The popular Hulu series Mrs. America is reinvigorating discussions on the women’s movement of the 1970s, the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the political legacy we continue to grapple with to this day. Like everyone watching this series, NOW staff and interns have strong opinions on the content and are sharing them through a series of blog posts on NOW’s website.
Episode 9 of Hulu FX’s Mrs. America ends with a modern-day montage of the recent Women’s Marches and a sign that says, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” I don’t think there is any better summary than that of how I feel after finishing this series.
This series had a daunting task from the beginning – create 9 hours of television in which we already know the ending and most of us don’t really like the main character, Phyllis Schlafly. I had some fears going into this show that somehow Phyllis would come out a hero or the ERA would be presented as an issue that was settled in the past. The creators have instead given us a beautiful show that captures the nuance of Phyllis – she was more concerned with power than women’s issues – and makes sure that everyone knows we have a long fight to go.
Phyllis spends this episode wheeling and dealing in the political power she has created. She takes meetings with important people and calculates which endorsements will boost her to her real goal – a cabinet position. It becomes clear in this episode, and throughout the series, that power is what really mattered to her. Her rhetoric about the ERA shifts to include more religious language (“We are winning because we have God on our side”) or anti-abortion language as she realizes those coalitions hold a lot of power. At the end of the episode as she sits in her kitchen peeling apples, devastated that she did not get a position in the administration, the viewer is left wondering if there are any issues she really cares about at all.
While following the story of Phyllis Schlafly has been interesting and has helped me better understand how the modern conservative movement was built, the best part of watching this has been the cast of glass-ceiling shattering feminists I was introduced to. There were some big names I already knew (Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, etc), but this show gave me an inside look at how these women made the monumental changes they did. More importantly it introduced me to a whole host of women I hadn’t known. I loved spending every episode reading the biographies of women like Jill Ruckelshaus or Flo Kennedy that I had never heard of. I hope that the success of this show encourages film and TV makers to tell more stories about the heroes of the women’s movement. These women and the movement should not be relegated to the footnotes of books or college elective courses. They should take up space in the mainstream in the same way the history of wars or the civil rights movement does. We should tell these stories often and tell them loud.
The episode ends by saying “The leaders of the women’s movement continued to fight for gender equality, but they never again reached the political influence of the 1970s.” This is one part that I think the show gets wrong. In the years following the 2016 election women have gained political power in unthinkable ways. We have organized marches unseen before. We elected the highest percentage of women to Congress in 2018. We had six women running for the Democratic presidential nomination. We are about to have a female Vice-Presidential nominee. The women of the 70s built power and made change that should never be forgotten, but I hope we can say that the next decade is when we finally accomplish all of the things they wanted for good.
Jailyn Seabrooks is an Intern with NOW PAC.