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Female ambition takes center stage with Cate Blanchett, Uzo Aduba and ‘Mrs. America’

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in "Mrs. America".
Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in “Mrs. America”.
(Pari Dukovic/FX)

The FX limited series “Mrs. America” tells the riveting story of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, but it is also a rich study of female power in its many complex permutations.

On one side of the drama is conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), whose ferocious professional drive and political power are at odds with the traditional values she espouses. On the other are second-wave feminist leaders including presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), whose White House aspirations made her a target of vicious criticism and even death threats.

“What really excited me about doing this show was putting forth a whole spectrum of women who are unapologetically ambitious,” says creator Dahvi Waller, “women who are not saying, ‘But I’m also a good mother!’ They’re just unapologetically seeking agency and political power — I wanted young women to see that. I really feel like that’s what’s missing from television: those kind of women.”

Waller was joined in a video call by three other women who contributed to “Mrs. America” in key ways: Blanchett, Aduba and Brenda Feigen, the pioneering feminist lawyer who was played in the series by Ari Graynor.

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“Mrs. America” depicts the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. We’re fact-checking its historical accuracy, episode by episode.

Blanchett, who was also an executive producer, wasn’t deterred by the thought of playing Schlafly, who remains an influential, deeply polarizing figure in American politics four years after her death and serves as the drama’s antihero. “It’s not my job to like or dislike a character. Nor do I think that women need to be nice to be interesting or watchable,” she says. Instead, the Oscar winner was excited to be part of a project that asked, as she puts it, “What is so scary about the notion of equality?”

“Even though this is set back in the 1970s, it was ‘Groundhog Day’ all throughout the making of the series,” she continues, citing fetal heartbeat bills restricting abortion passed in several states last year. “You hope in a way that it’s a museum piece that you’re making, … but this conversation is happening right now. That’s my takeaway from it: how little the discourse has changed.”

Indeed, the women gathered virtually the very afternoon that presidential candidate Joe Biden announced Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, following weeks of feverish and often sexist debates about who was right for the job. By joining the ticket, Harris achieved a historic milestone for Black and South Asian women that was arguably made possible by Chisholm’s 1972 campaign.

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Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in "Mrs. America".
Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm in “Mrs. America”.
(Pari Dukovic/FX)

“Mrs. America” resonated the way it has because it came out amid multiple crises, Aduba says, “when America is being forced to face itself and to clear its air. And, of course, in the midst of this we are having the announcement of a vice presidential candidate who is a woman. There’s going to be yet another moment where America is going to be asked to confront itself.”

The episode “Shirley” shows the painful lack of support Chisholm received from white feminists and Black male politicians during her primary run, in which she was beaten by the more “electable” George McGovern. Nearly 50 years later, what Chisholm believed was possible — a woman president — has yet to come to fruition.

Characters such as Chisholm and Bella Abzug, played by Margo Martindale, “were all women with aspirations,” Aduba says. “And it just begs the question, for me: Had they not had that limitation of being an ambitious woman, having that label slapped on them, who could these women have been?”

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“I have felt it as a Black woman — that there is an amount of ambition that is carved out for you and there’s a way in which you’re meant to express it, and if you say it any other way, you are looked at as angry — that angry Black woman trope is a real thing — or expecting too much too soon. But to borrow from AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], do it anyway.”

 Showrunner Dahvi Waller of " Mrs. America"
Showrunner Dahvi Waller of " Mrs. America.”
(Dahvi Waller/Dahvi Waller)

Waller channeled her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated industry into “Mrs. America.” Dialogue from the episode “Jill,” about Republican feminist Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), was inspired by a vexing conversation she’d had with a male showrunner who seemed baffled by Waller’s belief that women should make up half the writers in the room (she was the only woman on that particular staff).

“He said, ‘What? You’re not going to be happy until 50% of TV writers are women?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And he thew his hands up in the air.” Another scene in which Schlafly is asked to take notes during a meeting with men was also taken out of Waller’s time in the writers room. “You were always the one asked to be writing on the whiteboard. Because, of course, a girl would have the neatest handwriting,” says Blanchett sarcastically. “That’s what you offer a writers room, isn’t it, Dahvi?”

The writers room for “Mrs. America” consisted of seven women and two men. As they were breaking an episode about a congressman sexually harassing his secretaries, Senate hearings were underway for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, making for “a very emotionally charged time in the writers room,” Waller says, recalling how the women once spent three hours sharing their #MeToo experiences in the industry. “We had some of the most uncomfortable and difficult conversations not only about gender, but about race and class and sexuality and the politics around that and how we were gonna represent that in the show. To have that space was really wonderful.”

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Feminist Brenda Feigen, who is played by actress Ari Graynor in the FX series "Mrs. America".
Feminist Brenda Feigen-Fasteau, who is played by actress Ari Graynor in the FX series “Mrs. America”.
(Joanne Parrent)

Feigen was one of the feminists of the time willing to debate Schlafly — who was known for stoking unfounded fears about the ERA — on television. “Over fire and coals did I become a feminist and learn in those days you had to be confrontational. That was the only way to be,” Feigen says. “It was a very heady and important time, and I’m terribly glad I lived through it — survived it.”

Feigen was initially wary of the series and even came down with a case of shingles days before the episode “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc” — which delves into her personal life — aired. “I thought I was going to have a nervous collapse,” she says. But Feigen was ultimately won over.

“I think it’s an extraordinary show. It gives us all of the nuance of these characters very accurately,” she says. Feigen also resists the notion that “Mrs. America” portrays the leaders of the women’s movement as petty rivals, as some of her contemporaries have argued. “I have to say the word ‘catfight’ is not something that, in my opinion, was in the show. It was women disagreeing with each other.”

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Ari Graynor, left, as Brenda Feigen, with Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem in "Mrs. America."
(Sabrina Lantos/FX)

“Argument is part of a democracy,” adds Blanchett. “You have to have robust discussion. Certainly that’s what I found playing Phyllis. She has a woeful distaste for nuance. You have to go through discord and debate and disagreement to get to nuance.” While the actress resisted judging her character, Blanchett concedes she found it isolating to play someone who brooked little dissent within her ranks — something she felt acutely when she’d watch dailies of ERA proponent actresses engaged in spirited discussions.

“I would feel so lonely,” she says. “It really drove home for me that I much prefer being in conversation rather than monologue.”


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