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tv What Mrs America Gets Right and What It Gets Wrong About 70s Feminism

Mrs America gives Phyllis Schlafly a depth in fiction that was lacking in history but Shirley Chisholm is refreshingly portrayed as more than just a martyr

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in the miniseries Mrs America, left, alongside the real Phyllis Schlafly, chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Organization.,Photograph: AP

The real hero of Mrs America, the new FX miniseries chronicling the early 1970s political battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, is Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly, the conservative movement leader who led the antifeminist backlash against the amendment, styled herself a housewife and mother of six, but really she was an educated, driven and ambitious professional political operator, skilled in forging alliances among unlikely counterparts and manipulating the motivations of others toward her own ends.

In the miniseries, a slick, beautifully shot portrait of 1970s America, she is played by Cate Blanchett, who masterfully shows Schlafly finding an outlet for her own frustrated political ambitions in the anti-ERA fight, and rising from a minor conservative commentator on the lunatic fringe to the primary voice of social conservatism on the national stage. As the ERA is defeated – going from a bipartisan shoo-in that sailed through the Senate to an embattled, controversial document that meets resistance in every statehouse – the show encourages us to see the downfall of the major political effort of the second wave feminist movement as the result, paradoxically, of one woman’s phenomenal personal determination.

The realities of history were a bit more complicated than that. Though Schlafly was the face of the conservative opposition to the ERA, the show depicts her as that movement’s instigator and sole intellectual origin, with male politicians and movement conservatives shruggingly falling into line behind her. The show depicts her, too, as having resentments about male arrogance and entitlement in her own life, a strain of her character that is meant to draw parallels between Schlafly and the feminist leaders she opposes, such as Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm. We see the women on either side of the ideological divide smarting at the pains of their own thwarted ambitions, and enduring sexual aggression from men for the sake of achieving their goals: Schlafly wanted to be a congresswoman; Chisholm wanted to be president; Steinem wanted to pass a law through Congress legalizing abortion rights.

None of them got what they wanted. In one scene, Schlafly, contemplating a second run for Congress, lets a slimy Washington insider squeeze her waist and make a lewd comment about her dress; later, rage flashes across her face when men in a meeting ask her to take notes for them. She steps out of the office and snaps at the young secretary instead. In the offices of Ms Magazine, Steinem lets the publisher make a gross remark about her legs, because she needs his money to keep it in print.

These moments are meant to endear Schlafly to viewers, and at the same time to make sure that the show’s politics are clear: despite who the protagonist is, Mrs America is ultimately on the feminists’ side. But these attempts to draw parallels between Schlafly’s ambitions and anger and that of the feminists risks reducing the differences between them to the temperamental or circumstantial, rather than the ideological and political.

In real life, Schlafly was not so conflicted. Though her public life and fierce style conflicted tellingly with her prescriptions for women’s behavior, such as modesty, domesticity and obedience, she was a fierce misogynist who wrote and testified passionately that women who experienced sexual harassment brought men’s aggression on themselves. The show is a bit too generous to Schlafly here, and one can’t help but think that it is trying to make its subject worthy of its casting: Blanchett, in a stunning performance, is too skilled and nuanced an actor to play a figure of such uncomplicated contempt as Schlafly herself really was. Mrs America gives Schlafly a depth in fiction that was not there in history.

Though Schlafly remains the central figure, the show attempts to treat its other women with interest and generosity as the fight around the ERA progresses through the politically hectic summer of 1972. Gloria Steinem, played willowy and glamorous by Rose Byrne, has become the face of the feminist movement, but she is torn between the cantankerous, uncompromising idealism of Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and the appeasing, results-focused pragmatism of Bella Azbug (Margo Martindale).

In the early scenes with Steinem, as she launches Ms Magazine and attempts to harness her considerable media appeal in the service of Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid, the show veers towards portraying Steinem as a victim of her own celebrity and good looks – another historical mistake, as in reality Steinem was a savvy and deliberate manipulator of these. But as the show progresses, the script veers from underestimating Steinem to seeing her more clearly, as she attempts, in vain but with the best of intentions, to manipulate a corrupt political system to admirable political ends.

But the show’s real triumph is the actor Uzo Aduba, criminally underrated and radiant as Shirley Chisholm. Fraught, frustrated, paranoid and betrayed at the end of her presidential bid, Chisholm is portrayed not as the one-dimensional martyr that feminist history so often makes her, but as an earnest, principled advocate who suffers deep pain at the racist and sexist determination of those around her to underestimate and overlook her talents. Her presidential bid, and her unwillingness to end it as the 1972 Democratic national convention in Miami nears, causes a conflict among the feminists between pragmatism and potential, the dream of a free world with rights and dignity for all women and the need to get results to alleviate the ongoing suffering of sexism. The choices they make, and the way Chisholm herself responds, reveal that this is a false choice, and a trap. Still, when her friends abandon her and her presidential campaign is forced to fold, we can see her pain and disappointment. Her principle and idealism is not depicted in simplistic terms as pure or morally aspirational, but also as tragic, and very lonely. The show gives Chisholm and its viewers a great deal of respect here, by taking her suffering seriously.

Mrs America sets out to show history as made by human beings, complete with insecurities, hopes, relatable fears and bad motivations. In this sense, it is not unlike other political dramas that have attempted to depict the agents of power and politics as relatable, familiar and human. In some of its scenes, where women in colorful 70s garments and elaborate hairdos exchange banter while walking briskly through the halls of power, the show can feel a bit like Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, though it is a great deal worldlier and more skeptical. Mrs America is not the first show to explore history as a mosaic of human egotism, hopefulness and frailty. But it is one of the first where history is made by the egotism, hopefulness and frailties of women.

  • Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist