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April 2020, Week 3

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 		 [Mrs America gives Phyllis Schlafly a depth in fiction that was
lacking in history but Shirley Chisholm is refreshingly portrayed as
more than just a martyr] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE CULTURE 

 WHAT MRS AMERICA GETS RIGHT AND WHAT IT GETS WRONG ABOUT 70S FEMINISM
 
[https://portside.org/2020-04-19/what-mrs-america-gets-right-and-what-it-gets-wrong-about-70s-feminism]


 

 Moira Donegan 
 April 18, 2020
The Guardian
[https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/18/what-mrs-america-gets-right-and-what-it-gets-wrong-about-70s-feminism]


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 _ Mrs America gives Phyllis Schlafly a depth in fiction that was
lacking in history but Shirley Chisholm is refreshingly portrayed as
more than just a martyr _ 

 Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in the miniseries Mrs America,
left, alongside the real Phyllis Schlafly, chairwoman of the
Republican Women’s Organization., Photograph: AP 

 

The real hero of Mrs America, the new FX miniseries
[https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/apr/15/mrs-america-cate-blanchett-fx-hulu] chronicling
the early 1970s political battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, is
Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly, the conservative movement leader who led
the antifeminist backlash against the amendment, styled herself a
housewife and mother of six, but really she was an educated, driven
and ambitious professional political operator, skilled in forging
alliances among unlikely counterparts and manipulating the motivations
of others toward her own ends.

In the miniseries, a slick, beautifully shot portrait of 1970s
America, she is played by Cate Blanchett, who masterfully shows
Schlafly finding an outlet for her own frustrated political ambitions
in the anti-ERA fight, and rising from a minor conservative
commentator on the lunatic fringe to the primary voice of social
conservatism on the national stage. As the ERA is defeated – going
from a bipartisan shoo-in that sailed through the Senate to an
embattled, controversial document that meets resistance in every
statehouse – the show encourages us to see the downfall of the major
political effort of the second wave feminist movement as the result,
paradoxically, of one woman’s phenomenal personal determination.

The realities of history were a bit more complicated than that. Though
Schlafly was the face of the conservative opposition to the ERA, the
show depicts her as that movement’s instigator and sole intellectual
origin, with male politicians and movement conservatives shruggingly
falling into line behind her. The show depicts her, too, as having
resentments about male arrogance and entitlement in her own life, a
strain of her character that is meant to draw parallels between
Schlafly and the feminist leaders she opposes, such as Gloria Steinem,
Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm. We see the women on
either side of the ideological divide smarting at the pains of their
own thwarted ambitions, and enduring sexual aggression from men for
the sake of achieving their goals: Schlafly wanted to be a
congresswoman; Chisholm wanted to be president; Steinem wanted to pass
a law through Congress legalizing abortion rights.

None of them got what they wanted. In one scene, Schlafly,
contemplating a second run for Congress, lets a slimy Washington
insider squeeze her waist and make a lewd comment about her dress;
later, rage flashes across her face when men in a meeting ask her to
take notes for them. She steps out of the office and snaps at the
young secretary instead. In the offices of Ms Magazine, Steinem lets
the publisher make a gross remark about her legs, because she needs
his money to keep it in print.

These moments are meant to endear Schlafly to viewers, and at the same
time to make sure that the show’s politics are clear: despite who
the protagonist is, Mrs America is ultimately on the feminists’
side. But these attempts to draw parallels between Schlafly’s
ambitions and anger and that of the feminists risks reducing the
differences between them to the temperamental or circumstantial,
rather than the ideological and political.

The show is a bit too generous to Schlafly, and one can’t help but
think that it is trying to make its subject worthy of its casting

In real life, Schlafly was not so conflicted. Though her public life
and fierce style conflicted tellingly with her prescriptions for
women’s behavior, such as modesty, domesticity and obedience, she
was a fierce misogynist who wrote and testified passionately that
women who experienced sexual harassment brought men’s aggression on
themselves. The show is a bit too generous to Schlafly here, and one
can’t help but think that it is trying to make its subject worthy of
its casting: Blanchett, in a stunning performance, is too skilled and
nuanced an actor to play a figure of such uncomplicated contempt as
Schlafly herself really was. Mrs America gives Schlafly a depth in
fiction that was not there in history.

Though Schlafly remains the central figure, the show attempts to treat
its other women with interest and generosity as the fight around the
ERA progresses through the politically hectic summer of 1972. Gloria
Steinem, played willowy and glamorous by Rose Byrne, has become the
face of the feminist movement, but she is torn between the
cantankerous, uncompromising idealism of Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman)
and the appeasing, results-focused pragmatism of Bella Azbug (Margo
Martindale).

In the early scenes with Steinem, as she launches Ms Magazine and
attempts to harness her considerable media appeal in the service of
Shirley Chisholm’s presidential bid, the show veers towards
portraying Steinem as a victim of her own celebrity and good looks –
another historical mistake, as in reality Steinem was a savvy and
deliberate manipulator of these. But as the show progresses, the
script veers from underestimating Steinem to seeing her more clearly,
as she attempts, in vain but with the best of intentions, to
manipulate a corrupt political system to admirable political ends.

But the show’s real triumph is the actor Uzo Aduba, criminally
underrated and radiant as Shirley Chisholm. Fraught, frustrated,
paranoid and betrayed at the end of her presidential bid, Chisholm is
portrayed not as the one-dimensional martyr that feminist history so
often makes her, but as an earnest, principled advocate who suffers
deep pain at the racist and sexist determination of those around her
to underestimate and overlook her talents. Her presidential bid, and
her unwillingness to end it as the 1972 Democratic national convention
in Miami nears, causes a conflict among the feminists between
pragmatism and potential, the dream of a free world with rights and
dignity for all women and the need to get results to alleviate the
ongoing suffering of sexism. The choices they make, and the way
Chisholm herself responds, reveal that this is a false choice, and a
trap. Still, when her friends abandon her and her presidential
campaign is forced to fold, we can see her pain and disappointment.
Her principle and idealism is not depicted in simplistic terms as pure
or morally aspirational, but also as tragic, and very lonely. The show
gives Chisholm and its viewers a great deal of respect here, by taking
her suffering seriously.

Mrs America sets out to show history as made by human beings, complete
with insecurities, hopes, relatable fears and bad motivations. In this
sense, it is not unlike other political dramas that have attempted to
depict the agents of power and politics as relatable, familiar and
human. In some of its scenes, where women in colorful 70s garments and
elaborate hairdos exchange banter while walking briskly through the
halls of power, the show can feel a bit like Aaron Sorkin’s The West
Wing, though it is a great deal worldlier and more skeptical. Mrs
America is not the first show to explore history as a mosaic of human
egotism, hopefulness and frailty. But it is one of the first where
history is made by the egotism, hopefulness and frailties of women.

	*
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist

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