The 2020 Hulu series Mrs America follows ‘housewife’ Phyllis Schlafly’s movement against ERA, one of the most powerful feminist agendas.
Critics accuse the series of idolising Schlafly, but historians say the STOP ERA movement sowed the seed for the Conservative Religious Right we see today.
1. Who Was Phyllis Schlafly?
Phyllis Schlafly was the face of Mrs America, not just of the Hulu/FX mini-series but also of the very Conservative concept that defined a woman first and foremost by her marital status.
Camouflaged in pearls and an impeccable updo, Schlafly was a political wolf best known to have led her pack of conservative housewives against the American women’s liberation movement in the 70s.
Known to the world as the STOP-ERA, these women had special spite for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), that would give equal legal rights to all American citizens, regardless of sex.
The ERA failed to become law at a time when feminism was in its second wave across the US and some historians say Schlafly and her little movement had a hand in this unexpected Conservative victory.
“Phyllis Schlafly was a fiercely intelligent, cunning, ambitious doer,”Dahvi Waller , Creator
“Her grassroots organizing skills were brilliant, and she had an ability to connect with the fears of women. In some ways she was the original brander.”Dahvi Waller , Creator
Brimming with contradictions, Phyllis’ very public and political life made her a feminist in action if not in name.
After all, she picked up arms against the ERA after it was already passed in the House and managed to convince at least four states against ratifying it into a law.
To this day, ERA remains a proposed amendment and not a law.
At a time when feminism was winning hearts even in the most patriarchal rooms of authority in America, Schlafly stripped the ERA to its bones and made a conservative case against it.
These were the fears that ultimately squashed ERA much to the chagrin as well as surprise of the feminists.
2. Is Mrs America A True Story?
Yes, for the most part of it, Mrs America is based on true events from 70s America.
It was in 1972 that the ERA was approved by the congress which had set a deadline of 1979 for the amendment to be ratified by at least 38 state legislatures.
Historians credit Schlafly, and her STOP ERA movement with killing its momentum.
Describing the ERA as “an attack on the rights of the wife,” Schlafly proclaimed loud and clear to her fellow-housewives that the amendment threatened traditional gender roles.
Schlafly ignited fears that the ERA would not only strip housewives of their ‘privileges’, but also lead to same-sex marriage, gender-neutral bathrooms, and women being ‘drafted’ into the armed services during wartime.
Even as her movement soon went national, 35 legislatures had already ratified the amendment by 1977. However, she managed to meddle at the last minute since the amendment never crossed the finish line.
A new deadline was set by the Congress for 1982, but its advocates failed to get necessary support in time.
3. Birth of the Religious Right
Just as portrayed in Mrs. America, feminist leaders made the folly of underestimating the threat Schlafly posed to the ERA.
“I remember thinking, Oh, this whole show needs to change,”Dahvi Waller, Creator
“It’s not just about the Equal Rights Amendment—it’s much larger than that. In many ways, you can see the series as an origin story for the culture wars of today…This was the rise of the religious right.”Dahvi Waller, Creator
Indeed, the STOP ERA movement soon gathered support from Catholic societies.
These religious groups were further motivated to fight the women’s liberation movement after the landmark Supreme Court ruling which vowed to legally protect a woman’s rights to a safe abortion, in 1973.
When asked if that was the original plan, Waller refuses-
“That wasn’t in the elevator pitch—that all came out of living through the 2016 elections.
Originally it was: won’t it be ironic to tell the story of one of the most famous anti-feminists when we have a woman president (Hillary Clinton)?”Dahvi Waller
‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’; these three words capture the main ideas Mrs. America tries to portray.
Before the 1970s, women were divided into two categories: married and unmarried, Mrs or Miss. ERA proponents proposed Ms as an alternative – a title that indicated personhood (and gender), but not marital status.
Schlafly may have succeeded in derailing the ERA at a very crucial moment. But she and the STOP ERA could not kill it entirely.
The epilogue to Mrs America provides an update: This year, Virginia became the 38th state to pass the ERA, and the rescinding of the long-expired deadline for ratification is also in the pipeline.
4. Which Book Is Mrs America Based On?
Much of what Mrs America achieved historically is derived from one particular book, “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics”.
Three years before the series premiered on FX and Hulu, Marjorie J. Spruill published the book which gave a comprehensive history of the battle over the ERA and the still-raging culture war it instigated.
Spruill, a historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, gives-
“does a really impressive job on the (sic) political history,”Dahvi Waller, Creator
“and really giving context to how the battle between the ‘pros’ and the ‘antis’ fit within a larger political history and landscape.”Dahvi Waller, Creator
Further informing her growing interest in portraying the culture shift that marked the 1970s America on the series, Waller referred to –
“The Republican War Against Women: An Insider’s Report From Behind the Lines”Tanya Melich
“Once we decided that the show was about a lot more than just the battle over the ERA and second-wave feminism and really about the rise of the new right and the Moral Majority and the realignment of the parties, we wanted to read more about the shift in the political landscape in the ‘70s that we’re still feeling today,”Dahvi Waller, Creator
There were also a bunch of biographies, historical accounts, among others referred to for each of the iconic women in the story.
For instance Education of a Woman for Gloria Steinem, Interviews with Betty Friedan for the mother of the second wave of feminism, Phyllis Schlafly and the Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade by Donald Critchlow and Sweetheart of the Silent Majority by Carol Felsenthal for Schlafly, among others.
5. First Lady Of Conservative Movement
Schlafly was often referred to as the “Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” or “First Lady of the Conservative Movement,” largely due to her self-proclaimed image of a regular housewife.
Despite pursuing an advanced education that included both a master’s in government and a law degree, Schlafly identified her political activism as just a hobby to appeal to the conservatives.
As portrayed by the blazing Cate Blanchett, also one of the show’s executive producers, Schlafly is a consistently underestimated, fearsomely intelligent and filled with contradictions.
An honors graduate from a private school—an education she could only afford with her mother working two jobs seven days a week—Schlafly went on to work at the largest ammunitions factory in the world at the time.
She had always feared communism and took on the anti-ERA fight only after her pursuit of building a career in the fields of national security and defense were thwarted by the men in power.
However, she goes on to lead her own army of homemakers like a general off to war against the feminists,
6. When Schlafly Backed Trump
Remaining true to her Conservative ideology till the end, Schlafly put all her weight behind Republican candidate Donald Trump’s nomination in 2016.
This decision wreaked havoc in the Schlafly household since its daughter Anne Schlafly Cori, also the head of the Eagles Forum (the STOP ERA was later renamed to Eagles Forum), refused to back Trump.
Cori and her supporters in the Forum rebelled against the Forum president chosen by Schlafly herself and filed a legal plaint.
In the years since, Cori sued her brothers for limiting her share in the family inheritance while the cases remain pending.
Schlafly passed away in 2016 at the age of 92 but not before spending much of her career studying and writing about issues related to initially national security and later Conservativism.
She was eulogised by the then Presidential candidate Trump. The future president paid his respects to Schlafly, saying –
“A movement has lost its hero. And believe me, Phyllis was there for me when it was not at all fashionable. Trust me.”Trump, Future President
Shortly after she passed away, her co-authored book, The Conservative Case for Trump, was released.
7. Other ‘Real’ Characters In Mrs America?
Though the series centers on Schlafly, a who’s-who of ’70s feminist icons also figure prominently in the series.
Freidan (Tracy Ullman), Ms. magazine editor in chief Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), liberal firebrand Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Republican Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) and Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).
Less well-known members of the women’s movement also appear in various episodes, including black lesbian feminist writer Margaret Sloan (who appears as a Ms. writer) and civil rights lawyer Florynce “Flo” Kennedy.
8. Was Alice A Real Person?
Played by the brilliant Sarah Paulson on the series, Alice Macray is actually a fictional composite character intended to represent the conservative women that followed Schlafly’s “STOP ERA” campaign.
In the series, sheis a housewife and friend who was allegedly responsible for arousing the will to fight the ERA in Schlafly.
In the show, Schlafly becomes politically interested in the ERA after Alice expresses fears that the amendment would eliminate benefits like alimony and Social Security and result in women being drafted into the military.
However, the political beliefs of this Schlafly loyalist shift over the course of the series.
9. About Mrs America
The Hulu/FX mini-series Mrs America is a one-of-its-kind historical fiction focused on an untold chapter of American feminist movement.
The nine-part series follows a prim, blonde, mother of six Phyllis Schlafly as she organizes a grassroots movement of housewives against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s America.
Created by Dahvi Waller, of the Mad Men fame, the series dares to portray both sides of the equality debate through stories of women both pro and anti-ERA.
While the pros included iconic feminists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan among others, while also having an anti-hero in Phyllis Schlafly.
Besides exploring Schlafly’s surprise crackdown on the ERA, the series also explores the rise of anti-liberal sentiment in the 70s which created a culture shift we continue to witness till date.