Mrs America: the vital lesson we must take away from this TV show

Posted by for Life

This star-studded TV show might be set in the 1970s, but its story is strikingly relevant to today’s society.

Every once in a while, a TV show will come along – seemingly out of nowhere – and capture everyone’s attention. Mrs America, currently airing on BBC Two, is one such show.

The critically-acclaimed series sees Cate Blanchett step into the shoes of anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime Religious Right activist who successfully led the effort to stop the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

This means that, yes, we see Schlafy go up against an all-star band of feminists: Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman). Yes, we have to watch her victory against them play out in all its horrible detail. And, yes, we’re forced to witness Schlafy and the STOP ERA group’s success give rise to the Moral Majority and permanently shift the American political landscape.

Mrs America: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly
Mrs America: Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly

Of course, there’s a lot to love about the show. Blanchett’s steely portrayal of Schlafy has been praised far and wide by professional critics and viewers alike on social media. The storyline is seriously compelling, some might say surprisingly so for a historical drama about a conservative activist. Every single song on the soundtrack gets us in the mood to fight the good feminist fight. And the costumes, too, are generating a lot of buzz online (particularly Byrne’s Steinem get-up: people are really into that sunglasses-over-the-hair look).

It’s worth noting, though, that – while the series is set in the 1970s – Mrs America feels strikingly relevant to today’s society. And not in a good way.

Viewers of Mrs America will no doubt have gone in wondering how Schlafy’s “STOP ERA” campaign could have ever worked. It becomes painfully obvious very early on that her victory isn’t solely down to her campaigning skills, nor her willingness to appeal to bigots and religious extremists: it’s also down to her woefully divided opposition.

That’s right: we might be rooting hard for our merry band of women’s libbers, but they’re far too busy fighting among themselves about intersectionality to give Shlafly a run for her money. And, while they’re calling for equality, they’re failing to properly address the issues that arise for BAME and LGBTQ+ feminists.

As per Rolling Stone: “Friedan doesn’t want gay rights being part of their platform; Chisholm is accused of favouring women’s issues over black ones (and vice versa); Ruckelshaus strongly disagrees with her colleagues on many issues, and so on.”

The result? They become a “circular firing squad, while Schlafly and her followers are shooting at them in unison.”

Mrs America: Rose Byrne portrays Gloria Steinem
Mrs America: Rose Byrne portrays Gloria Steinem

Why is this relevant? Well, over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift in our political landscape towards the more conservative. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. In December 2019, Boris Johnson’s Conservative party won 368 seats in the UK’s general election, their biggest majority since 1987. And, just this week, Poland’s Andrzej Duda was elected for another five-year term, despite running a campaign laced with homophobic rhetoric.

It is always far easier to rally people behind a conservative cause, because the aim is, after all, a very simple one: to conserve what’s already in place. Those calling for change, though, have an overwhelming plethora of options available to them. What should be changed? What should remain the same, if anything? When should it be done? How? And by whom?

If Mrs America has taught us anything, it’s that a single twig will be easily broken: the bundle of twigs, though, is strong. 

With that in mind, then, those pressing for positive change need to listen to one another. They need to settle their differences. 

And, above all else, they need to work together if they wish to make lasting progress that will continue to make a difference for generations to come.

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Images: BBC

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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