Mrs Amer­ica

Irish Independent - Weekend Magazine - - Travel -

IWed­nes­day, BBC2, 9pm Fem­i­nist show­down

n the early 1970s, a fem­i­nist move­ment led by Glo­ria Steinem and Betty Friedan was on the verge of push­ing land­mark leg­is­la­tion through congress. The Equal Rights Amend­ment would end dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of sex in Amer­ica, where women were paid less, un­der-rep­re­sented in third level ed­u­ca­tion, in­vis­i­ble in pol­i­tics and ef­fec­tively barred from progress in most pro­fes­sions. The amend­ment seemed like a slam-dunk, but in its way stood a for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent.

Cre­ated by Dahvi Waller, who also worked on Mad Men, Mrs Amer­ica could be seen as a what-hap­pened­next ri­poste to that se­ries, which ended as the en­ti­tled mas­culin­ity of Don Draper and co was be­ing threat­ened by the coun­ter­cul­ture. And though fem­i­nists like Steinem (Rose Byrne), Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Jill Ruck­elshaus (El­iz­a­beth Banks) fea­ture promi­nently, the show’s real star is Phyl­lis Sch­lafly, a for­mi­da­ble naysayer played with im­pe­ri­ous flair by Cate Blanchett.

The clever and tal­ented wife of an Illi­nois lawyer, Phyl

lis was a fem­i­nist in all but name her­self, hav­ing run for congress and writ­ten best­selling po­lit­i­cal polemics be­fore emerg­ing as an out­spo­ken op­po­nent of the equal rights cam­paign. Phyl­lis thought that deal­ing with dif­fi­cult men was all part of a day’s work, and that those who moaned about equal rights were just mak­ing ex­cuses for their own lazi­ness. She op­posed abor­tion, fem­i­nism, and was also an un­com­pro­mis­ing Cold War warrior.

Op­po­nents like Steinem pointed out the ironies of this lib­er­ated, dy­namic woman pos­ing as a sub­ur­ban house­wife, but were wrong to un­der­es­ti­mate Sch­lafly, who suc­ceeded in mo­bil­is­ing what would later be called ‘the moral ma­jor­ity’ to op­pose the calls for progress and stymie at­tempts to pass the amend­ment. This decade-long bat­tle for the soul of Amer­i­can wom­an­hood is vividly drama­tised in Mrs Amer­ica, which im­plies that in a way both sides won. Fem­i­nists did suc­ceed in rad­i­cally chang­ing Amer­ica, but Phyl­lis Sch­lafly’s cam­paign helped kick-start the neo-con­ser­va­tive move­ment that would give us Rea­gan, Gin­grich and Trump.

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