they conform to specific (and narrow) ideals of female behaviour. For this viewer, an attractive woman combines fierceness and femininity in just the right proportion, and her arguments and activism are valuable insofar as they serve this balance. The show creates a mood of political seriousness, but allows its viewers to forgo thinking about the arguments by focusing our attention on women who conform to contemporary ideals of femininity.
Mrs America likewise relies on implicit norms about “appropriate” female behaviour in its treatment of abortion. Rather than showing both sides engage seriously with the issue, it depicts two women who have had abortions, both of whom are highly sympathetic. One is a beautiful young Gloria, impregnated by her fiancé; the other is a middle-aged mother of three, who decides (with her husband, naturally) that they can’t afford a fourth child. We don’t see a serious debate about the ethics of abortion, nor do we see a woman choose abortion whose behaviour falls outside of the socially acceptable.
To activists on either side of this debate, the question of acceptable female behaviour is entirely beside the point: either abortion is a fundamental right, or it’s an act of physical violence against a child which is so severe it should never be permitted. We’ve already seen that Mrs America isn’t interested in the content of the arguments that women make, and I suspect it will continue to defend abortion by appealing to a narrow view of how women ought to act. In the end, Phyllis may simply miss the memo: good girls aren’t pro-life.
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