To quote the Emmy award-winning writer-creator of the series Mrs America
, Darvhi Waller, this is 'an origin story of today's culture wars'. Waller, whose credits also include Mad Men
, was drawn to the dramatic possibilities in the historical tale of the struggle in America to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). While there have been some criticisms of playing a bit fast and loose with the sequence of events and underlying influences, this recent nine-part series starring Cate Blanchett – also a producer – as the anti-heroine, reveals a country divided and angry, much as it is today.
Make no mistake, this is gripping drama, but some historical background is helpful. The ERA was first introduced in 1923, and, as with all amendments to the Constitution, it needed to pass through Congress and the Senate, and then to be sent to each state for ratification, three-quarters of whom would be needed to approve the amendment in order to see it pass. The ERA would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex and would end legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment and other areas.
After a long hiatus, during which it had been opposed by labour unions, the Amendment was reintroduced in 1971 and sent out to state legislatures, where it was expected to pass into law. In the meantime, although there had been the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act, both passed in the 1960s, women across the board were discriminated against in terms of pay and possibilities for promotion. Why does this sound so familiar? Could it be because right now, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, statistics reveal that women are the most disadvantaged by this situation in terms of loss of jobs and reduction of income? But, let's stick to the story.
When Mrs America
opens, it is 1971 and the ERA is closing in on ratification. It has had very vocal and well-organised supporters: Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique
in 1963 and founded NOW (National Organisation of Women); Gloria Steinem was editing Ms
magazine; Ruth Bader Ginsberg had co-founded the Women's Rights Law Reporter
; the National Women's Political Caucus, a multi-partisan group, was set up to support women in politics and in employment. It was pro-choice and for equal pay.
And yet, and yet, just as the time limit for ratification is running out, there is a backlash by women who were drawn to the opposing organisation of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, played in a tour de force performance by Blanchett. Intelligent, a graduate, Catholic, married mother of five children, Schlafly represses resentment of her own role as a housewife, in competition with – yet submitting herself to – her lawyer husband, played by John Slattery, reprising to some extent his role in Mad Men
(ie, smooth and conniving).
The writers of the series are very upfront about 'fictionalising for creative purposes'. Their decision to make Phyllis Schlafly's group such a moving force in preventing ratification has, however, drawn fire from, among others, Gloria Steinem, whose July 2020 article in the Los Angeles Times
points to the role of the insurance industry, which 'stood to lose billions if passed' (as women were covered less than men), and also to the power of corporate lobbying on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers. In Steinem's opinion, Mrs America
presents a story of women battling each other, leaving the viewer with 'false history'.
On the other hand, it is a tense and chilling presentation, in which one can see how the social clashes in today's divided America could have developed from Schlafly's efforts: groups that are pro-life, anti-abortion, pro-family and 'America first'. Obvious, but not specifically acknowledged, is the social and financial position of Schlafly: white, moneyed, middle class, not a million miles away from today's right-wing politicians.
Each episode bears the date and the name of a character in the spotlight, and their story takes the narrative forward. Some archival footage is used, giving a visual historical texture to the story. Episode three, for example, follows Shirley Chisholm, played with conviction by Uzo Aduba, the first black congresswoman and first black woman to stand for the presidency for a major party, as she turns the focus onto sexual harassment among congressmen and their women employees. In response to pressure, Schlafly adds anti-gay issues to her agenda, knowing this will play well with some of her followers who are religious fundamentalists. Shockingly, a racist element is uncovered, as Schlafly turns a blind eye to the involvement of the Ku Klux Clan. It is without a doubt that the pioneering role of Chisholm as a Democrat has led to today's Vice-Presidential nomination for Kamala Harris. Chisholm is quoted as saying, 'If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair'.
As the tension mounts – will enough states vote in favour or will the ERA miss its deadline – episode seven tracks the lawyer and member of the House of Representatives, Bella Abzug, as she battles with her own colleagues, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) for one, to pull together the plans for a large rally in Houston and deal with the Stop-ERA supporters. Abzug in real life was a tremendous force for good, for women's rights, for transparency in government, for representing those she defended as a lawyer who were 'on the outside of power', including those targeted by McCarthy as 'un-American'. Margo Martindale, ever the quintessential character actress, wears Bella's hats with aplomb and inhabits her forceful, outspoken and ultimately admirable character as a politician who is able to see when she is wrong and make the right decision. To Bella Abzug, much is owed.
To outsiders – and even to Americans themselves – the workings of US politics are opaque, not to say obscure. Mrs America
throws the viewer into this, gradually building up a structure that reveals itself as the different points of view overlap at their points of conflict. Always in focus is Phyllis Schlafly, impeccably groomed, poised and articulate – unless found out to be spewing false facts – she is a spider weaving a web around her followers, who admire her, but at the same time are cowed by her. She is unquestioned as a champion who understands their fear that everything they valued in being 'housewife' is about to be discarded. Even one or two of her friends, however, begin to wonder just who are they fighting against, and why it is wrong to be a feminist and want equality.
And where is the ERA now? It is no secret that the amendment did not get ratified within its time limits, and there is ongoing debate about whether the extension to those limits was legitimate. As the story is presented in this series, Mrs America
is flawed, for it leaves the viewer wondering just what it was that drove Phyllis Schlafly, and was Gloria Steinem right to look deeper behind the scenes in this period in America that has so many echoes for our own times? Nevertheless, it makes compulsive, colourful, enjoyable viewing – wonderful on period detail from clothes to cars – and raises questions that merit discussion today.
On 26 August, Gerry Hassan
summed it up: 'Any culture of prejudice, bigotry and discriminatory views – which is what sexism is – exists and gains legitimacy because others give it permission and do not challenge it'. Another challenge to the status quo, set in 1970s America and therefore coincident with the action in Mrs America
, is Good Girls Revolt
. Again a fictionalised historical drama, set in the world of journalism, it is a 2016 Amazon Prime series created and produced for television by Dana Calvo, a former national and international journalist herself. It is based on the book by Lynn Povich, published in 2013, The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of
Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace
In contrast to Mrs America
, this does not depend on a cast of starry older actors, but instead is super-charged with wonderful young actors playing the roles of 'researchers' (the girls) at News of the Week
(a not very much disguised Newsweek
), following their love lives, marriages and their anxieties as they deal with the pressures put upon them by ambitious parents and bewildered men. Smart, sharp and fresh out of excellent colleges, full of desire to make their mark by writing stories of significance, they find themselves hampered at every turn by their male counterparts – the 'writers' (the men) – who are sympathetically played for the most part, good at their jobs, but who, too, are part of a sexist culture that prevails.
News of the Week
is looking a bit jaded in 1969 and its editor wants new stories, to compete with Rolling Stone
, to attract younger readers. Patti researches for Doug, and discovers the story of how the deaths at the Stones' free concert at Altamont in 1969 were precipitated by the Hell's Angels; she also delves into how the FBI targeted the Black Panther movement. When credit for her research goes to Doug, it creates a difficult situation: she is sleeping with him. Cindy is married to a man who doesn't know how to make a sandwich, but she is attracted to Ned who does layouts for the magazine, which leads to Cindy and Ned getting it on just about anywhere they can: 'I've had sex twice this morning already'. Jane's parents have plans for her to have a white wedding, but Jane, drunk and devastated, stood up by the boyfriend she was planning to give her virginity to, is not ready to give up on the evening yet, and asks an attractive male neighbour to 'help me out with something'. That's just some of the sub-plots.
In real life, 46 of these young women at Newsweek
in 1970 – including the author – filed the first female class action suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, against their employer for systematic gender discrimination, in hiring and promotion, and finally settled. Five years later Lynn Povich became the first female senior editor of Newsweek
. While the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, it was often unenforced; with the creation in 1965 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, it became possible to take action against an employer. In this case, a black lawyer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, took up the girls' revolt, helping them to recruit the numbers needed at Newsweek
to be effective, overcoming their understandable fears about risking their careers. As the redoubtable Gloria Steinem wrote in her review: 'Lynn Povich turns this epic revolt into a lesson on why and how we've just begun'.
Not only does Good Girls Revolt
tell a lively story, it gives the viewer a terrific soundtrack of the time, plus the hairstyles, the clothes (short skirts are acceptable, absolutely, but not trousers), the parties, drugs and mornings after. Some of the young women found empowerment in their involvement, some were scared off, but there is no mistaking their bravery in fulfilling what Norah Ephron (who was a journalist at the time) refers to when she writes: 'Above all, be the heroine of your life not the victim'.