Since FX’s limited series Mrs. America was released on April 15, 2020, I’ve been watching and observing with a keen and careful eye. Needless to say, I am not a traditional viewer. I love Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, and Annie Parisse, and so I first viewed the show through a fangirl lens. Then, I placed her aside and examined Mrs. America as a feminist and one with a bachelor’s in Women’s and Gender Studies.
I did enjoy the travel back to 1970s feminist history, second-wave feminism, and the amazing, diverse women who contributed to the movement. I learned about these concepts and individuals as a wide-eyed, passionate, and outspoken WGS major with a thirst for knowledge; this series was certainly a welcomed revisit. I likewise anxiously awaited the opinions of prominent figures as the series progressed week to week. The star-studded cast of Mrs. America quickly articulated their views on the historical women of the era, and what they contributed, or didn’t contribute to the Equal Rights Amendment. However, I, as well as a few others, curiously anticipated a response from “the world’s most famous feminist,” Gloria Steinem.
Gloria Steinem voiced her thoughts on Mrs. America during an interview in lieu of an appearance at the 2020 Hay Festival (unfortunately, the festival was canceled due to COVID-19). Steinem revealed that she is not keen on Mrs. America, nor is she a fan of the once long-anticipated glamorized, historical fiction. Steinem labeled the television series as “ridiculous,” and undermining, and rightfully so. She expanded on her labeling following the remarks.
Gloria Steinem explained that Mrs. America is ridiculous and undermining because of its false portrayal of conservative right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly. Mrs. America implies that Schlafly truly had a hand in the devastating defeat of the ERA. However, Schlafly’s presence, her followers, and her dishonest methods did not contribute to the fall of a necessary and helpful amendment. Steinem explained this in detail:
“[Mrs. America] gives you the impression that … Schlafly, who was a very religious and rightwing woman who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment … it gives you the impression that she was the reason it was defeated. In actuality, I don’t believe she changed one vote. Nobody could ever discover that she changed even one vote. The insurance industry here opposed the equal rights amendment, because if they stopped segregating their actuarial tables it would cost them millions upon millions of dollars.”
This is the truth behind the defeat of the ERA. It was never Schlafly, her devoted followers, and the immoral methods the group utilized in an attempt to influence a nation’s thoughts on the Equal Rights Amendment. The defeat was never due to Schlafly’s ability to spew inaccurate and fabricated tales of the ERA and have others believe it as fact. Instead, according to Steinem, Phyllis Schlafly was an individual “brought in at the last minute” to make it seem that women opposed equal rights when the truth was “the vast majority” always supported it. So, Schlafly was more of a character implemented for trickery.
Mrs. America in its portrayal and focus of Phyllis Schlafly got 1970s feminist history incorrect. It inaccurately reported on Schlafly and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Another reason why Gloria Steinem believes Mrs. America is ridiculous and undermining is “the series makes it seem as if women are our own worst enemies, which keeps us from recognizing who our worst enemies are. Not that we aren’t in conflict, yes, we are in conflict, but by and large, we don’t have the power to be our own worst enemies,” Steinem said. During second-wave feminism, intersectionality and inclusion did not exist. This missing and needed portion of feminism certainly caused many conflicts within the movement. Additionally, women still face conflict with one another today. Refusing to acknowledge the errors of second-wave feminism, as well as errors encountered today, is unjust. However, women are not our own worst enemies. Instead, our enemies exist in systematic oppression, racism, inequality, patriarchy, and much more.
Mrs. America, in slight undertones, pits women against women.
I have to say, although I enjoyed the limited series, I agree with Gloria Steinem’s labeling. While the 1970s feminist movement wasn’t perfect, intersectional, or completely inclusive, many strong women had pivotal roles in this portion of history: Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Audrey Rowe Colom, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, Brenda Feigen-Fasteau, Margaret “Midge” Costanza, Jean O’ Leary, Carmen Delgado, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. They each worked tirelessly and relentlessly for the ratification of the ERA for many, many years. It was not stopped by another woman. Let’s remember that.