Mrs. America Conjures Up the Messy History of 1970s Feminism—and Anti-Feminism

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tags: feminism, 1970s, popular culture, womens history, television, Phyllis Schlafly

The new FX on Hulu limited series Mrs. America begins in 1971—an era when a woman couldn’t apply for a credit card on her own, marital rape was legal, and abortion was a crime. At the same time, the women’s liberation movement had sent its first warning shots across the bow of mainstream America. Consciousness-raising groups were springing up across the country, propagating the idea that “the personal is political,” while women’s studies courses were starting to appear on college campuses. The media scrambled to cover this cultural earthquake. Feminist writers and activists like Betty Friedan, Flo Kennedy, and Gloria Steinem became familiar faces on popular talk shows and in magazines.

So did Phyllis Schlafly, a nuclear proliferation expert who rose to prominence as the queen of anti-feminism. Played formidably by Cate Blanchett, the educated and dynamic Schlafly was in some ways a model of female empowerment, the equal in accomplishment and drive to many of her adversaries in the women’s liberation movement (not to mention the male conservative politicians with whom she hobnobbed). But Schlafly found an outlet for her own ambition in weaponizing the anxiety of homemakers who resented what they saw as the condescension of college-educated liberal women. The Equal Rights Amendment looked like a shoo-in for ratification by a plurality of states—until Schlafly saw a chance to use it as a conservative wedge issue and rallying point for the right.

Mrs. America creator Dahvi Waller first stumbled across Schlafly in a women’s studies class in college, appropriately enough. Having written for two high-end period dramas (Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire), Waller was looking for an unusual angle on 1970s feminism, and Schlafly became her counterintuitive way in. An antiheroine was born.

“I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by thinking of people who don’t agree with us as one-dimensional monsters,” she said. Waller applied that philosophy to Schlafly as well as the army of housewives (including the fictional character played here by Sarah Paulson) who helped her successfully mount opposition to the ERA. But Mrs. America doesn’t dwell just on Schlafly. An ensemble series, it gathers an array of compelling women who’ve never quite gotten their due in history books, let alone had a prestige TV series devoted to them.

Read entire article at Vanity Fair

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