Among the more gratifying films of recent years have been Margin Call, Moneyball and The Big Short, all of which educated one, without recourse either to romance or gunplay, in such unpromising topics as banking and baseball. Even so, it took an effort of will to start watching Mrs. America, about the fight to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the American constitution, particularly as French Canal +, in a departure from custom, chose to run all nine episodes consecutively, without even the occasional ad break to accommodate a cup of tea or bathroom visit.
But the moment Cate Blanchett as right-wing campaigner Phyllis Schlafly raised her meticulously coifed head amid an assembly of blue-suited bureaucrats, I was hooked. No herd of herbivores ever received more calculating attention from a peckish raptor. She kept me absorbed until her last scene, alone in her spotless but deserted family home in – no joke – Normal, Illinois. Denied a cabinet post by Ronald Reagan, she wastes no time on regrets. A concluding title notes that her last book, published posthumously, urged support for Donald Trump.
Heroines abounded on both sides among the women who, during the sixties and seventies, fought over equality. Mrs. America anatomises them and their struggles with a vitality not seen since the provocative first series of The L Word. Questioning why a woman’s life should begin and end with monogamous matrimony were such firebrands as Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan, to each of whom the series devotes an episode. Margo Martindale as the ursine Abzug, a glamorous but loiteringly melancholy Steinem in the person of Rose Byrne, Uzo Udaba’s defiant Chisholm, the first African-American candidate to seek the presidency for a major party, and Tracy Ullman in a fiercely comic performance as Betty Friedan emerge as personalities no less engrossing than the putative central character.
Directors Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Amma Asante, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and Janicza Bravo, with chief writer Dahvi Waller, a veteran of Mad Men, are even-handed in showing the strengths and weaknesses of those on both sides of the fight. Except for John Slattery as Schlafly’s long-suffering lawyer husband Fred, men in key roles are conspicuously absent . Those who appear are mostly preening poseurs (eg, John Palladino’s Gary Hart) or lick-spittles played by actors chosen for the insincerity of their sneer.
The series spends little time arguing the virtues or otherwise of the ERA but concentrates on the politics of persuasion, and the manner in which beliefs, tested in conflict, may become more deeply held but are sometimes amended, even destroyed. In a demonstration of the latter, Sarah Paulson gives a revelatory performance as Alice Macray, a composite of Schlafly’s most loyal lieutenants. In the episode entitled Houston, she undergoes a Pauline conversion during the rough and tumble of the 1977 National Women’s Conference.
She and her friends have barely arrived before they’re ambushed by canny in-fighter Abzug, who rubs their noses in the unpalatable fact that their experience as campaigners and publicists has transformed them into members of a group they claim to detest -working women.
That night, a shaken Alice, drunk and stoned, wanders bemused among the lesbians, anarchists and religious radicals assembled for the conference, startled but often delighted at her first encounters with experiences denied her by a life of kirke, kuche und kinder. Her moment of truth comes in a phone call back home when, having chosen to neglect her domestic duties during the Thanksgiving holiday, she’s asked to dictate her recipe for turkey stuffing. Waller and Paulson turn the scene into a reductio ad absurdum of all the values Alice once revered. With the listing of each ingredient she sees more clearly the irrelevance of that cozy world to the whirlpool in which she’s let herself be captured.
Episode Five, Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc, wittily examines similar changes taking place in the opposing camp. As attorney Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) and her impeccably liberated husband Marc Fasteau grapple with her bisexuality and the desirability of a working life vs. motherhood, Phyllis and Fred quarrel over the way her activism leads her to neglect their family. When the two couples are invited to appear on a TV show as exemplars of the pro- and anti- groups, the confused host belatedly realises that even husbands and wives can’t agree.
In playing Schlafly, Blanchett mostly avoids caricature, the instrument of Gillian Anderson’s downfall as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. Phyllis has none of Thatcher’s certainty. In her decision to take a law degree, we side with her need to realise her potential rather than with Fred’s reminder that their marriage vows pledge her to be “submissive” . We also feel her anguish in discovering her son’s homosexuality, Catholic dogma clashing with a mother’s wish for his happiness (though when she breaks down during confession to wail of her boy being “a pervert”, one wonders if her confessor shares her dismay.)
Schlafly’s most testing moment comes when a quest for new members forces her to consider a coalition with religious fundamentalist and anti-abortion fanatic Lottie Beth Hobbs (a creepily credible Cindy Drummond.) At their awkward first meeting, Hobbs invites Phyllis to quote her favourite passage of the Bible. As she temporises – “There are somany....” – one of her aides volunteers a selection, hinting that the movement is not as remote as she imagines from these self-righteous bigots. Phyllis briefly contemplates the devil’s bargain thus revealed and, closing her eyes, acquiesces.
Some would argue that, since the ERA was never ratified, Schlafly succeeded in her opposition. The series suggests, more persuasively, that the amendment, even if passed, would never have brought the equality for which its supporters hoped. Rather it was a “work in progress” to test the worth of its ideas and the willingness of society to accept them. Blanchett makes Schlafly less a maker of history than its victim. The last shot of the series shows her left behind by events, working alone in her kitchen, mistress of an empty nest, preparing the classic family meal for a society that would just as soon eat MacDonalds.