If, as per Baudelaire, the greatest trick the devil played was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, the irony of Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy is that she undermined women so efficiently that her pernicious influence on American politics hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves. During the 1970s, Schlafly was camera-ready pith in pearls and a pie-frill collar, a troll long before the term existed, who’d begin public speeches by thanking her husband for letting her attend, because she knew how much it riled her feminist detractors. Armed only with a newsletter and a seeming immunity to shame, Schlafly took a popular bipartisan piece of legislation—the Equal Rights Amendment, which affirms men and women as equal citizens under the law—and whipped it up into a culture war as deftly as if she were making dessert.
For all her efforts, she actually won very little—she was too toxic for a plum Cabinet post, and too early for a prime-time cable-news show. After her heyday, only glimmers of Schlafly lingered in mainstream culture. The character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, who once worked full-time lecturing women on the sanctity of staying home, was partly inspired by her. By the time a hagiographic biography of Schlafly was published in 2005, reviewers deduced that although her impact on the ugliness of American politics had been profound, her manipulation of grassroots resentment (not to mention her isolationism and hostility toward immigrants) had rendered her fogyish and obsolete in the George W. Bush era.
The other great irony of Schlafly is that she died in September 2016, two months before Donald Trump, a leader anointed in her image, beat the first female candidate for president of the United States. Like it or loathe it, the new Hulu series Mrs. America makes clear, we are living in a moment that Schlafly begot. From dirty tricks to media manipulation, brazen lies about crowd sizes to the weaponization of privilege, her ghost is everywhere, and it may never be banished.
Mrs. America is maybe the first great television series of 2020, a project that manages to capture the complicated essence of real characters while telling a story at both micro and macro levels. Perhaps predictably, the show divided people before it debuted: One of Schlafly’s daughters disavowed its portrayal of her mother, while some critics argued that it was too flattering a portrait. On its face, the nine-part show from Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) is about the years-long fight over the passage of the ERA, a window into second-wave feminism that sweeps activists such as Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) into Schlafly’s orbit. Most characters are based on real women, although some are composites or fictional creations. But it’s Schlafly, played as an elegant coil of wound ambition by Cate Blanchett, who turns Mrs. America from a starry historical miniseries into a stunning explainer on the poisoning of national politics. “The person that everybody’s paying attention to always wins,” Schlafly explains in one scene, as neat a distillation of the Trump era as might be imaginable.