Mrs. America Asks Us to Dwell on 2020 by Looking Back to 1972

The series, produced by FX and Hulu, follows the fictionalized fights of the feminists behind the ERA (Left to right: Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Freida. Behind: Bella Abzug) and offers insight into the humanity behind their opposition, headed up by Stop-Era’s powerhouse Phyllis Schlafly. Photo courtesy of Weebly.

In FX’s newest series “Mrs. America,” produced and shared in partnership with Hulu, the world of its characters who wait for a call on a rotary phone and type out newsletters on a typewriter to post them by mail seems a far cry from ours of Facetime and Facebook. It’s a world closer to that “Mad Men, ” where the show’s creator Dahvi Waller was a writer. Yet, “Mrs. America” deeply resembles the atmospheres we inhabit today, for the challenges of representation and rights for women in politics have remained largely unchanged since the 1970s.

“Mrs. America” tells an unfamiliar side of an extremely familiar story, as it follows the rise of second-wave feminism 1970s and the ongoing fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). We see this unfold not only through the eyes of feminist icons like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ulhman) and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) but also through Phylis Shlafley (Cate Blanchett), the powerhouse anti-feminist and her band of women fuelling Stop ERA movement. Through the fictionalized lives and fights of these women, “Mrs. America” probes not the question of what happened in the women’s movements of the 1970s but how those events and philosophies led us to where we are today. 

Even with strikingly elegant and immersive costumes and sets, the force of the series comes from its characters. The actresses’ — especially Blanchett’s — efforts to understand what propels the women they portray is really where the show shines the most. We understand Schlafly not as the one-dimensional anti-feminist that we often remember her as; as Blanchett, she is a bright woman, charged with potential and ideas and nowhere to channel them. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black person to primary for president in a major party and the  first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, is not just these “firsts” she’s always parenthetically noted with; she is someone trying to stick by her principles of fighting and advocating for herself as she has felt abandoned by both the Black caucus and the women’s voting bloc, profoundly and touchingly depicted in the third episode “Shirley.” Gloria Steinem is not the flashy, sexy and sometimes out-of-touch spokesperson of the feminist movement who has gone down in history as; she’s a writer who cares about women’s health and safety and is trying to grasp whatever means it takes to secure those things. 

“I’m not sure I understand politics,” Steinem mutters to herself as she rushes around the floor of the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami. It is so real and feels so raw, even for all its scripting.  Personally, I have always been moved by Steinem. As a writer and a feminist, she mobilized the skills she had to advocate for the cause she cared about. It’s been so valuable in my life to see a woman whose training lies in journalism, turn the medium on its head to make significant social change. However, I’ve always grappled with how to fit this with the critiques that later third-wave feminist thinkers have raised about her. “Mrs. America” portrays her excellently and has helped me understand her as a real person, someone who is flawed and afraid and in love but cares so, so much about this one cause and will do whatever it takes to make it happen. I think that we credit her for being the voice and the figurehead of the modern feminist movement, but what “Mrs. America” reminds us of is that she really was just someone who didn’t want women to die of botched abortions carried out on kitchen tables and who wanted constitutional protection for women’s equality to men. Feminism is so much more than just those things, and the show tries to capture this. She is just one part of it. 

The presidential election of 1972 acts as a gravitational center to the series, at least, so far in its airing. It’s amazing, in an eerie and chilling way, to see how history repeated itself this March from what happened on the convention floor in Miami in 1972. The Democrats face an incumbent Republican (Richard Nixon) and the central mantra of the Democrats’ primary period is “who will beat him?” “You know how it goes: party unity, we can’t be divided,” congresswoman Bella Abzug (another central character and among the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus) tells Shirley, making the case for her to drop out, to which Chisholm responds “We are divided.” This fear of division boxes in the progressives, like those in the women’s liberation movement, and leads them to overlook Chisholm, the fiery, inspiring woman of color candidate in exchange for lukewarm and palatable Senator Joe McGovern. Do you remember what happened in that election? 

It’s heartbreaking to see how many dreams from this period have been left unrealized to this day. “Why am I the only one at this convention who thinks a Black woman being president is worth the run?” Chisholm says. In her convention speech, she shouts, “In this country, everybody is supposed to be able to run for president, but that has never really been true.” It still has never really been. Perhaps, Chisholm releasing her delegates will help set the stage for ’76 or ’80, Steinem suggests. “How long are we supposed to wait? How many more women are going to die from botched abortions while we wait for men to feel comfortable with us having control over our own bodies? How many women are going to be forced to give birth to babies they can’t afford to feed while we wait for housewives who have no idea what it’s like to have to work to survive to feel comfortable with women having power? Or am I the only one who’s so fucking tired of waiting?” she asks. My heart breaks a thousand times over. We are still waiting, and I, too, am tired of it.  

Central to the discussion of Chisholm’s candidacy is balancing real political change (e.g. doing whatever’s needed to pass the ERA, secure abortion rights, maternity benefits) with symbolic change. “Mrs. America” works to remind us that the time for symbolism is over. And it shows us where we went wrong — that it wasn’t just the fault of some nut-job, misogynistic anti-feminists. It reminds us too, that we have this opportunity to get it right, and that we can’t wait another 50 years for that again.  

In times like these can feel silly to retreat into a television show or movie, instead of turning to the news. However, art and poignant commentary it holds can be one of the best mechanisms we have to make sense of the nonsensical surroundings. “Mrs. America” grounds us in our depressing realities, warns us about where we have and will go wrong again yet overwhelmingly inspires us about the potential we hold to change things for good this time.