Books & Culture

Give ‘Mrs. America’ a Chance

If conservatives are outraged at an imperfect portrayal of one of their heroes, maybe it’s time that they stop throwing their money into fruitless right-wing organizations that produce nothing and invest in conservative artists.

The new FX/Hulu miniseries “Mrs. America,” which chronicles the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the early 1970s, has become a lightning rod in conservative circles. The show’s portrayal of the late-great icon Phyllis Schlafly played by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett has upset her family and supporters who believe the show is unflattering and fabricates her life’s story. Despite their concerns, some of which are legitimate, conservatives are wrong to boycott the program and Hollywood.

“Mrs. America,” which aired its first three episodes on April 15, shows Schlafly’s rise in the movement against the ERA and feminist leaders, including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. Show creator Dahvi Waller gives the program the look and feel of “Mad Men,” which she co-produced for a time. Like “Mad Men,” “Mrs. America” has a political and social narrative about women’s place in the world and in America a half-century ago and how it compares to today.

For all its half-truths and fictionalized scenes, “Mrs. America” really doesn’t demonize Schlafly. Yes, she’s seen as politically calculating, but the talent, work ethic, and charisma that Schlafly had in her own life shine through. She’s realized as a full person in scenes as a nurturer to her aging mother, a political mastermind, the creator of a grassroots organization, and a matriarch. Remarkably the show even allows for Schlafly’s conservative message to come through at certain moments.

In the show’s premiere episode, Schlafly’s character is speaking to a women’s group about the repercussions of the women’s liberation movement’s agenda. “What is going to happen if you push women out into the workforce is that women are going to find themselves with two full-time jobs,” she says. “They’re going to be exhausted and unhappy and feel like they’re not doing either well until they decide not to have children at all.”

Schlafly was prophetic. There’s now a catalog of social science that shows in the 50 years since Schlafly took on the ERA, successful single women are unhappier than ever, having fewer children, and regretting those decisions later on in life. An Office Pulse Survey from 2011 found the most unhappy people in the country are unmarried women in their 40’s who had professional careers and no children. This wasn’t the only survey to find that the individualist lifestyle championed by feminists has left many Americans feeling empty. A Gallup poll from 2013 also found that a majority of Americans over the age of 45 who had no children wished they had at least one.

So while feminists won the battle over abortion in the ‘70s and have given women more opportunity to live an anti-Schlalfly life, it hasn’t made them more fulfilled. Perhaps that’s why a YouGov poll from 2018 found that nearly half of American women don’t identify themselves as being a feminist.

Despite the show’s moments showing Schlafly at her best, they still confine her to being a prisoner in traditional America. She’s portrayed as intelligent, politically savvy, and charismatic, yet despite all her abilities at outsmarting and outworking her male counterparts, she’s a victim of the patriarchy. The world of the 1970s does not allow many women to go to the halls of Congress, and when she’s invited to speak to congressmen, she’s treated as little more than an assistant. So Waller pushes the idea that Shlafly’s ability to succeed despite the culture of the time shows she both a trailblazing feminist and hypocrite for propping up the institutions that are holding her back.

Scenes with her husband Fred are especially cringeworthy at times. They suggest he only supported her run for Congress because he knew she couldn’t win, and there’s a sex scene where the exhausted Schlafly pleases her husband despite not being all that interested at the moment. Once again, entirely fictionalized scenes to show homemakers during that time were victims of their circumstances, even ones as successful as Schlafly.

The show gets a lot wrong to build this narrative. Blanchett is not just playing Schlafly the historical figure, but a character for all housewives living traditional roles during this period. Waller works to fuse her concept of that time and the role of the housewife in with Schlafly’s own life story, even despite facts. To her credit, Waller does this to the feminists’ characters as well, portraying them as catty, political novices, who are incredibly flawed individuals.

Would it have been better to show that Schlafly was a happy warrior who paved the way for generations of conservative women? For sure. It would have been great to have a more factual portrayal of the woman who remade American politics. Everyone from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to the Tea Party Movement and even Donald Trump owe part of their success to Phyllis Schlafly and the road she paved.

“Mrs. America” is far from a perfect portrayal of Schlafly, and no one should take the TV show as the gospel truth. Yet it’s the most positive portrayal of a conservative we’ve seen come out of Hollywood in a long time. And if that outrages conservatives, maybe it’s time that they stop throwing their money into fruitless right-wing organizations that produce nothing and invest in conservative artists.

It’s only through engaging in the culture that conservatives are going to win longstanding political fights, rather than sitting on their hands and balkanizing themselves from the rest of America. Maybe if we had conservatives in the arts, we’d be able to tell better stories and move the culture in a direction Schlafly would have supported.