A tough watch for this for­mer Ms. staffer

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MARY Mc­NA­MARA

“Mrs. Amer­ica” is quite pos­si­bly the bravest show in the his­tory of tele­vi­sion.

Not be­cause it dares to hu­man­ize icons from both side of the po­lit­i­cal aisle, al­though that is cer­tainly re­fresh­ing in these days of self-de­struc­tive par­ti­san­ship.

Nor am I talk­ing about FX’s de­ci­sion to stick to the se­ries’ April 15 de­but, de­spite the coun­try be­ing weeks into the COVID-19 lock­down.

No, the real courage of “Mrs. Amer­ica” is baked into its pitch: To chron­i­cle in nine episodes (the last of which runs Wed­nes­day night) Phyl­lis Sch­lafly’s suc­cess­ful cam­paign to pre­vent rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Equal Rights Amend­ment, hook the legs out from un­der the women’s move­ment and aid the rise of re­li­gious-driven con­ser­vatism in our po­lit­i­cal arena.

In other words, let’s all watch a nine-hour tele­vi­sion show in which the he­roes lose.

Now, win­ning isn’t ev­ery­thing, es­pe­cially in scripted drama. Cate Blanchett as

Sch­lafly and Rose Byrne as Glo­ria Steinem are just as amaz­ing as you thought they would be. Add Uzo Aduba, Margo Martin­dale, El­iz­a­beth Banks and Tracey Ull­man as Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Jill Ruck­elshaus and Betty Friedan, re­spec­tively, and you have one of the best-cast lim­ited se­ries in the his­tory of lim­ited se­ries.

Of course, for those Amer­i­cans who sub­scribe to re­li­gious-driven con­ser­vatism, Sch­lafly’s story is a tale of tri­umph, though they are prob­a­bly not FX’s main de­mo­graphic.

The rest of us are faced with a smartly writ­ten, pow­er­fully per­formed his­tor­i­cal drama that will break our hearts, and not in the good, cathar­tic way.

Sau­ron re­cov­ers the ring, Volde­mort takes over Hog­warts, Jackie Robin­son gets his butt kicked and base­ball is never in­te­grated, Win­ston Churchill de­cides that ne­go­ti­at­ing with Hitler is not the worst idea any­one has ever had.

OK, OK, maybe not quite that bad, but you get my drift.

In the last quarter-cen­tury, tele­vi­sion has asked us to do many dif­fi­cult things — root for gang­sters and se­rial killers, read sub­ti­tles and stick with sto­ry­lines that make no sense, be­cause ap­par­ently, mak­ing sense is not the point. On cer­tain oc­ca­sions, it has even de­manded that we be­lieve a man could sur­vive fall­ing into a crowd of zom­bies or that it makes sense for the dwee­bi­est Stark to win the game of thrones.

But usu­ally, some sense of jus­tice pre­vails; even in “Ch­er­nobyl,” the main he­roes die, one by sui­cide, but they do so know­ing that at least their work has not been in vain, that the main dam­age of the nu­clear ex­plo­sion has been con­tained.

Not so “Mrs. Amer­ica.” When she be­gan work­ing on the se­ries, cre­ator Dahvi Waller may have imag­ined “Mrs. Amer­ica” de­but­ing dur­ing a Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­i­dency. But that didn’t hap­pen, and the facts are ir­refutable: De­spite be­ing sup­ported by most Amer­i­cans — pas­sage with over­whelm­ing bi­par­ti­san sup­port by the House and Se­nate — the Equal Rights Amend­ment was not rat­i­fied.

We have never had a fe­male pres­i­dent or vice pres­i­dent. There is no na­tional day­care pro­gram. Women still are not paid equally in any work­place. Abor­tion rates have de­clined, but the power of its po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sive­ness has not. And for many years, the on­go­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Steinem notwith­stand­ing, even lib­eral women have shied away from the word “fem­i­nist,” ex­cept per­haps to use it in the now fa­mous phrase: “I’m not a fem­i­nist, but [fill in com­pletely fem­i­nist ob­ser­va­tion or be­lief here].”

Be­cause fem­i­nists are (take your pick) too rad­i­cal, too hu­mor­less or, in the words of a for­mer friend to whom I still am not speak­ing, “their own worst en­emy.”

If noth­ing else, “Mrs. Amer­ica” — along with the re­cent rev­e­la­tion in the FX doc­u­men­tary “AKA Jane Roe” that Roe vs. Wade plain­tiff Norma McCor­vey was paid by anti-abor­tion groups to re­verse her abor­tion-rights po­si­tion — proves that fem­i­nists have many en­e­mies far worse than them­selves.

Grow­ing pains

Al­though I came of age in the post-fem­i­nist world, I was never a post-fem­i­nist. If there were a fem­i­nist card, I would carry it. I be­came a fem­i­nist in col­lege, was the first per­son to grad­u­ate from that col­lege with de­grees in jour­nal­ism and women’s stud­ies, af­ter which I joined the staff of Ms. magazine as … well, I had no ti­tle be­cause even then the staff of Ms. es­chewed of­fi­cial ti­tles.

I was hired to read the “slush pile,” all the un­so­licited manuscript­s that women sent in, and the let­ters; I did fact-check­ing, edited the front-of-the-book sec­tion and, oc­ca­sion­ally, fea­tures. My first pro­fes­sion­ally pub­lished work ap­peared in Ms., and I still have a stick­pin with the magazine’s logo — re­mem­ber stick­pins and how pop­u­lar they were in the ’80s?

Watch­ing “Mrs. Amer­ica” was, for me, a very emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence (here I pause to thank Waller for giv­ing a brief shout-out in one Ms.-cen­tric scene to the won­der­ful Mary Thom, who was my edi­tor and who died in 2013). The ERA had missed its fi­nal rat­i­fi­ca­tion dead­line three years be­fore I en­tered the of­fices of Ms., but many of the play­ers from “Mrs. Amer­ica” were still very much around.

It would take pages and pages to de­scribe what it was like for a young and un­so­phis­ti­cated fem­i­nist jour­nal­ist to land her first job at Ms. — there’s Steinem, laugh­ing with you about whether a McVi­tie’s di­ges­tive bis­cuit counts as a whole cookie, or Abzug, inches away and mov­ing through a crowd like a steam­roller in a ter­rific hat; here are type­writ­ten pieces by Flo Kennedy and Robin Mor­gan — so I won’t even try. The of­fices were hor­ri­fy­ing and right on Times Square when it was still full of pick­pock­ets and porn the­aters; the pay was barely enough for room and board; the copy ed­i­tors all smoked, in­doors, and I still can’t be­lieve my good for­tune.

In many ways, how­ever, it mir­rored the per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal com­plex­i­ties de­picted in “Mrs. Amer­ica.” The women who ran Ms., the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women (NOW) and the Na­tional Women’s Po­lit­i­cal Cau­cus were bril­liant, tireless, amaz­ing and ab­so­lutely not per­fect. They dis­agreed on top­ics large and small, and there were vis­i­ble di­vides among groups and in­di­vid­u­als around race and class, age and sex­ual iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, philoso­phies and po­lit­i­cal strate­gies and, of course, per­son­al­i­ties.

“Oh, my God, we have been thank­ing Betty for years,” I re­mem­ber one edi­tor snap­ping af­ter Friedan had said some­thing about the move­ment’s in­grat­i­tude in the press. “She needs to move on.”

“That’s just Betty be­ing Betty,” Steinem said, shrug­ging grace­fully.

Steinem was the queen of the grace­ful shrug and one of the most phys­i­cally grace­ful women I have ever met. She is also one of the fun­ni­est, smartest and nicest. When I would run into her over the years, she would al­ways pre­tend to re­mem­ber me, a feat that would re­quire mem­ory skills be­yond even hers, and when I took my daugh­ter to hear her speak a few years ago, the spell was cast over a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. Well into her 80s, Steinem re­mains a cul­tural uni­corn — the mer­est glimpse of her seems magic — and just as quick, funny and well in­formed as ever (please stay safe, Glo­ria!).

Her po­si­tion as fem­i­nism’s pinup an­noyed many, as “Mrs. Amer­ica” il­lus­trates, but it served a far greater pur­pose than prov­ing fem­i­nists could look and sound like Steinem. The mostly white, mostly straight, mostly well ed­u­cated and up­per mid­dle class stars of the 1970s move­ment were, by the mid-’80s, in­creas­ingly un­der at­tack from many younger, queer, black and/or work­ing-class fem­i­nists who felt the move­ment should worry less about pro­fes­sional women get­ting their due and more about life-and-death or bread-and-but­ter is­sues.

Also that call­ing your­self a fem­i­nist did not mean you were not racist, clas­si­cist or ho­mo­pho­bic.

Some of that was fair, some of it was not, but Steinem al­ways man­aged to ex­ist out­side the fray, ad­mired with enough uni­ver­sal­ity — some­times ador­ingly, some­times grudg­ingly — that she could, and did, of­ten act as a bridge among war­ring fac­tions.

Or at least that’s how I re­mem­ber it. I was young and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the work­place for the first time with that heady mix of ar­ro­gance and self-doubt that makes ev­ery­thing seem way more dra­matic than it is. I was also learn­ing how to be a jour­nal­ist.

Sis­ter­hood is pow­er­ful, but dead­lines are real, and the lack of ti­tles at Ms., or even the weekly ideas meet­ings to which all were in­vited, did not mean that there was no hi­er­ar­chy or no reper­cus­sions should you at­tempt to chal­lenge it. The ed­i­tors at Ms. were among the most sup­port­ive bosses I would ever have, but they did not pull their punches if you screwed up. Which I did on more than one oc­ca­sion; fem­i­nists cry in the bath­room too, in case you were won­der­ing.

Why I ex­pected ev­ery­one to be nice all the time or for har­mony to reign I do not know. Well, ac­tu­ally, I do. Hav­ing been raised in this cul­ture, even fem­i­nists ex­pect women to be mostly nice, es­pe­cially to one an­other, even when they are fight­ing for their lives, are shocked when the women’s move­ment ap­pears less than united, even though it is at­tempt­ing to ad­dress the needs of more than half the hu­man race.

When you think about the in­trin­sic im­pos­si­bil­ity of that task — when men dis­agree, they fight lit­eral wars — it’s a mir­a­cle the women’s move­ment has sur­vived at all.

No al­ter­nate end­ing

In its own de­pic­tion of the women’s move­ment, “Mrs. Amer­ica” pulls few punches. And if it took the kind of lib­er­ties that fic­tion­al­ized ver­sions of his­tory must take, it is even­handed about it. Sch­lafly may be the vil­lain, but she is in many ways re­act­ing to the same sex­ist power struc­ture the fem­i­nists are try­ing to dis­man­tle.

In “Mrs. Amer­ica,” the anti-ERA cam­paign be­gins as Sch­lafly at­tempts to show her po­lit­i­cal value — her real in­ter­est and ex­per­tise lie in for­eign re­la­tions. And she is not the only one who shuts out other voices in her or­ga­ni­za­tion or be­comes ob­sessed with her brand.

The fric­tion of rev­o­lu­tion and re­al­ity causes strife among the fem­i­nists, who aban­don Chisholm at the end of her his­toric pres­i­den­tial cam­paign to pre­serve Demo­cratic “party unity.” And Steinem’s grow­ing star power may not turn her head, but it cer­tainly af­fects the women around her, most no­tably Friedan.

One of the most pow­er­ful scenes is a brief con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Friedan and Abzug (played to throat-clos­ing per­fec­tion by Ull­man and Martin­dale, re­spec­tively — hon­estly, there are not enough Em­mys in the world) about the life cy­cle of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

While Sch­lafly’s cam­paign is most cer­tainly the main rea­son the ERA did not make its rat­i­fi­ca­tion dead­line, some of the choices made by its sup­port­ers — Steinem de­cides early on not to take Sch­lafly se­ri­ously, Abzug and oth­ers put too much faith in the po­lit­i­cal “sys­tem” — cer­tainly do not help. Vir­tu­ally ev­ery char­ac­ter makes ar­ro­gant mis­takes, just as ev­ery char­ac­ter, in­clud­ing Sch­lafly, is given her tac­ti­cal and emo­tional due. At the most ba­sic level, all are fight­ing the same foe — a sex­ist sys­tem that ex­cludes women from power.

Be­cause this is tele­vi­sion, there is a con­stant sub­con­scious de­sire for a big pivot, for Sch­lafly to see the er­ror of her ways or for Steinem or Chisholm to make some sort of de­fin­i­tive dec­la­ra­tion that clar­i­fies ev­ery­thing so jus­tice can pre­vail. As one of Sch­lafly’s friends, Sarah Paul­son ex­pe­ri­ences a mo­ment of semi-con­ver­sion, but while our minds might take her fur­ther — to act­ing, say, as a counter-agent for the fem­i­nists — his­tory and “Mrs. Amer­ica” do not.

The end is what the end is. The ERA dies, the women’s move­ment is shoved in­creas­ingly to the side­lines and Sch­lafly helps usher in neo-con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics. Which will bring us, among other things, the evan­gel­i­cal move­ment, the tea party and the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

It is dif­fi­cult to watch “Mrs. Amer­ica,” es­pe­cially at a time when many of us, in pan­demic iso­la­tion, are al­ready feel­ing pow­er­less, and when the sys­tem­atic ex­clu­sion of women from our high­est of­fices has never been more ob­vi­ous. The cur­rent pleas for Joe Biden to pick a fe­male run­ning mate echo those in “Mrs. Amer­ica,” when Ge­orge McGovern be­came the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, though one hopes with a dif­fer­ent out­come. (McGovern didn’t, and he lost.)

Fail­ure is not a pop­u­lar cli­max in Hol­ly­wood, where ide­al­ist his­toric re­vi­sions — Sharon Tate didn’t die! One se­ries solved all the prej­u­dice in Hol­ly­wood! — have be­come as pop­u­lar as tales from World War II. For­tu­nately, as a drama, “Mrs. Amer­ica,” from a mostly fe­male cre­ative team, is strongly writ­ten and exquisitel­y per­formed. And if it doesn’t of­fer many of us the cathar­sis we have come to ex­pect from such things, it does give us a lot to think about in this elec­tion year.

And if noth­ing else, it is rare to see a se­ries just as coura­geous and ground­break­ing as the peo­ple it por­trays.

Sab­rina Lan­tos FX

“MRS. AMER­ICA” por­trays Phyl­lis Sch­laf ly’s (Cate Blanchett) fight against Equal Rights Amend­ment.

Dave Pick­off As­so­ci­ated Press

MS. co­founders Glo­ria Steinem, left, and Pat Car­bine look through an is­sue at the magazine’s of­fices in 1980.

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