First of all, j’accuse TV watchers! Why haven’t more people been talking about Mrs. America? (Non-spoiler review here). The FX series, airing on Hulu (confusing, I know) just ended its nine episode run, exploring the rise of the Moral Majority through the context of the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Despite its hard and frustrating truths, Mrs. America was never a downer series. It never felt like TV vegetables, nor did it feel like an overly-glossy or imbalanced portrayal of the women at its core. Perhaps that was aggravating to some—that the likes of Phyllis Schlafly were not made into caricatures. But in Dahvi Waller’s series, nuance is the thing. Phyllis played the game in the support of men, and she ultimately got played by them. They would never support her back, something she found out far too late.
One of the show’s best moments was in the episode “Houston,” where Bella Abzug confronts a small group of Eagle Forum faithful after they declare that they don’t want to be “working girls.” She asks them if Phyllis taught them how to write press releases and balance budgets and other tasks that kept their group afloat. Defiantly they answered yes, “of course.” “Then I’m sorry, but you’re working girls,” she says. Because ultimately, after taking away the cloud of fervor over feeling “attacked” by a demonized “other,” Phyllis and her ilk actually wanted the same thing the pro-ERA women wanted: freedom to do whatever they wanted, without labels or judgement.
Mrs. America was never one-sided in any issue, though. There were problems within the liberal camp as well. The issues over which they were divided were certainly different than the Eagle Forum, but egos clashing with political cachet were still constant. The pro-ERA fought valiantly, but as of 2020 that fight continues. With the election of Reagan, which happens in this show’s finale, Bella, Gloria, and their group lost their voice in D.C. And the seeds that were planted by the likes of Phyllis and the Eagle Forum—aligning God with conservative values, focusing on emotional issues like gay rights and abortion, creating “alternative facts” to bolster their cause—only grew. As the final interstitials tell us, the ERA battle was one of the key issues that caused our current deep divide between Democrats and Republicans, and the tactics employed then are still at use today.
But as Mrs. America showed, time and time again, the divide among everyday people is rarely so intensely drawn. Alice began to question some of the Eagle Forum’s more radical stances (especially as it bled over into racist ideology) as she found humanity in the work being done by pro-ERA women. But there were examples on the left, too, of wanting a more traditional home life. In another interesting scene, Gloria has to sell Ms. magazine and says she hopes it doesn’t get turned into another McCall’s. But later, we see her reading McCall’s at the hair salon (where she and Betty were, notably, getting freshly highlighted and styled). Few things are as black and white as rhetoric would have us believe. What Mrs. America did so well was show the internal struggles of each of its characters. The point was not the choices they ultimately made—the point was having a choice.
Jumping forward to 1979 for this final episode, there was a weariness in each of the characters. Almost a decade was spent fighting an exhausting battle on both sides. And even Phyllis, who gave it all up—her relationships at home, her friendships, her core beliefs, her list—who was just on the precipice of the greatness she had always dreamed of, was ultimately left exactly where she started. Because despite her speeches of the glories of home life, when she is in the kitchen here with her apron on, fixing dinner alone, peeling apples, she is joyless. This isn’t a commentary on the drudgery of housework—plenty of women (and men!) love to cook and thrive in domestic care. Instead, it’s that Phyllis set this up as the pinnacle of womanhood, in which one should find all meaning and happiness, and yet here she is as miserable and broken as could be.
The only way to end is with Gloria Steinem’s speech that is so beautifully set up towards the end of the episode. It speaks to that time and to our own in a way that the series also did, providing inspiration and hope in a time of division and injustice. Mrs. America is both history and present, it is an example and a warning. Heed it. And please—talk about it.
“I have stood alongside the greatest women of my generation. Still, today, we select our leaders first by eliminating women, then minorities, and those with too little education. Changing this will take a very long time. After all, we are dealing with 10,000 years of patriarchy and racism. But we must continue to move forward in waves. What will keep us going is the revelation of what we can be, what the people around us can be, without the crippling walls and prisons around us into which we have been forced. We are just beginning to discover, each of us, who we can be. And no matter how long this revolution takes, there can be no turning back.”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.