‘Mrs. America’ Reminds Us that More Women in Politics Won’t Necessarily Mean More Liberal PoliciesRoundup
tags: conservatism, feminism, womens history, television, Phyllis Schlafly
Leandra Zarnow is assistant professor of U.S. history at University of Houston, author of Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug, and co-editor of the forthcoming Suffrage at 100: Women in Politics since 1920.
Conservative crusader Phyllis Schlafly is the figure driving “Mrs. America.” Creator Dahvi Waller dreamed up the show thinking former secretary of state Hillary Clinton would be well established in the West Wing by the time it aired, and a show about Schlafly would be a study of a vanishing force in U.S. politics.
Clinton’s unexpected loss, however, created a series in which the anti-hero is the conqueror.
Foregrounding Schlafly, while a compelling choice, skews focus away from the shared grievances of women across the political spectrum. In the “Bella” episode, Bella Abzug’s best exchange got to the heart of the matter. “Where is your queen?” she asked Schlafly collaborators when she did not show up at the Illinois state meeting leading up to the National Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977. The show could easily have focused on Abzug or the parallel activism of the two women. In many ways it’s a tale of an equally matched Ms. America vs. Mrs. America, both of whom thought women belonged in politics.
In the 1960s and ’70s, American women of all political stripes grappled with their precarious social and economic status as the U.S. economy faltered. Deindustrialization, stagflation and globalization ended decades of postwar economic growth. It was becoming clear the single-breadwinner, nuclear family model was no longer sustainable — even though it had always been more an ideal than reality, as many women had remained in the workforce after World War II.
This shifting, unbalanced economic climate, along with the ongoing Vietnam War, a dividing suburban-urban landscape and the surge of progressive rights movements, compelled both Schlafly — the anti-communist traditionalist — and Abzug — the Popular Front leftist-turned-feminist — to run for Congress in 1970, believing their expertise and perspectives were missing in politics. While they had vastly different visions, both foregrounded how women had, for too long, been — as both Schlafly and Abzug noted — “merely doorbell pushers” in party politics.
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