In “Mrs. America,” Conservative Activist Phyllis Schlafly Takes Center Stage

By Emily Johnson | May 5, 2020

Phyllis Schlafly (Shepard Sherbell/Corbis/Getty Images)

In the first episode of the new Hulu miniseries Mrs. America, the anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett) addresses the well-coifed attendees of a mother-daughter luncheon hosted in her home. The year is 1972 and her topic is the women’s liberation movement. “Now, the libbers love to say that they’re dedicated to choice,” she says, “but if you dare to choose the path of full-time mother, well, there must be something wrong with you. I mean if you don’t feel enslaved, well, you’re just dumb and unenlightened. In fact, you’re not even a person.”

The scene is pitch-perfect Schlafly. Blanchett captures her character’s unique ability to be sweet and acerbic at once. The argument is one that the real Schlafly often used to whip up support among her base of largely white, middle- and upper-middle-class homemakers who worried that the women’s liberation movement would take away their choice to be stay-at-home mothers, or at least make them the butt of jokes about clueless ladies who refused to be liberated.

It has been easy for detractors to dismiss Schlafly and her supporters as women working against their own interests, too naïve or too stupid to see the benefits of feminism. Mrs. America flirts with that interpretation, but ultimately takes a more nuanced view. The nine-episode series, which premiered in April, follows the story of the push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have prohibited sex discrimination of any kind in federal and state law. In addition to Schlafy, the series follows the feminist leaders Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Florynce Kennedy (Niecy Nash). And while the creators take some creative license with the historical record, they ultimately use each of these characters and their stories to paint a compelling portrait of complex movements.

In Blanchett’s performance of Schlafly, who led the opposition to the ERA, we see Schlafly’s sharp mind, her wit, and her political maneuvering. We see her ambition and even perhaps her cynicism in attaching herself to “women’s issues” despite her own deeper interest in Cold War defense. We see her talent for grassroots organizing and her frustration with not being taken seriously by the “real” politicians in D.C. We see her ability to make canny political arguments and her tendency to sometimes take those arguments too far. In short, we see a person—in all her complexity.

However, nuance should not be confused for historical accuracy. The show does an excellent job of portraying the complexities of the feminist and anti-feminist movements that it follows, but it is not ultimately a faithful biography of any of the women that it portrays. Indeed, each episode begins with the disclaimer that “some scenes and dialogue are invented for creative and storyline purposes.” Each of the main characters was a real historical figure, but in Mrs. America they each also represent broader political and historical themes in order to capture the nuances of this political era.

For example, the series downplays Schlafly’s considerable political experience before the ERA battle, producing a character that is an amalgam of Schlafly and many of the grassroots activists whose political awakening was sparked by this fight. By the time that the premiere episode drops us into Schlafly’s life, she was already a veteran political organizer and writer. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 1944, Schlafly took a job as a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in D.C. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Illinois in 1952 (at the age of twenty-eight) and again in 1971. In the interim, she wrote and campaigned on behalf of conservative candidates and causes, gaining national recognition in conjunction with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. Her widely circulated book, A Choice, Not an Echo (1964), condemned establishment Republicans and praised the right-wing populist candidate. Three years later, she began writing a monthly newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, which expanded her influence and helped her to build the grassroots anti-feminist movement that is the focus of Mrs. America.

We learn most of this later in the episode, but the series opens on a 1971 fashion-show fundraiser for the re-election bid of Rep. Philip Crane, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs. In an episode called “Phyllis,” the protagonist is first introduced by an emcee as only “Mrs. J. Fred Schlafly.” Even more striking for a conservative culture warrior, she is striding down the catwalk in a stars-and-stripes bikini. Backstage after the show, the women discuss politics, including Schlafly’s own recent congressional campaign. “It’s too bad you have to be a man to win downstate,” quips one of the women. “Oh no,” Schlafly demurs. “It was just a terrible year for Republicans.”

This sequence crystalizes the tensions that will characterize Schlafly’s arc. She is ambitious and talented. She lives in a world saturated with sexism. She refuses to recognize that sexism as a systemic problem that is holding her back, preferring to focus on individuals’ character and effort.

This formula can easily produce the kind of tired, one-dimensional dismissals of conservative women discussed above. And audience members intent on hating Schlafly will find fuel for their fire here. But the show also offers a more complex portrait of Schlafly, her movement, and the feminist movement that she opposed.

The tensions introduced in the episode’s first act play out again in one of its most pivotal scenes. Schlafly has come to Washington on Rep. Crane’s invitation, to help advocate against the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT). They enter Sen. Barry Goldwater’s office just as feminists Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus are leaving, chastising the senator for his refusal to vote for the ERA. Goldwater asks Schlafly for her opinion and she answers with a chuckle, “I’ve never been discriminated against. I think some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.”

The rest of the scene plays out like a feminist pamphlet on workplace discrimination. In this closed-door Washington meeting, Schlafly and Goldwater’s secretary are the lone women, and the secretary is quickly asked to leave. Schlafly begins to lay out her key arguments against SALT but is interrupted. “Hey, listen, could you take notes for us?” one of the men asks. “You probably have the best penmanship of anyone here.”

This is an arresting moment. It is particularly striking for anyone familiar with the history of feminism in the 1970s. Many of the women who joined the movement in this era came from activist backgrounds in civil rights and student groups, where they often found themselves limited to taking notes and making coffee while the male leaders did the “real” work—and took the credit. Their frustrations helped to spur the mobilization of the women’s liberation movement in this era. Their stories about being relegated to revolutionary clerical work filled the movement’s early “consciousness raising” sessions.

As Schlafly waits for the notepad, she looks beyond the conferring men to the pro-ERA protest happening outside the senator’s window. For a brief moment, it almost seems like she might join them.

She does not.

But when she returns to the meeting, she shifts the conversation back to the ERA, this time speaking forcefully against it. The men might overlook her expertise on nuclear disarmament, she realizes, but they take for granted her authority to speak on this topic. She has reclaimed the attention of the room, and although she says in the same scene that she doesn’t want to run her next congressional campaign on “women’s issues,” she has discovered a key truth about social conservatism in this era.

The 1970s witnessed the mass mobilization of conservative Christians who advocated for “family values” platforms and against the campaigns of contemporary feminists and gay-rights activists. The best remembered leaders of this movement were men, particularly televangelist Pat Robertson and preacher Jerry Falwell. But the movement also relied on the grassroots support and national leadership of women, who claimed a special authority to weigh in on the issues at the center of the movement: gender and family.

To many observers, it seemed like these women became political figures in spite of their commitment to “traditional gender roles.” In reality, it was this ideology that made women’s input on these topics seem both natural and necessary. For these women, the ERA was not a promise of equality but rather a portent of a movement that did not respect their choice to be homemakers. Phyllis Schlafly exemplifies this trend. After years of political organizing, she is best remembered for her work on women’s issues, beginning with the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Judging from its first three episodes, which were released simultaneously, the showrunners have made an admirable effort to present the complexities of gender politics in the 1970s. They explore two sides of the debate around the ERA and do not pretend that either side was monolithic.

Viewers are able to see tensions among the conservative women whom Schlafly is trying to organize against the ERA. Her unmarried sister-in-law Eleanor (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) supports most of Schlafly’s ideas, but she is quietly troubled by jokes that feminists’ unhappiness stems from their failure to get married and have children. Phyllis’s close friend, Alice (Sarah Paulson), is disgusted by the open racism of their cause’s new Southern allies, but Schlafly ultimately overlooks those concerns in favor of political expediency.

We also witness tensions within the women’s liberation movement, particularly in the second and third episodes, which turn three feminist icons into feminist archetypes. Gloria Steinem is comparatively young, radical, and culturally savvy. Bella Abzug, an elected representative from New York, is the Washington mover-and-shaker, a thorn in the side of her congressional colleagues but too “establishment” for some of her activist sisters. Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), another activist and New York congressional representative, is depicted as negotiating the competing demands of two movements—for feminism and African American civil rights—that both fail to fully support her as a black woman leader.

Here again, the show effectively uses these characters to communicate important themes in the history of this era. Scholars have struggled for decades to excavate and understand the complexities of feminist and anti-feminist movements that each comprised competing interests and ideals. But although Mrs. America is nuanced and compelling—even to a historian who has spent a decade researching this topic—it should not be confused for historical fact.

We don’t know, for instance, what conversations Schlafly had with her husband behind closed doors. (Schlafly biographer Donald Critchlow, who has taken issue with the show’s depiction of its central character, says her marriage was much more loving than the one the show portrays). It is unlikely, for example, that Phyllis asked Fred to sign a credit card application in the same conversation that she asked him to support another congressional campaign. But the juxtaposition reminds savvy viewers that although a woman could run for federal office in 1971, she could rarely get a credit card in her own name until the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974.

In other words, the show’s narrative is richly meaningful and expertly woven together, in precisely the way that real life is often not. But in a turn of events that seems fitting for a narrative arc, Mrs. America comes at an opportune moment. In January, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a key threshold for it to become part of the Constitution. The legal status of the ERA remains uncertain, given that the deadline for ratification passed nearly 40 years ago and—thanks in large part to Schlafly’s activism—five states rescinded earlier ratifications. Still, the ERA, which was written nearly a century ago and largely defeated in the 1970s, has gained new momentum. Though most of the women portrayed in Mrs. America have since died, the issues they dedicated their lives to are as relevant as ever.

Emily Johnson is an assistant professor of History at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Her book, This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, examines how female leaders shaped the modern religious right during its emergence in the 1970s.

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