Mrs. America resists the urge to pit women against each other
The FX miniseries about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment focuses on what women share
Meghan vs. Kate. Taylor Swift vs. Katy Perry. Jennifer Lopez vs. Mariah Carey. Famous female feuds are easy to list off, being, as they are, the bread and butter of tabloid media and bad television. As Sheryl Sandberg, for all her many flaws, has correctly observed, everyone loves a fight — and they really love a catfight.
It'd have been tempting, then, for a miniseries like FX's Mrs. America, which premieres Wednesday, to have milked the tension between the conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly and feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug in its retelling of the fight over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the culture wars of the 1970s. It'd have even admittedly made for compelling television; catfights aren't a pervasive TV trope because they're dull. But to its credit, Mrs. America circumvents the seductively easy narrative about powerful women at each other's throats for a more nuanced one that pits their ideas and organizing strategies against each other, with illuminating results.
There's no ignoring the natural binary at the center of the series: that you were either for ratifying the ERA, or against it. In the latter camp, played by two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett in her first U.S. television role, was Schlafly, "the sweetheart of the silent majority" who led a successful grassroots campaign to thwart the ratification of the ERA on the grounds that it threatened the traditional family. On the other side were the feminist activists during what was arguably the height of the movement's political influence, a diverse group headed by the National Women's Political Caucus co-founders Steinem (Rose Byrne), Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman).
To be clear, the ideas represented by the opposing sides of the ERA fight are mutually exclusive. There is no coexistence between the world desired by Phyllis Schlafly — whose platform involved describing husbands as the "ultimate decision makers" in a marriage, whose "history of racism" is downplayed by the show, and whose final work was the posthumously-published Conservative Case for Trump — and the world pursued by the feminists, who, while not a monolith, generally advocated for women's reproductive freedom, LGBT rights, and anti-discrimination protections. Mrs. America, however, wisely allows these ideologies to exist outside of symbolic character figureheads; Schlafly and Steinem, say, are not embodiments of their arguments, but people whose ideas are fiercely in conflict.
In other words, Feud: Phyllis and Gloria this is not. Schlafly and Steinem are the show's two most prominent characters, but despite their ideas being in conflict they never actually confront each other or even meet, much less share a frame (in real life, they occasionally exchanged barbs in the press). There are no narrowed eyes or spat insults, no tears, screaming matches, or petty remarks over the phone — all usual staples of the catfight trope. Instead, the two women leaders are shown in many ways as almost being alike; both have followed an easy path to national celebrity because they are white, attractive women, and both face the same struggle to be taken seriously by the powers-that-be — the men — by virtue of their sex, too. Even their flaws can be parallels: Steinem is blind to her own tokenism at Ms. magazine, and Schlafly is only able to pursue her political ambitions because of the black cooks and nannies running her home in her absence.
Mrs. America further protects itself from sexist cliché by emphasizing coalition building — and the diversity of opinion within those coalitions. Schlafly and Steinem might both be leaders and expert organizers, but they're orbited by allies with whom they don't always see eye-to-eye. Schlafly makes concessions to southern chapter leaders who want to center pro-life arguments as part of the STOP ERA fight; Bella Abzug, meanwhile, invites Betty Friedan, who is outspokenly anti-lesbian, to be a "delegate-at-large" at the national women's convention despite disagreeing with her stance. "That's politics," both sides say at various points, a resignation to their own hypocrisies.
The show also never lets Schlafly and the housewives nor Steinem and the activists "win" or "lose," at least in those terms. Avoiding a battle between the women means neither leader can be seen as coming out on top. This is, admittedly, confusing. "Do We Need a Biopic Celebrating America's Preeminent Anti-Feminist?" wrote Vogue, while a Washington Examiner article written by Schlafly's niece blasts Mrs. America's "caricature of Phyllis Schlafly" as "pure propaganda." For both of these to be takeaways from the same show is a testament to its hazily-drawn battle lines. Who really wins? Who really loses?
After all, the great knife-twist of Mrs. America is that all women — however enlightened or liberated or contentedly at home they may be — are oppressed by the system they believe to have beaten in their own way. It is no mistake that many of the "strong female leads" in the show are depleted and homebound in Mrs. America's final shots. It's telling, too, that Mrs. America has not one but two major references to the 1975 feminist film Jeanne Dielman, which today remains a seminal depiction of stifling domesticity. The movie is played in the background in one scene and is subject of a direct homage in another, where the camera unwaveringly watches as Schlafly peels apples in her kitchen. To reference such a classic portrait of suffocating womanhood, one that still resonates today, is to cement the fact that these battles rage on even now.
Mrs. America doesn't need to pit women against each other for cheap narrative tension. Because even on opposite sides of the war, some uphill battles are always the same.
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