In 1975, Jill Ruckelshaus, a Republican Feminist activist (Elizabeth Banks), and Phyllis Schlafly fight for the ideological soul of their party.
Mrs. America Episode Six “Jill” focuses on Gerald Ford’s White House Advisor, Jill Ruckelshaus. She fights to keep Republican support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as the new chairwoman for a national commission “to honor women and urge ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” Jill is the quintessential fiscal conservative woman. She supports the ERA and doesn’t believe women should have to put up with sexual harassment, but she is more fiscally conservative than her male counterparts. Ruckelshaus is a Mid-Western mother of five children. She parents and works at the same time. Jill battles against Phyllis, who is uniting the Radical Religious Republicans under the Eagle Forum to make “feminism a dirty word” and turn the party of Lincoln into a socially conservative party.
Elizabeth Banks depicts Jill Ruckelshaus as an elegant beautiful woman with a powerful political mind who uses her charms to win politicians over but is unwilling to compromise. The Gerald Ford administration seems to favor Jill. The first few scenes of episode six depict her being friendly with Betty Ford. They are only five states away from ratifying the ERA. Betty praises Jill for showing the Republican Party that being a Feminist does not mean you are a Radical or a “dangerous” activist.
The depiction of Republicans and Democrats working together for a common cause is one of the things that I love about Mrs. America. Jill Ruckelshaus and Bella Abzug are from two different parties with very different personalities, but they are friends who work together to pass the ERA. We discover that people from different backgrounds and political beliefs can unite and fight for a singular cause.
Bella Abzug is a no-nonsense woman who can come off as abrasive, so when she and Shirley Chislom ask Senator Wayne Hays to support creating commissions countrywide who would promote the ERA, he is resistant. When Jill finds her way to the meeting, he perks up. She sweet talks Hays and suggests the campaign be under her national commission so that the voices are not all Liberal women. Hays kisses Ruckelshaus on the cheek and agrees to support the cause. As Shirley, Bella, and Jill walk away, the lone Republican half-jokes she is willing to take one for the team. Without Ruckelshaus, the ERA movement would not go far since her savvy nature saves the day many times.
My two favorite sequences in “Jill” center around Ruckelshaus fighting for the cause in any way she can. In the first sequence, Ruckelshaus corners Schlafly at a Republican event. The scene depicts the contrasting viewpoints between the old and new Republican Party.
To give some context, Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop ERA movement is limited to predominately Catholic politically active women, so they only have a niche mailing list. To expand her reach Schlafly recruits women from other religious groups who are not usually politically active.
One of the women that Phyllis reaches out is Lottie Beth Hobbs (Cindy Drummond). She is a right-wing “Red Neck” Evangelical Christian who is the leader of “Women Who Want to be Women”. Schlafly courts Lottie because she would bring 15,000 more subscribers to her mailing list. Schlafly unites the extreme conservative groups under the Eagle Forum to both fights the ERA and elects Ronald Reagan who is the opposite of moderate Republican Gerald Ford, who Jill Ruckelshaus supports. (Ronald Reagan promises to oppose the ERA, fights against abortion rights, and supports homophobic legislation along with being a firm believer in the “trickle-down theory” the economic policy that favors the wealthy).
Jill invites Phyllis to have drinks with her. The two Republican women bond over their similar foreign policy beliefs. Ruckelshaus notes that Schlafly lights up when she discusses the military and foreign policy and wonders why an expert in disarmament would suddenly become invested in “women issues.” They begin to argue.
Phyllis asserts that the ERA is unnecessary because women like Jill can work and raise children at the same time. Jill pushes back, telling her about the sexual harassment that she has had to put up within the White House and the House of Representatives. Men ask her to smile for them or do not discuss policy until they touch her back. Ruckelshaus argues that the secretaries in the House or Senate have it even worse. The male senators literally won’t pay the secretaries unless they sleep with them. Phyllis offhandedly says that the secretaries “are asking for it” because they are not morally pure. Jill loses her cool, then storms off, not believing that any educated woman could think that way.
My second favorite sequence is when Jill runs around her home doing household chores while trying to keep the ERA as part of the Republican Party’s platform. Jill is not allowed to attend the Republican Convention because Ford is considering her husband, William Ruckelshaus as his running mate. They don’t want her to rub anybody the wrong way at the event because she is so “outspoken.” She wishes William would have stood up for her, but agrees to stay home if it means he would be considered for the Vice Presidency.
When Phyllis and the Eagle Forum try to take the ERA off the Republican platform, Jill gets on the phone. She talks to delegates while cooking, cleaning, and even having a princess tea party with her daughters. The scene of her wearing a crown & feather boa while pouring her daughter’s tea and arguing her case is hysterical.
The tea party sequence both reveals how working mothers are like superheroes and how powerful Jill is. Her efforts save the Republican’s support of the ERA.
”Jill” is my favorite episode so far. Elizabeth Banks matches Cate Blanchett’s acting chops in this episode. Phyllis and Jill who are at war with each other prove to be equal opponents making the tension between them palpable. I hope we see more of Jill in future episodes.