There is an ongoing string woven through Hulu’s new female-centered historical drama Mrs. America: No one knows how to properly pronounce main character and prominent conservative movement leader Phyllis Schlafly’s last name.
Schlafly, a nuclear arms expert turned political radical (though she would never call herself that), even explains mid-series, “the Ls go before the A and after the F,” when one of her peers remarks that Schlafly’s name causes confusion for many. In complete candor, even after writing this review and watching this series closely, I still can’t pronounce her name with full confidence.
However, that’s precisely the paradoxical energy creator Dahvi Waller envisioned when producing the nine-episode series largely about the deeply controversial figure. Waller wanted people to know that they didn’t know Schlafly. She isn’t just the woman who helped stop the Equal Rights Amendment from passing; she is a person who birthed an entire chapter of American politics from her own home.
Produced by Hulu and FX, the narrative depicts Schlafly’s mobilization of previously apolitical women in the 1970s to fight against the ratification of the ERA, which would have constitutionally guaranteed that equal rights not be denied to any American on the basis of sex. Through telling the story of a different prominent feminist icon each episode, the series underscores the lesson later feminists learned the hard way: There is no such thing as an apolitical woman.
If Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower is a science fiction masterpiece that predicted the present apocalyptic reality of the United States, then Mrs. America is the frightening historical fiction textbook that students skipped over in class, even though it was actually on the test. Make no mistake, our current body politic has been deeply shaped by Schlafly’s grassroots ecumenical strategy. She is both a haunting ghost of the past and a blood-boiling representation of our present reality. Before it was Trump’s America, it was Phyllis’ America. An America of sexism and racism masked as the American dream.
Mrs. America exposes the two opposing sides of the ERA debate: Schlafly’s army of bread-baking, family-valuing housewives, and the well-known heroines of the Women’s Liberation movement, non-affectionately known as the “Libbers.” The differences between the groups are clear: pastels versus pantsuits, domestic tasks versus city nightlife, bible-reading versus magazine-writing.
However, these contrasted circles of women hold a few features in common: the intentional and unintentional exclusion of women of color, struggles in their private romantic relationships, and a whole lot of infighting. Both sides bicker about which woman will be the spokesperson at which event and fail to agree on who their enemies and allies truly are. In a meeting that takes places in Bella Abzug’s (Margo Martindale) office between the Women’s Lib crew, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) says when discussing Schlafly’s group, “We don’t want housewives thinking we are against them.”
“We are against them,” another feminist replies quickly.
Gloria Steinem (Rose Banks) then jumps into the discussion, “Revolutions are messy. People get left behind.”
The messiness and sharp edges of both the revolution and these two dueling female-led movements is a story often smoothed over to fit neatly in historical memory.
The strongest moments of the series come when the women confront their own frustrations and relationships with power. In episode three, “Shirley,” a heated back-and-forth between ringleader and Congresswoman Abzug and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Abuda), the first female presidential candidate, exposes the harmful racial power dynamics and the damaging impact of white feminism.
Abzug, aligned with Washington’s institutional interests, criticizes Chisholm for continuing her presidential campaign: “We need to make change in the places that get real results, not symbolic.”
Years before Kimberlé Crenshaw asserted the importance of intersectional politics, Abzug could not understand the urgency for economic and racial justice beyond her particular white middle-class conception of “women’s issues.” Chisholm replies that if Abzug, a white woman, was running for president, the entire movement would knock on doors for her, fundraise for her, and fully support her in contrast to the half-hearted support Chisholm was receiving. When Azbug insists that Chisolm should have talked to “them” (the white feminists, presumably) before running, Aduba perfectly channels Chisholm’s political depth and prowess by saying: “I never got anywhere in my life by asking for permission.”
Another particularly heart-wrenching dialogue occurs in episode six, “Jill,” when the lone Republican of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Ruckelshaus, learns that her husband is being vetted for a potential vice presidential nomination. She is warned that his nomination may be in jeopardy because of his “outspoken” wife. Ruckelshaus replies to her husband: “I wish you said, ‘She’s not outspoken. She’s the normal amount of spoken. She speaks about as much as any man.’”
One of the biggest gleanings from Mrs. America is that women and their motivations for power are complicated and far from monolithic. As a pro-choice religious woman, I will never openly support the type of violent politic that Schlafly cultivated. However, I am indebted to Waller and her team for making me analyze my own political and historical bias and our human tendency to only open our ears to one side of the story.
People like simple stories. For some that means falling into the easy dichotomy of an antichrist Schlafly and savior Steinem (or Friedan, or Abzug, or Chisholm). Simple stories of individual heroines and heroes have wreaked havoc on our political system: from believing that Obama could manifest hope all on his own; to believing that Trump has singlehandedly drummed up racist, xenophobic, sexist America.
It is refreshing to see a feminized version of history that wrestles with the successes, shortcomings, and struggles of well-known figures: Steinem is an ardent advocate for strong women, yet she eagerly indulges in feuds with fellow feminists; Schlafly feels slighted when her husband publicly calls her submissive, but advocates for other women to be exactly that; the fiery Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman) inspires millions to seek their own happiness but cannot satisfy her desire for continued recognition.
Mrs. America is a not a simple story. It exposes the debris washed ashore by second-wave (and third-wave and fourth-wave) feminism, and provides insight into the ocean-sized polarization of today’s American politics. Though, like me, you may not finish the series actually knowing how to pronounce Schlafly’s name, you certainly will be wiser for learning her story and the stories of the women who fought against her with everything they had.