If you try to learn what it’s like to be a feminist from many of the popular narratives you get right now, the books about “gutsy women” or “awesome women”, the films about black female scientists or white suffragettes, you might consider it a pretty straightforward life. A life characterised by a sense of destiny, which moves pretty swiftly along the clear road to progress. I’m sure – I hope, anyway – that many activists do recognise that rhythm to their lives.
I, not so much. Particularly over the past few years, being politically active has often felt more like being lost in a dark field without a torch. Are we going forwards or backwards? Who the hell put that boulder in our path? Why is everyone fighting over the map? Does anyone even have the map?
And that’s why I’ve fallen in love with the new television series Mrs America. It’s not just the charismatic actresses and witty script, it’s the way that it dramatises failure. I guess that doesn’t make it sound all that watchable, but, as its legions of fans can testify, it is.
The writer Dahvi Waller bounces off real events to inject true drama into, for instance, the furious failure when Gloria Steinem couldn’t push through an important vote on abortion at the 1972 Democrat convention, or the heroic failure when Shirley Chisholm’s bid for the presidency was undermined by white feminists who wanted to stay in with the more powerful white men. Above all, it underscores the bitter failure that stalks the idealistic women who couldn’t see the backlash that was growing, a backlash carefully seeded and tended by the conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly.
Why do I need this so badly right now? Because I’m tired of narratives that gloss over these sharp challenges. I need to see this recognised, that political activism is so often about failure. About being let down by those you thought were allies, or recognising that you yourself have been a bad ally or have underestimated your enemies.
By structuring the whole series around the failure of second-wave feminists to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, the writers have introduced a drumbeat of doom. Failure, failure, failure is dogging the brave, clever feminists of Mrs America. Just as failure, failure, failure may be dogging our footsteps today.
Indeed, this series was clearly developed with an eye on now – on fleshing out how rightwing populists have sneaked in and stolen success from under the noses of progressives. So I appreciate, almost against my own instincts, how this series gives the viewer a much deeper understanding of what motivates Schlafly and her followers. Their desire for respect and their fear of change come over in an almost visceral way.
Whether or not the writers sympathise with them, they have not fallen into the trap of patronising them and that feels important in a world in which leftwing activists too often dismiss our enemies as simply deplorable. We have to sit with our failures and learn from them, from time to time.
It isn’t only about failure, though. The series also talks to us, very effectively, about where our hope for success lies – in solidarity.
Too often, in these individualistic times, we put too much emphasis on the power of the charismatic leader. We fall in with the idea that the greatest feminist is the one with the most followers, the loudest voice, the biggest brand. Along the way, feminism has been too often seen as a route into individual empowerment rather than wider political change.
But this series also reminds us that in political movements every individual is part of a complex network. Each big-name feminist – Steinem, Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan – is seen here, vitally, in her relationships with others, both other famous women and the less well-known women she is working alongside in the conferences, magazines and working groups. We see how each of the heroines is only a part of a bigger picture, how they draw energy from one another, how they can only grow as an ecosystem, not alone.
That is not to say that it makes solidarity look easy. On the contrary, the series is honest about those irresolvable issues that divide these feminists, particularly white women’s inability to recognise black women’s leadership and straight women’s blindness about lesbianism. And even among the white, straight women, the divides go deep as they stumble over whether to work pragmatically with politicians or more radically against them, whether to prioritise reform or revolution.
Cancel culture is not new in the sisterhood; there were times in the suffragette era and the 1970s, as well as now, when feminist women could not bear to work together even for something as apparently straightforward as the vote or the Equal Rights Amendment because of their differences.
Movements were ever thus: riven, bitterly divided, full of fierce hate as well as love. But when the feminists get up to sing together across the divides in the huge Houston conference in the penultimate episode of Mrs America, their solidarity rings out. Can we still hear it ringing today, even when our differences are so painful that we cannot meet at the same conferences? I hope we can, that we can keep finding bridges and moments of connection. Only solidarity will enable us to keep going through dark times.
Our power lies not only in the individual cry for freedom but also in amplifying one another’s voices. Women of the second wave did push forward political and cultural arguments, actions, laws and visions that continue to this day. They failed often, but they succeeded sometimes, and if we are honest about the former we can be more honest, and maybe more hopeful, about the latter.
• Natasha Walter is director of Women for Refugee Women and author of Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism