Mrs America: The War Amongst Women
FX’s drama portrays a political war between American women in the 1960s & 70s, but can it illuminate how women continue to operate within society at large today? Olivia Humphrey evaluates the series’ more subtle indicators towards modern feminist debate.
Whilst watching Cate Blanchett’s command of a drawing room filled with middle-class housewives, each one bewitched by her galvanising rhetoric of internalised patriarchy, I find myself becoming increasingly exasperated. I imagine this reaction was shared by many of those who have been following FX’s historical drama, Mrs America. Sitting alongside my mum as the tirade reached climax, preparing a biting remark, she looks at me and says, “But she’s absolutely right.”
Mrs America dramatizes the narrative of the movement to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in the US, and the unanticipated counterattack from conservative campaigner Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett). An illustrious cast, if nothing else, elevates the production’s profile; recurring members include Rose Byrne (Neighbours), Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black), Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games) and Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story), to name a few. Relaying the accounts of the leading women of the era – Schlafly, alongside renowned second-wave feminists, including Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan – the miniseries investigates how this theatre of war throughout the 1970s and 80s altered the American political sphere forever.
Schlafly’s address in question, from the first episode of the nine-part series, is masterfully portrayed by Blanchett, who relays the contemptuous, yet keenly intelligent mechanisms of her vernacular and body language. The result is incendiary, riddled with personal strikes on Freidan and Steinem of the Women’s Liberation Movement. One statement, however, has continued to reverberate around my house: “What is going to happen if you push women out into the workforce, is that they are going to find themselves with two full-time jobs. And they’re going to be exhausted and unhappy, and feel like they’re not doing either well.” The smug resonance holds more truth than is comfortable to admit.
At a first glance, this crusade perhaps seems worlds away from my own sphere of existence. As a young, white, female student, living in one of the most affluent cities in the UK, I am able to live a privileged lifestyle. I have access to free healthcare, incorporating sexual health, meaning I have autonomy over my reproductive rights. I have access to a community where LGBTQA individuals aren’t merely tolerated, but celebrated. What’s more, I have been actively encouraged to enrol onto an art degree – an arguably fiscally insecure decision – because I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where our finances were deemed stable enough to support our outlandish ambitions. In short: I have been afforded the luxury of idealism. This is where my mother and I differ – life has moulded her into a steadfast realist. Thrust into a career as a general practitioner by her parents, my mother’s life, up to the age of thirty-two, saw her check all the boxes of a respectable existence: career, husband, children, all whilst maintaining a size 8 waistline. However, throughout the majority of my childhood and adolescence, she functioned as a single mother, essentially balancing two full-time posts. Herein lies her sympathy with Schlafly’s rationale that, when given opportunities to do anything, women are expected to be everything.
Herein lies her sympathy with Schlafly’s rationale that, when given opportunities to do anything, women are expected to be everything.
It is simple to posit that this expectancy is intrinsic within women at large; that the tension between fulfilling oneself both professionally and personally is built within us, somehow. It’s a view my mother subscribes to. However, to my mind, this perspective seems reductionist and dangerous, and points towards an issue throughout society at large. Glossy magazine covers and diet teas consistently bombard their audiences with the reminder to maintain a certain figure, lest they dare lose their sex appeal, and TV advertising of home appliances regularly situate women in the kitchen. The illusion that perfection can be attained throughout all areas of life is seductive, yet inevitably unfeasible – it immensely endangers mental health by setting impossible standards and actively encourages women to perpetuate misogynistic ideologies. Schlafly’s continued rhetoric illustrates this perfectly. “… [Steinem] is the sort of miserable and pathetic woman they aspire to be… none of them can find a man who wants to marry them.” Moreover, modern ‘hustle’ culture, leaves little room for those who align themselves on one side of domesticity or professionalism; those who dedicate themselves to homemaking are often not taken seriously, and those who choose not to marry or have children are ‘incomplete.’ This apparent motif of women pitting themselves against each other resurfaces time and again throughout the show.
There is a facet of the argument that still screams to be acknowledged: the strain of perfectionism would be significantly reduced if the dynamics of marriage and parenthood were allotted equally. This is not to say that the world is devoid of loving husbands and dedicated fathers – far from it. Nonetheless, there lingers throughout society a concept that women are duty-bound to be primary caregivers; a notion that is damaging to men also. In Mrs America, the implication that men be expected to raise children was met by Schlafly’s audience with hilarity, to an echo of “Oh, God help us.” Yet, whilst biology does not distribute the reproductive burden equally between the sexes, men are perfectly capable of emotional labour and the responsibilities of parenthood – to say otherwise is to do them a disservice.
Consistently, Mrs America accentuates ways in which the key female players of the era navigated their own conflicts, not always to fruition. Issues concerning POC and LGBTQA characters cast a light on feminism as a movement that has historically prioritised white, middle class women. The political battlefield is represented much as one might expect: bloody, treacherous and duplicitous, and the war amongst women is a tragic narrative. The chronicle didn’t need to happen – women didn’t need to divide themselves, but under inflammatory leadership, did so anyway.
It’s interesting to question whether Schlafly herself was truly invested in the lives of housewives, or whether she simply thought it would be a useful tool in increasing her following, to eventually place herself into office with a far-right president. It is widely believed that, had it not been for her opposition, the ERA would have been ratified victoriously; instead, the series concludes with no clear winners. Realistically, a turn through history books would tell me this was to be expected. But, somewhat satisfyingly to the idealist inside me, Schlafly herself discovers the bitter truth to Jill Ruckelshaus’ ominous words.
The chronicle didn’t need to happen – women didn’t need to divide themselves, but under inflammatory leadership, did so anyway.
“You want to get ahead by climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis? Well you go right ahead. Just know, they’re looking right up your skirt.”
Mrs America is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.