Column: Why this former Ms. staffer says ‘Mrs. America’ may be bravest show in history of TV
“Mrs. America” is quite possibly the bravest show in the history of television.
Not because it dares to humanize icons from both sides of the political aisle, although that is certainly refreshing in these days of self-destructive partisanship.
Nor am I talking about FX’s decision to stick to the series’ April 15 debut, despite the country being weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown. Sure, people were watching a lot of TV, but it’s hard enough for a new show to get noticed in the best of times let alone trying to break through the news cycle of presidential press conferences and alarming Johns Hopkins coronavirus charts plus comfort-zone binge-fests of old favorites.
No, the real courage of “Mrs. America” is baked into its pitch: To chronicle in nine episodes (the last of which runs Wednesday night) Phyllis Schlafly’s successful campaign to prevent ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, hook the legs out from under the women’s movement and aid the rise of religious-driven conservatism in our political arena.
In other words, let’s all watch a nine-hour television show in which the heroes lose.
Now, winning isn’t everything, especially in scripted drama. Cate Blanchett as Schlafly and Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem are just as amazing as you thought they would be. Add Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Elizabeth Banks and Tracey Ullman as Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckelshaus and Betty Friedan, respectively, and you have one of the best-cast limited series in the history of limited series.
Of course, for those Americans who subscribe to religious-driven conservatism, Schlafly’s story is a tale of triumph, though they are probably not FX’s main demographic.
The rest of us are faced with a smartly written, powerfully performed historical drama that will break our hearts, and not in the good, cathartic way.
Sauron recovers the ring, Voldemort takes over Hogwarts, Jackie Robinson gets his butt kicked and baseball is never integrated, Winston Churchill decides that negotiating with Hitler is not the worst idea anyone has ever had.
OK, OK, maybe not quite that bad, but you get my drift.
In the last quarter-century, television has asked us to do many difficult things — root for gangsters and serial killers, read subtitles and stick with storylines that make no sense, because apparently, making sense is not the point. On certain occasions, it has even demanded that we believe a man could survive falling into a crowd of zombies or that it makes sense for the dweebiest Stark to win the game of thrones.
But almost always, some sense of justice prevails; even in “Chernobyl,” the main heroes die, one by suicide, but they do so knowing that at least their work has not been in vain, that the main damage of the nuclear explosion has been contained.
Not so “Mrs. America.” When she began working on the series, creator Dahvi Waller may have imagined “Mrs. America” debuting during a Hillary Clinton presidency. But that didn’t happen, and the facts are irrefutable: Despite being supported by most Americans — passage with overwhelming bipartisan support by the House and Senate — the Equal Rights Amendment was not ratified.
We have never had a female president or vice president. There is no national daycare program. Women still are not paid equally in any workplace. Abortion rates have declined, but the power of its political divisiveness has not. And for many years, the ongoing popularity of Steinem notwithstanding, even liberal women have shied away from the word “feminist,” except perhaps to use it in the now famous phrase: “I’m not a feminist, but [fill in completely feminist observation or belief here].”
Because feminists are (take your pick) too radical, too humorless or, in the words of a former friend to whom I still am not speaking, “their own worst enemy.”
If nothing else, “Mrs. America” — along with the recent revelation in the FX documentary “AKA Jane Roe” that Roe vs. Wade plaintiff Norma McCorvey was paid by anti-abortion groups to reverse her abortion-rights position — proves that feminists have many enemies far worse than themselves.
Feminist growing pains
Although I came of age in the post-feminist world, I was never a post-feminist. If there were a feminist card, I would carry it. I became a feminist in college, was the first person to graduate from that college with degrees in journalism and women’s studies, after which I joined the staff of Ms. magazine as … well, I had no title because even then the staff of Ms. eschewed official titles.
I was hired to read the “slush pile,” all the unsolicited manuscripts that women sent in, and the letters; I did fact-checking, edited the front-of-the-book section and, occasionally, features. My first professionally published work appeared in Ms., and I still have a stickpin with the magazine’s logo — remember stickpins and how popular they were in the ’80s?
Watching “Mrs. America” was, for me, a very emotional experience (here I pause to thank Waller for giving a brief shout-out in one Ms.-centric scene to the wonderful Mary Thom, who was my editor and who died in 2013). The ERA had missed its final ratification deadline three years before I entered the offices of Ms., but many of the players from “Mrs. America” were still very much around.
It would take pages and pages to describe what it was like for a young and unsophisticated feminist journalist to land her first job at Ms. — there’s Steinem, laughing with you about whether a McVitie’s digestive biscuit counts as a whole cookie, or Abzug, inches away and moving through a crowd like a steamroller in a terrific hat; here are typewritten pieces by Flo Kennedy and Robin Morgan — so I won’t even try. The offices were horrifying and right on Times Square when it was still full of pickpockets and porn theaters; the pay was barely enough for room and board; the copy editors all smoked, indoors, and I still can’t believe my good fortune.
In many ways, however, it mirrored the personal and political complexities depicted in “Mrs. America.” The women who ran Ms., the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Political Caucus were brilliant, tireless, amazing and absolutely not perfect. They disagreed on topics large and small, and there were visible divides among groups and individuals around race and class, age and sexual identification, philosophies and political strategies and, of course, personalities.
“Oh, my God, we have been thanking Betty for years,” I remember one editor snapping after Friedan had said something about the movement’s ingratitude in the press. “She needs to move on.”
“That’s just Betty being Betty,” Steinem said, shrugging gracefully.
Steinem was the queen of the graceful shrug and one of the most physically graceful women I have ever met. She is also one of the funniest, smartest and nicest. When I would run into her over the years, she would always pretend to remember me, a feat that would require memory skills beyond even hers, and when I took my daughter to hear her speak a few years ago, the spell was cast over a second generation. Well into her 80s, Steinem remains a cultural unicorn — the merest glimpse of her seems magic — and just as quick, funny and well-informed as ever (please stay safe, Gloria!).
Her position as feminism’s pinup annoyed many, as “Mrs. America” illustrates, but it served a far greater purpose than proving feminists could look and sound like Steinem. The mostly white, mostly straight, mostly well-educated and upper middle class stars of the 1970s movement were, by the mid-’80s, increasingly under attack from many younger, queer, black and/or working-class feminists who felt the movement should worry less about professional women getting their due and more about life-and-death or bread-and-butter issues.
Also that calling yourself a feminist did not mean you were not racist, classicist or homophobic.
Some of that was fair, some of it was not, but Steinem always managed to exist outside the fray, admired with enough universality — sometimes adoringly, sometimes grudgingly — that she could, and did, often act as a bridge among warring factions.
Or at least that’s how I remember it. I was very young and experiencing the workplace for the very first time with that heady mix of arrogance and self-doubt that makes everything seem way more dramatic than it is. I was also learning how to be a journalist. Sisterhood is powerful but deadlines are real, and the lack of titles at Ms., or even the weekly ideas meetings to which all were invited, did not mean that there was no hierarchy or no repercussions should you attempt to challenge it. The editors at Ms. were among the most supportive bosses I would ever have, but they did not pull their punches if you screwed up. Which I did on more than one occasion; feminists cry in the bathroom too, in case you were wondering.
Why I expected everyone to be nice all the time or for harmony to reign I do not know. Well, actually, I do. Having been raised in this culture, even feminists expect women to be mostly nice, especially to one another, even when they are fighting for their lives, are shocked when the women’s movement appears less than united, even though it is attempting to address the needs of more than half the human race.
When you think about the intrinsic impossibility of that task — when men disagree, they fight literal wars — it’s a miracle the women’s movement has survived at all.
No ‘alternate’ ending
In its own depiction of the women’s movement, “Mrs. America” pulls few punches. And if it took the kind of liberties that fictionalized versions of history must take, it is even-handed about it. Schlafly may be the villain, but she is in many ways reacting to the same sexist power structure the feminists are trying to dismantle.
In “Mrs. America,” the anti-ERA campaign begins as Schlafly attempts to show her political value — her real interest and expertise lie in foreign relations. And she is not the only one who shuts out other voices in her organization or becomes obsessed with her brand. The friction of revolution and reality causes strife among the feminists, who abandon Chisholm at the end of her historic presidential campaign to preserve Democratic “party unity.” And Steinem’s growing star power may not turn her head, but it certainly affects the women around her, most notably Friedan.
One of the most powerful scenes is a brief conversation between Friedan and Abzug (played to throat-closing perfection by Ullman and Martindale, respectively — honestly, there are not enough Emmys in the world) about the life cycle of a revolutionary.
“Mrs. America” depicts the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. We’re fact-checking its historical accuracy, episode by episode.
While Schlafly’s campaign is most certainly the main reason the ERA did not make its ratification deadline, some of the choices made by its supporters — Steinem decides early on not to take Schlafly seriously, Abzug and others put too much faith in the political “system” — certainly do not help. Virtually every character makes arrogant mistakes just as every character, including Schlafly, is given her tactical and emotional due. At the most basic level, all are fighting the same foe — a sexist system that excludes women from power.
Because this is television, there is a constant subconscious desire for a big pivot, for Schlafly to see the error of her ways or for Steinem or Chisholm to make some sort of definitive declaration that clarifies everything so justice can prevail. As one of Schlafly’s friends, Sarah Paulson experiences a moment of semi-conversion, but while our minds might take her further — to acting, say, as a counter-agent for the feminists — history and “Mrs. America” do not.
The end is what the end is. The ERA dies, the women’s movement is shoved increasingly to the sidelines and Schlafly helps usher in neo-conservative politics. Which will bring us, among other things, the evangelical movement, the tea party and the election of Donald Trump.
It is difficult to watch “Mrs. America,” especially at a time when many of us, in pandemic isolation, are already feeling powerless, and when the systematic exclusion of women from our highest offices has never been more obvious. The current pleas for Joe Biden to pick a female running mate echo those in “Mrs. America,” when George McGovern became the Democratic presidential candidate, though one hopes with a different outcome. (McGovern didn’t, and he lost.)
Failure is not a popular climax in Hollywood, where idealist historic revisions — Sharon Tate didn’t die! One series solved all the prejudice in Hollywood! — have become as popular as tales from World War II. Fortunately, as a drama, “Mrs. America,” from a mostly female creative team, is strongly written and exquisitely performed. And if it doesn’t offer many of us the catharsis we have come to expect from such things, it does give us a lot to think about in this election year.
And if nothing else, it is rare to see a series just as courageous and groundbreaking as the people it portrays.
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