On Wednesday, Hulu released the first three episodes of its series based around the failed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, “Mrs. America.” Central to the story is Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative icon (portrayed by Cate Blanchett) who rallied the nation’s housewives to stop the then invincible-seeming ERA.
Blanchett is a good actress, and convincingly portrays Schlafly’s mannerisms and clipped tones, but the resemblance between the show’s character and the real-life Schlafly stop at the superficial.
The series’ portrayal of its main character as simultaneously subservient and cunning is instantly recognizable as a common trope to any right-leaning woman on Twitter today. While ambitious liberal women are given the you-go-girl treatment and lauded for assertiveness, Schlafly’s organizing talent and confidence are cast instead as an instinct for self-aggrandizement and pushiness. This is an unsurprisingly hypocritical take coming from the crowd that once urged us to “ban bossy.”
The series doesn’t fully villainize Schlafly (so far, and to the disappointment of some in the leftist media), but it more subtly insults her by implying that she was the constant silent victim of sexism in her endeavors and disregarded by her husband.
Conservative women are also all too familiar with the characterization the feminists of the show make of Phyllis’ band of STOP ERA homemakers, who storm their state capitol with freshly-baked bread: “brainwashed” and “last gasp of the patriarchy.”
But the series producers, who purposely boxed out Schlafly’s family from participating in production, made an enormous error in thinking that the activists’ words, even filtered through a hostile writing team, would sound as ridiculous to the average American as they do in Hollywood.
Far from sounding villainous, some of Schlafly’s speeches in the series sound prophetic to critics of modern sexual culture. Her warnings about women pulling double duty inside and out of the home in the name of “equality” are even acknowledged—of course as yet another grievance against men—by many on the feminist left today. And many of the outcomes labeled fear-mongering by her feminist opponents of the day are central to the culture wars in 2020, such as the fight over de-sexed bathrooms in public schools.
Her most celebrated fight, the one against the ERA portrayed in the series, continues today as proponents use dubious legal theories to revive the amendment. Some of the policy struggles are different; even Phyllis couldn’t have imagined that the word “sex” would have a legally ambiguous meaning back in 1972. But the central thrust of opposition to the ERA remains the same: equality is not synonymous with sameness, and the law must be able to recognize situations in which the very real biological differences between men and women matter.
Schlafly’s most enduring legacy was giving a voice to the millions of women not represented by the feminist left. As the series character puts it in yet another subversive speech: “I am not against women succeeding. I am not against women working outside of the home, that’s their choice. But what I am against is a small, elitist group of Northeastern establishment liberals putting down the homemakers.”
Only about a third of American women identify as feminists—about the same percentage who stays home with their children. Even among young women, the majority still disassociate from the term. Just half of mothers report that full-time work would be the ideal situation for them while they have children in the home. The priorities of Ms. magazine have always been out of sync with the actual lives and desires of millions women across the country, and it’s their power that Schlafly harnessed.
A recent, widely shared column in The New York Times asked: where are today’s Schlaflys? Where is the grassroots army of housewives that stopped a constitutional amendment that had secured supermajorities in both houses of Congress, an endorsement from both major political parties, and ratification in 35 states?
The answer is, of course, that just as in the 1970s, their voices are all too easy to denigrate and ignore when the currency of the public debate is anger and victimhood. That’s why they needed a sharp and eloquent spokeswoman in Schlafly.
Hulu’s mistake is that they let just enough of “Mrs. America’s” words slip through the censorship treatment in the writing room. Her arguments still sound an awful lot like common sense to women across America.