I didn’t expect to like Mrs. America, the new miniseries on Hulu. What I remember about Phyllis Schlafly was that she was a thorn in the side of feminism. Honestly, I didn’t know much about her. But why would an actress of Cate Blanchett’s panache want to glorify her? So far, in the first five episodes, I’ve learned a lot.
Program creator Dahvi Waller quickly demonstrates how Phyllis yearns to achieve greater heights than being a busy mother of six and a wife to an estate attorney. Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis and John Slattery plays the husband, Fred. I keep hoping he is going to rip off his chauvinist mantle and whatever makeup prosthetics they put on his face, and give me the wise-cracking Roger Sterling from Mad Men.
When she decides to regroup after a failed bid at a congressional seat in Illinois, Phyllis shows off her knowledge of the nuclear arms talks, and is invited to speak to Senator Barry Goldwater in Washington. In that meeting, as she is revving up to make her point, the men suggest she take notes, after they have already dismissed the secretary, who was prepared to take notes. This relegates her to a nonparticipant role, of course, and she is quick to recognize it. With impressive nerve, she then changes the conversation back to the Equal Rights Amendment. Golly, the men will have to listen to her now, she’s the only one invested.
As the series progresses, it becomes clear that Phyllis Schlafly didn’t always know what she was talking about, but she was very good at appearing to know what she was talking about. I’ve never seen anyone like that, have you? She was adept at organizing at the grassroots level, and proved her point that women who had the same opportunities and financial backing that she had might not need a constitutional amendment. At the same time, she runs into opposition from her husband who tells her she is too old to go to law school. In fact, she managed to get a MA in government from Radcliff and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, and write twenty-six books. Her successful husband became the lesser known spouse.
And in one poignant scene, she tries to convince her wanting-to-emerge-from-the closet son that he could quit his problematic behavior. If she could quit smoking, he could overcome his attraction to men. By that time, it was pretty obvious where the political tone of the show landed. And Cate Blanchett bestows a smug smile on us.
Life was hardly a bed of roses for the featured feminists. The stellar cast includes Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. Between the political infighting and the shaky support system they provided each other, they weren’t always united.
The Equal Rights Amendment guaranteed “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was expected to invalidate laws restricting women’s rights involving buying and selling property or conducting business, abolish different ages between men and women to obtain legal majority or the right to marry, give women the same eligibility for tax-supported retirement plans, assure the same admissions and curricula in schools, and possibly affect alimony, child-support and the draft. However, the ratification process died on the vine.
But like most historical dramas I’ve seen, this caused me to go back and check the actual facts behind the story. Some of that was more shocking to me. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the Senate March 24, 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. Mrs. America deals with the aftermath of that. The overwhelmingly male Congress is portrayed as being “afraid” of a backlash of women voters if they don’t pass this legislation. Or maybe it was their wives they were afraid of, it is not clear.
But to my surprise, Nebraska’s unicameral ratified the Equal Rights Amendment unanimously the very next day, the second state after Hawaii to do so. Hawaii probably had the advantage of the time zone delay and their legislators were probably still on the job when they heard it had passed in Washington.
So I wondered, how did I miss this? I was undoubtedly down the road about ten blocks attending the University of Nebraska, majoring in political science and journalism. You would have thought that even if I was too absorbed mid-semester in my college life, one of my male journalism or political science professors might have brought it up in class. But no. It was a non-issue apparently.
Until buyers remorse set in the next year. By mid-March 1973, the Nebraska Unicameral rescinded their ratification. Never mind that no state had ever done that in the history of America, and it was questionable whether it was legally binding. There were a thousand people, mostly women, crowding the unicameral corridor that day, with differing points of view.
Senator Richard Proud, the speaker of the unicameral, outlined his concerns about the E.R.A. in an editorial. He somehow made a leap that women might suddenly wear topless bathing suits because men were allowed to. And that women would be forced to join the workforce and abandon their children at home, who would become juvenile delinquents. There was a lot of concern about drafting women into combat even though the draft was ending by then.
Suddenly learning about Nebraska’s sullied role in this debate, has peaked my interest in Mrs. America more. And it points out the dangers of ignoring history in the making. Because the women who would have benefited from the E.R.A. were not the comfortable housewives or political strategists. They were the struggling women who were too busy to be heard, while trying to make ends meet at a wage that was significantly less than their male counterparts.