There’s Nothing Good About Phyllis Schlafly
Mrs. America, the new miniseries about Phyllis Schlafly, doesn’t want us to come away with a harsh view of its subject. But we should: Schlafly’s right-wing views were consistently monstrous, doing untold damage to the country.
Mrs. America is an acclaimed new nine-episode series on Hulu and FX that tracks how archconservative Phyllis Schlafly led a grassroots movement to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) championed by 1970s second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. It features thoughtful scripts, excellent production values, and a fine cast. Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic calls it “maybe the first great television series of 2020.”
I hated it.
The show is structured as a series of studies of key women involved in the political struggle for equal rights — those for, and those against. Almost every episode title takes its name from the woman under consideration: “Phyllis” (Cate Blanchett), “Gloria” (Rose Byrne), “Shirley” (Uzo Aduba), “Betty” (Tracey Ullman), “Bella” (Margo Martindale), and so on. In each case, there’s a hunt for the hidden pain and vulnerability of the woman in question, and this hunt invariably moves the show away from its fact-based content about the women’s public actions, which historians have praised for being largely accurate, toward its frequently made-up content about their private lives.
We don’t know, for example, what went on in Phyllis Schlafly’s bedroom when she was alone with her husband. Shirley Chisholm’s bedroom was probably bugged, as the series shows, but as far as we know Phyllis Schlafly’s was not. That doesn’t stop show creator and writer Dahvi Waller (Desperate Housewives, Mad Men) from providing a scene of poor tired Phyllis being coerced into sex she doesn’t want with Fred Schlafly (John Slattery). We’re treated to a poignant close-up of her weary face stoically enduring the unwelcome weight of her husband.
Presumably the inspiration for this scene is Schlafly’s public comment on the issue of marital rape. She argued that it isn’t possible, because as she put it in one of her many ugly quotable quotes, “By getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don’t think you can call it rape.” The show also routinely indicates that Fred Schlafly was overbearing and unsupportive of his wife’s political endeavors in ways that aren’t borne out by the record.
But the assumption that, behind the scenes, Schlafly must be suffering from the harshness of the patriarchal system, just as every woman in the series will be shown to suffer, leads to the conclusion that every woman is defined by her victim status no matter how manifestly she’s flourishing. Just look at how sad Gloria Steinem is in the “Gloria” episode when she has that abortion in London at age twenty-two! In a flashback scene shot in somber blue tones, Rose Byrne appears mournful, guilty, and frightened as a wistfully soft Steinem. Whereas, if you believe the actual Gloria Steinem on the topic of her abortion, she wasn’t wracked by regret:
It [abortion] is supposed to make us a bad person. But I must say, I never felt that. I used to sit and try and figure out how old the child would be, trying to make myself feel guilty. But I never could!
As for Phyllis Schlafly, did any woman ever swank around with such a convincing display of ego triumphant, of total self-satisfaction, of loving her expansive place in the world, as she did? She clearly gloried in her own superiority over “the libbers,” women who in her view couldn’t manage to do it all. The best aspects of Cate Blanchett’s typically excellent performance are Phyllis’s overbearing smugness, her acid smiles at condescending males, and her barely repressed glee as she scores political points.
The rough aspects of Schlafly’s Depression-era girlhood, when her father lost his job and her mother went out to work, were compensated by her own extraordinarily high levels of energy, intelligence, and capability. Valedictorian of her high school class, Schlafly put herself through college as a political science major at Washington University by working the night shift at a job testing machine guns. She then earned a master’s degree in government at Radcliffe College.
Schlafly’s marriage to Fred Schlafly Jr, a wealthy lawyer, gave her a very high standard of living. That allowed her to employ servants who handled the domestic labor while she pursued her political ambitions, indifferent to the furious charges of hypocrisy from feminists pointing out repeatedly — as the show makes clear — that she was hardly the traditional full-time homemaker she claimed to be.
Her career timing was generally terrific, starting with her 1964 best seller A Choice Not an Echo, which deplored the concentration of Republican power among an East Coast elite that squelched the grassroots conservative movements rising in the rest of the nation and championed a hard-right up-and-comer, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. From there she ascended to “Sweetheart of the Silent Majority,” able to take advantage of the backlash against the left-wing movements of the 1960s and ’70s and welcome in the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. Almost everything went Phyllis Schlafly’s way, despite the show’s imposition of a narrative arc of tragic irony on her life — her inability to land a political appointment under Reagan after she did so much to pave the way for his presidency.
No doubt she had her disappointments, but Schlafly’s luck, timing, and ability to keep her eye on the prize ultimately yielded tremendous rewards in the form of fame and influence lasting decades. She was smart enough to deny her early involvement in the John Birch Society — which has since been documented — when that organization’s anticommunist paranoia got too ridiculous for more powerful figures such as William F. Buckley, who led a campaign to purge Birchers from conservative ranks. (Birchers were the ones who believed, among other conspiracy theories, that the Soviets were contaminating our precious bodily fluids via fluoride in the drinking water.)
Even potential career disasters did Schlafly no harm, such as when her son John (played in the show by a sweet and cowed Ben Rosenfield) was outed as gay in 1992, after the Republican’s “family values”–heavy national convention. (John Schlafly supported Pat Buchanan.) He stuck by his mother fervently. He worked as a lawyer for her organization Eagle Forum, which succeeded the STOP ERA movement, and publicly embraced her anti-LGBT stances and the rest of her extreme-right politics, which included the usual rancid brew of racist, xenophobic, and hysterical anti-left positions.
Lest we forget — and Mrs. America is all for having us forget — Schlafly’s politics were consistently monstrous throughout her life, from the beginning, when she was a fervent supporter of Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunt in the 1950s, to the end, with her last book, published one day after her death in 2016: The Conservative Case for Trump.
While most critics are lauding the show for “humanizing” and encouraging us to empathize with Schlafly, Pier Dominguez of Buzzfeed does something commendable by pointing out what some of the worst of her stances were:
In real life, Schlafly was against the Republican Party’s civil rights platform before the ERA, and even right before her 2016 death she was railing against “illegal aliens” on her radio show. The show dramatizes the difference between strategic versus “real” racists, and chooses to portray Schlafly as an incidental one. But ultimately all we can know are the results of the real-world policies she supported. (Not to mention the racially coded language of states’ rights that she was intent on mobilizing.)
Yet most of this eye-popping material is omitted or downplayed in Mrs. America, apparently in a bid to make Schlafly more likable for contemporary audiences. Even Cate Blanchett’s professed approach to the role refuses any harsh judgments:
I don’t believe in demonizing anybody. My agreement or disagreement, my personal political persuasions — I couldn’t be less interested in folding into a character. . . . We’re all full of contradictions and hypocrisies. No one is perfect, including Phyllis — although her hair was mostly always perfect.
The consequences of this middle-of-the-road tendency to gloss over uncomfortable facts and make everything pudding smooth are that 1) it’s peddling misinformation and 2) it’s boring, representing people as far less spiky and weird and startling than they actually are. A good example of the show’s weak gestures toward galling truth is the way it portrays Gloria Steinem betraying Shirley Chisholm by secretly cutting a deal to throw her support behind the more mainstream Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. After leaving McGovern’s hotel suite, she gets into a packed elevator, and we get an overhead shot of Gloria — poor, poor Gloria! — mercilessly squeezed in among politicos in a symbolic image of the pressure put upon her by others.
It would make a big difference in how people regarded Steinem and her continuing legacy as a pillar of the feminist movement if we got another scene showing us how easily Steinem slid into actions that would’ve done her reputation no good if they were widely known back in the 1970s. In 2015, it was revealed that she once worked for a company called the Independent Research Service that was a front for the Central Intelligence Agency, and then defended the agency in ludicrous terms: “In my experience the agency was completely different from its image; it was liberal, nonviolent, and honorable.”
But you’re not going to get that kind of “here’s the emotional truth” flashback in Mrs. America. It doesn’t fit with the show’s soggy agenda that shows us every woman defined by her sorrow and no woman defined by her perfectly human rage or ambition or cynical, more-than-willing collusion with the powers that be.