You are likely familiar with the exit-poll result, in 2016, that suggested that fifty-three per cent of white American women voted for Donald Trump. Never mind that such polls are notoriously imprecise; the statistic was used, repeatedly, as evidence to disprove the assumption that most women want a female President. Since then, introspection and grief have caused liberals to ask not just why white women voted for Trump but why some of us ever thought they wouldn’t. The new FX miniseries “Mrs. America”—created by Dahvi Waller (“Mad Men”)—provides answers to both questions in its intensely psychological portrait of Phyllis Schlafly, the godmother of the modern anti-feminist movement, played with frightening, actressy charisma by Cate Blanchett. (She was also an executive producer on the series.) A nervy, nine-episode period piece about the fight over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment2020欧洲杯体育投注网, “Mrs. America” feels like the product of a shift in pop feminist consciousness: a post-Clinton critique of the savior model and of pink-pussy-hat resistance.
It’s easy to imagine an alternate “Mrs. America”—a sappier, more complacent historical drama that might have taken, as its opening, the last scene of the pilot, in which, in 1972, the founding members of the National Women’s Political Caucus celebrate in the Washington, D.C., office of the activist and politician Bella Abzug (played by a saucy Margo Martindale). Ambitious costuming and wig direction help us identify, in the mix, the popular saints of second-wave feminism: Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), with her long hair middle-parted and her aviator glasses; Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), with her black-salon bouffant; Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), her big hair streaked, skunklike, with gray. The Senate has passed the E.R.A., sending it to the states for ratification, and Chisholm, the country’s first black congresswoman, has announced her Presidential bid. The women’s toast to progress is interrupted by a staffer bearing the opposition research: a copy of “The Phyllis Schlafly2020欧洲杯体育投注网 Report,” a newsletter published monthly by a homemaker in Alton, Illinois.
“Who the hell is Phyllis Schaffly?” Friedan spits, mispronouncing the name. The moment, which captures the radical élite’s reflexive dismissal of the allure of white conservatism, is all the more powerful because, in this “Mrs. America,” we have already been warned. The series is an ensemble vehicle, with each episode following a different character, but it opens with Schlafly—introduced by an m.c. in a bikini competition at a charity fund-raiser as “the wife of one of our biggest donors, Mrs. J. Fred Schlafly”—and stays with her throughout. A mother of six and a Radcliffe graduate, she has had a failed run for Congress and carries with her an air of thwarted ambition. At a meeting with Barry Goldwater in D.C., at which she hopes to advise on his nuclear policy, she is asked instead to take notes. Schlafly and her husband (John Slattery) are locked in a simmering, kinky battle of intelligences, but, in the evening, as he presses his weight on her, his needs win. Schlafly sets out as the most dangerous type of powermonger: one without power.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网When Alice (Sarah Paulson), a kind of surrogate daughter, first brings the E.R.A. to her attention, claiming that the libbers will force their daughters into the draft, Schlafly swiftly assembles an army of housewives who view “equal rights” as an implicit criticism of their choices. Schlafly’s “Stop E.R.A.” campaign lands her on talk shows and in lecture halls; her vast mailing list piques the interest of Ronald Reagan, who is running for President. Her crusade to protect the traditional family involves travel, long hours, and the kind of industry that looks suspiciously like a successful career; meanwhile, she relies on her sister-in-law, Eleanor (played with muted heartbreak by Jeanne Tripplehorn), and her smiling black maids to take care of the children. A good bio-pic performance captures a historical figure, but a transcendent one can effectively destroy her, outdoing the original in our cultural memory. Blanchett’s Schlafly is a pastel nightmare, arch and juicily camp.
Trump spoke at Schlafly’s funeral, in 2016, apparently aware of his debt to her strategy, and there are oblique references to the Trump era in “Mrs. America”—in the finale, Schlafly greets two baby-faced lawyers named Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. But the series mostly avoids the premonitions that dog the storytelling of such dramas as Ava DuVernay’s 2019 “When They See Us,” based on the Central Park jogger case. It is clear where the sympathies of the show’s creators lie, and as the prim staginess of the Schlafly suburban universe gives way to apartments in New York City and offices in Washington, the cinematography becomes warmer—reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman documentaries and stomp-down-the-street seventies dramas. Yet the feminist fighters, drawn with less specificity and more reverence, are inevitably less interesting. Abzug is the pushy yenta of the Senate, a pragmatist willing to make concessions to secure male allies. The only Republican in the caucus, Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), is a symbol of the impending death of bipartisanship. The weakest characterization is that of the spritelike Steinem, whose primary anxiety appears to be the fear that her peers tolerate her only because of her value as the movement’s sex symbol, and who swans through the series, cigarette in hand, eyes furrowed in telegenic sorrow for the sisters who have it harder than her.
The most recognizable faces of the feminist movement have always been white, and “Mrs. America” prides itself on reminding us why without ever quite redressing the balance. In one scene, Steinem argues with the “money guy” at Ms., who is reluctant to put Chisholm on the cover because she will “depress sales, especially in the South.” When Abzug, eager to hitch the E.R.A. fight to George McGovern’s Presidential candidacy, admonishes Chisholm for continuing her symbolic campaign, Chisholm responds, mightily, “I didn’t get anywhere in this life waiting on someone’s permission.” But Chisholm, in reality a staunch, ingenious politician, is portrayed as an egoless exemplar of political duty. Meanwhile, the legendary lawyer Flo Kennedy, played by the perpetually underrated Niecy Nash, delivers clapbacks to black feminists seeking to exclude black lesbians from their ranks. From the narrative sidelines, she represents, but the show doesn’t let her live or love.
The eighth episode is a memorable set piece: at the National Women’s Conference, in Houston, Alice, Schlafly’s follower, accidentally takes a psychedelic and goes through the looking glass, wandering into a Pete Seeger sing-along with the feminists. But there is something too easy about the satisfaction gained from watching a woman escape Schlafly’s orbit when the woman in question is one of the show’s few fictional characters. Ullman’s portrayal of the middle-aged Friedan, the intellectual founder of the movement, feels, by contrast, painfully real. Friedan is among the first of the feminists to take Schlafly seriously, agreeing to debate her at Illinois State University—not just because she feels a moral imperative to quash Schlafly’s rise but because she sees the event as an opportunity to retrieve the renown she has lost to the movement’s younger figures, primarily Steinem. In one scene, we watch as Friedan, preparing for a date, opens her closet and fondles a flower-print dress that she wore, years earlier, on a talk show. The moment is quiet, almost taboo. Friedan may be fighting for equality, but she is also a woman, wanting to remember what it feels like to be adored. ♦