Mrs. America which is set during the early 1970s delves into the feminist struggle to establish the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the opposition from the Conservative Women’s movement.
The first three episodes of the miniseries Mrs. America focus on Feminist icon Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), anti-ERA conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), and first Democratic Woman Primary Presidential Candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).
Each of the first three episodes is named after its central character. ” Phyllis,” “Gloria,” and “Shirley” entertain and educate us about one of the most tumultuous times in the United States of America, the Nixon Era. It was a time when the status quo was shaken up by the emergence of liberal activism and, in reaction, the conservative movement, as we know it today, was formed. Mrs. America has never felt more relevant since we as a country have become even more divided than we were then.
Cate Blanchett brilliantly portrays Phyllis Schlafly who she depicts as a contradictory figure. She is an intelligent, charismatic character who found a way to have political influence during a time when most middle-class and wealthy women “stayed in the kitchen.” Ironically, Schlafly actively fights against her own self-interest. She is a powerful independent woman in her own right. She has a master’s degree in government from Radcliffe College, runs her own political newsletter, is an expert in the arms control race with the Soviet Union, and is in a leadership position with Republican Women’s Group. In addition, the television show depicts men blocking Schlafly from progressing in her career.
In the first episode, one of the storylines that reveal this contradiction perfectly is when Phil Crane (James Mardsen), a Republican congressman, invites Phyllis onto his political talk show to debate her on Republican hot button issues. When Crane briefs Schlafly on what will happen during the interview, it’s obvious he does not take her seriously. He promises to ask Phyllis easy questions implying she would not be able to respond intelligently. She passionately argues against signing an arms control treaty with the Soviet Union, the congressman is so impressed by her zeal he invites her to Washington DC to brief Nixon’s advisors on the issue. However, when Phyllis comes to the meeting to voice her thoughts, the men treat her like a secretary asking her to take notes.
When her friend Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson) first brings up the ERA as a talking point during their Republican “Housewives” meeting, Phyllis brushes it off arguing it’s a trivial issue compared to the arms control treaty. Still, she is compelled to bring up the ERA during her meeting with the congressmen because they won’t take her seriously about anything else
Phyllis’ husband lawyer Fred Schlafly supports any political campaign she does as long as it doesn’t take her away from home or their six children. Fred helped her first run for congress because he thought Schlafly would lose (which she did). We find out that the primary reason why Phyllis Schlafly pushes so hard against the ERA is that it’s the one arena in which she can gain political power. In addition, she benefits from the current system.
Schlafly is a White straight, wealthy woman, close to the top of the food chain. She has Black maids and her sister Eleanor Schlafly to help her look after her six children while she works. Her husband, a wealthy lawyer, pays for the household and her political pursuits. She is free of financial restraints. Because of her many connections to Washington DC she becomes the de facto leader of the “Stop ERA” movement.
Rose Byrne plays Gloria Steinem with commitment. The sequence that depicts the start of Gloria’s rise to leadership within the feminist movement is especially cinematic. The sequence starts with her dancing around her dark lit apartment. Cut to a flashback when she was a younger woman. Steinem goes to a doctor in England for an abortion. The doctor says he will perform the procedure as long as she never reveals his name and promises to do what she wants with her life. The scene cuts to Gloria dancing around her house to folk music. Then gradually moves onto her dancing to the apartment building door of Feminist leader, congresswoman, and lawyer Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale). She hits the intercom button. Gloria looks up. Then an edit to Bella looking out of her window. After that, Steinem tells Bella she will represent the Feminist movement in the Democratic Presidential Convention.
Gloria Steinem’s wish is for women to have complete control of their bodies and representation in the government. Her relentlessness for the women’s cause and her political growth is depicted well in the series.
Uzo Aduba, as Shirley Chisholm, steals the show. Shirley pushes the limits more than any of the other women. As a Black woman politician, Chisholm has the most going against her, but she refuses to sit down.
Shirley Chisholm ran against Senator George McGovern in the Democratic Primary in 1972. She receives death threats (leading to needing the President’s Secret Service). Bella Abzug, and other people in the Feminist movement want her to drop out. The Black Caucus does not see her as a serious candidate, but she continues to run. The third episode shows Shirley becoming paranoid constantly checking her room for surveillance bugs, but still fighting the good fight. My favorite scene in the third episode is Shirley Chisholm’s speech during the convention, where she asks for delegates to vote for her during the first vote. Shirley points out that she is the only candidate who truly cares about women’s rights and disrupting the system. Chisholm says that in the past, only a limited few could bid for President, so she ran to be the first to push through the glass ceiling.
After the speech, Bella questions Shirley on breaking the convention rules, the candidate calls her out for supporting a rigged system. Gloria hugs Chisolm but walks off the stage, refusing to support McGovern. Later Steinem makes a crooked deal with McGovern’s Campaign, but in the end, Chisholm pushes her way into the power structure and on stage with the Democratic ticket for President. I am intrigued by the first few episodes of Mrs. America. Everybody was perfectly cast. I wish that there were more American actresses cast in significant roles, but I cannot complain about the performances. They are wonderful. Tracey Ullman, as Betty Freidman, is another powerhouse, and I cannot wait to watch an episode centered on her.