FX’s Mrs. America Tells the Origin Story of a Divided Country

Emma Dibdin
Photo credit: FX Networks

From ELLE

FX’s new historical miniseries Mrs. America chronicles a fascinating chapter in the feminist movement, focusing on the push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s—and the one woman who worked tirelessly to ensure its defeat. Conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, played with compelling precision by Cate Blanchett, was a staunchly anti-feminist, pro-life grassroots organizer. She viewed the women’s liberation movement as a threat not only to her way of life as a housewife and mother, but as “un-American” and symptomatic of a swing towards communism.

If Blanchett playing “the First Lady of the Conservative Movement” doesn’t whet your appetite, the series also features an all-star cast of names playing some of the most iconic feminists of all time, including Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to congress. The three actresses, along with several co-stars and showrunner Dahvi Waller, appeared at the Television Critics Association winter press tour last week to preview the show. Here’s a few key things to know about Mrs. America.

1. The show is in many ways an origin story for the modern Republican Party.

President Trump hailed Schlafly as "a conservative hero" after her death in 2016—no surprise, since she had enthusiastically endorsed his campaign earlier in the year—and according to the creators and cast of Mrs. America, it's easy to trace a line from Schlafly's playbook through to the modern GOP. "The first time she came to my attention was when this little old lady was literally wheeled out to endorse Trump," Blanchett recalled. "I started to really understand the power of Phyllis Schlafly's Rolodex, and really that that Rolodex is what helped get Reagan elected, what changed the whole direction of the Republican Party to put pro-life in there. She was profoundly influential."

The show's creator and head writer, Dahvi Waller, added that "in many ways, you could say that this series is like an origin story of today's culture wars. You can draw a direct line from 1972 to today through Phyllis Schlafly, and really understand how we became such a divided nation."

2. Though set in the 1970s, the show is "distressingly" relevant to today.

Setting aside just how dispiriting it is that the Equal Rights Amendment still has not passed to this day, Blanchett said it was "startling" how often the show's subject matter was reflected in current news headlines.

"It was like Groundhog's Day," she said. "The actual literal discussions that we were having back in 1971, 1972, all the way through the series were constantly popping up in the [current] media," she continued, name-checking Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage, and the question of whether women will be drafted into the military, which was one of Schlafly's major concerns. "That's just come up in the last week [in headlines] with recent events in Iran. It couldn't be more relevant."

Waller added that the show highlighted just how little progress has been made in certain areas. "One of my takeaways from making the series is we haven't really come as far as I thought we had, and to Cate's point about the conversations and debates we're having today [that] they were having 50 years ago, I find that distressing. I hope that is one of audience's takeaways, is how much work there is still left to do."

Photo credit: Amy Sussman - Getty Images

3. The show will depict the "messy" beginnings of intersectional feminism.

Although much of the major cast—along with many of the most well-known icons of the feminist movement—are white, Mrs. America will also highlight the origins of intersectional feminism through Aduba's Chisholm, who made a pioneering bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. "One of the great things about this period is you have the birth of a lot of things, including intersectional feminism and LGBTQ rights," Waller said. "In episode 3, Shirley is really the beginning of the birth of intersectional feminism, and it's a messy beginning. I think the women's movement was really growing in this time period and learning lessons."

Photo credit: FX

Aduba added that the show aims to correct how "over the years, we've glossed over some of those intersectional figures and their importance and their relevance in the story. I think it was great that we were able to include them and right that historical wrong in our cultural atmosphere." (It's important to note that the phrase "intersectionality" as it relates to feminism didn't emerge until 1989, when scholar Kimberle Crenshaw published her landmark paper on the topic.)

4. Sarah Paulson's Alice McCray is the only major character who is fictional.

Though surrounded by fictionalized depictions of very real and iconic women, Paulson's Alice is a composite of various women who represented Schlafly's target audience. "Unlike on the women's movement side of the story, where you have so many real-life characters, Phyllis is really singular in her side," Waller explained. "I really wanted to represent the women to whom she appealed, the foot soldiers in her army, the homemakers who she mobilized, and I felt the best way to have freedom to do that was to create characters who are composites."

Photo credit: FX

Paulson added that the character represented a breath of fresh air in comparison to her own life. "Dahvi is a wonderful writer, and created somebody who was very different from myself," she noted. "She's sort of innocent and a bit of an open-hearted person. She is a devout Catholic and a very dedicated homemaker—and I myself am not a dedicated homemaker! So I thought it was sort of interesting to put my toe in that water and see what it would be like to be a person for whom their entire world was their family life and their home life. To feel that threatened, and to feel a sense that somehow she didn't matter because her desire was to be in her home and to support her husband, and to raise her children, to feel that that was being devalued by this movement was very scary for her."

5) In order to play Schlafly, Blanchett had to find things to admire in her.

Distasteful though Schlafly's views may be to most viewers, Blanchett said it was essential to distance herself from any judgment. "My agreement or disagreement or my personal political persuasions, I couldn't be less interested in folding into a character," she explained. " I think that that does lead to agitprop, and I'm much more interested in the way you create ambiguity and juxtaposition in a character. But it is a challenge, I think, when you are playing a figure who is so polarizing. And in the end, how polarizing she became was a very thing that prevented her from getting a place in Reagan's cabinet. So it was definitely a challenge to find those nuances and not to play one note."

Waller said that in researching the project, she was struck by Schlafly's extraordinary ability to mobilize her followers. "Phyllis had a network of supporters from the late '60s when she built her base. She had this newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, that she'd been sending out for years. So when she became interested in the ERA campaign, all she had to do was send out an article in her newsletter to her thousands of subscribers, and it was like a light switch was turned on. I call her the original disruptor. She was an incredibly effective grassroots organizer, and she was able to mobilize women. That was her superpower."

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