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.