The former is set in the 1970s during the height of the women’s liberation movement. Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative defence policy specialist who took it upon herself to militantly oppose the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which in that decade was merrily making its way towards ratification. Blanchett plays Schlafly, the Mrs America of the title, to perfection: all frosty smiles and iced buns for tea. Rose Byrne, as Gloria Steinem, leads the “libber” faction of glamorous young women in flared jeans and aviators. One of the tactics employed by Schlafly is to gather together a cross-denominational group of women who oppose the amendment under the umbrella of her STOP ERA campaign. Religion is at the forefront of the anti-ERA belief system, also where women belong in the home, raising children and making things comfortable for when their man gets home from work.
They both come from a Catholic tradition, and this faith seeps, in radically different forms, into their lives and work. – Violet Hudson
In real life, as in the programme, Schlafly was a born and bred Catholic. To give credit to the show, this is only briefly mentioned, and not even in the context of an explanation for her anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights beliefs. In real life, Schlafly linked Catholicism to a type of “Americanism” that was anti-Communist and staunchly Republican. In her public speaking, she often quoted Pope John Paul II, who, she said, “ceaselessly taught the truth about women.”
As recently as 2016, Phil Lawler, founder of the Catholic World News, writing an obituary of Schlafly on CatholicCulture.org, repeatedly referred to “feminism” in quote marks, literally or figuratively, as in his sentence: “Unhappily for Phyllis Schlafly and her allies (among whom I include myself), the feminist movement has regained the ascendancy in American politics.”
I fell in love with God … I read the Bible and loved its metaphors, its hope. – Michaela Coel
Meanwhile, back in present-day London, Michaela Coel has written a searing, excoriating show about consent and the aftermath of trauma. Coel, who was given full creative control by the BBC, is the author of BAFTA-award-winning Chewing Gum. While she was working on this show’s second series, her drink was spiked with a date rape drug and she was sexually assaulted. I May Destroy You is the result of that rape, a deep dive into what constitutes abuse (it appears in many guises in the show) and whether recovery is ever possible.
Coel has spoken in interviews about her Catholic upbringing; the first poem she wrote was inspired by Psalm 139 and she has said “I fell in love with God … I read the Bible and loved its metaphors, its hope.” This Catholicism is problematic, too; at the Catholic school attended by Coel’s character, Arabella, one fourteen year old is prostituting herself in empty classrooms, an experience Coel said she took directly from her own schooldays. She later converted to a Pentecostal church, and has subsequently said of her faith: “I still love the character of Jesus. I just started paying attention to the stuff written around Him, written by people who knew how to write and didn’t care for what I read.”
These two powerful women have practically nothing else in common. One is white, one is black. One is upper-middle class American, the other working-class Londoner. One believes the place of the woman is in the home; the other is so far beyond the mere idea of that, as a way to be, that her groundbreaking feminism takes an entirely different form. I doubt either of them would be able to find much common ground, even in theological discussion. Yet they both come from a Catholic tradition, and this faith seeps, in radically different forms, into their lives and work. You can embrace your Catholicism, or you can eschew it, but Phyllis Schlafly and Michaela Coel prove you can never just shrug it off.
Violet Hudson is a freelance journalist. She contributes to Tatler, the Spectator, Standpoint and the Catholic Herald.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.