Mrs America review: Cate Blanchett shines in 70s feminism drama

The starry mini-series digs into the feminist wars of the 1970s, and finds a formidable antihero in the Oscar-winner’s take on Phyllis Schlafly

There are parts of Mrs America, a nine-episode mini-series for FX on Hulu, in which it flexes its full-budget cable bona fides: good bouffant wigs, expensive 70s-styled sets, a megawatt cast. It has not one, but two character-cementing power walks for its star, Cate Blanchett, as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist conservative activist justifiably loathed by many Americans. In the first, she silently saunters down a pageant runway in a patriotic swimsuit, game to put looks ahead of intellect. In the second, halfway through the first episode, she marches into the Capitol soundtracked by Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, a pink tweed dress walking against feminist protesters outside and blue-suited men within. It’s a bold proposal, to ride through the 1970s’ women’s movement and counter-revolution with an icon of the religious right, and in Blanchett’s hands, it’s electric.

It’s also a splashy contrast to the show’s strength: thorny conversations and the personal moments which form movements, for better or for worse. Though it can at times wade into wonky thickets (primary delegates, how do those work?), Mrs America is a punchy disco-ball of a show, a full portrait of Schlafly’s root in the women’s campaign against women and such second-wave feminist icons as Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman).

It’s a tricky move to base a show around the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, a piece of legislation first introduced in 1923 to enshrine protection from discrimination by sex in the constitution. Trickier still to make the linchpin Schlafly, the anti-feminist, anti-gay “family values” crusader whose coalition of conservatives tanked the ERA, once a bipartisan surefire, in the course of a decade. But Mrs America, created by Mad Men writer Dahvi Waller, mines the past for conflicts and contradictions with contemporary relevance, splicing warm-hued archival footage with deeply researched scripts with a roving structure. Each episode focuses on one woman (as go the titles – Gloria, Shirley, Betty etc) as she navigates the public fight for equal rights amid the personal struggles for opportunity, unity and political coherence in one’s private life.

There’s a common and familiar theme of principles versus practicality in these stories. Byrne, in particular, is excellent as Steinem, the media darling of independent womanhood grappling with her role as a leader who instinctively attracts publicity. Aduba’s Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president in 1972, is a deep well of unfathomable confidence and frustration at the compromises made for progress. Margo Martindale takes no prisoners as Representative Bella Abzug, an organizer of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and Elizabeth Banks pinch-hits as Jill Ruckelshaus, a Republican feminist alarmed by the rise of Schlafly’s far-right strain in her party. Feminist-focusing moments speak to contemporary struggles at coalition building, such as how a space like Steinem’s Ms Magazine is less amenable to black feminists like editor Margaret Sloan (Bria Henderson) than its utopian vision admits.

And punch for punch there’s Schlafly, the focus of the first episode and, for lack of a better term, humanized anti-hero of the show’s feminist vision. Mrs America takes pains to color in the black-and-white dichotomy – Schlafly and her Eagle Forum bad, feminists good – with which most viewers will probably enter. In Washington, Schlafly is cut off from her missile strategy spiel by a congressman who wants her to take notes; the men continue without her as she fetches a pen. She comes home to her husband Fred (John Slattery) weary; he wants to have sex, she doesn’t. Guess who wins out.

Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem.
Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem. Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/AP

With Blanchett, masterful as ever and an executive producer on the show, you can’t help but step into Schlafly’s shoes, and there will be those who argue, fairly, that Mrs America gives too much latitude to Schlafly’s gender crusade over her racist, homophobic fight to preserve her upper-class white status. Elements of this work into series subplots: Schlafly’s anti-gay agenda traps her beloved eldest son in the closet, and her home is run by black women on staff and her spinster sister. But I’d argue that like The Americans, another prestige FX project set in late cold-war America, Mrs America burrows into the loyalties, betrayals and motivations of “them” without condoning the implications of their actions; Schlafly’s abetting of the Klan in her coalition, though presented here as a tactical move for numbers, says volumes about her politics.

Schlafly ultimately won the battle – the ERA died in 1982 three states short of ratification, and the election of her dream candidate, Ronald Reagan, ends the series. But the war continues. Waller has said she began the project before the 2016 election, before the #MeToo movement, before a widespread state-level crackdown on abortion access, before select states revived the fight to ratify the ERA by rescinding the deadline. Whether or not you see prestige anti-hero treatment as illuminating or obfuscating the connections between Schlafly’s “traditional” values and Make America Great Again is, I suppose, a matter of how you fill the void behind Schlafly’s steely composure in a flawlessly executed series. But there’s no doubt an intoxicating thrill in tracing how, exactly, we got here.

  • Mrs America begins on Hulu on 15 April with a UK date yet to be announced


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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