‘Mrs. America’: Phyllis Schlafly and the Battle to Stop the ERA

Mark Tapson, In Hollywood rewrite of history, Schlafly is cast as the villain.

In November of 1983 I attended a highly-anticipated debate at San Francisco State University called “Two Views on Women” between Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative icon who had famously spearheaded the scuttling of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1970s, and Dierdre English, a Mother Jones editor and feminist who stood in complete opposition to everything Schlafly stood for. I was a Democrat at the time, and thus went into the debate rather mindlessly expecting to side with English. I was not in the minority; most of the two thousand or so attendees that evening were rooting for English, as might be expected considering the venue.

But even as a Democrat, I was put off by the fact that throughout the debate, English resorted to sarcasm and personal attacks instead of reasoned argument, while the unflappable Schlafly not only never took the bait, she also skillfully defended the traditional roles of mother and housewife with arguments English either wouldn’t or couldn’t refute (in retrospect, this contrast should have clued me in to a stark difference between the left and the right in general, but regrettably, my political epiphany wouldn’t happen for many more years). I remember feeling so frustrated with English’s tactics that at one point I hissed out loud, “She’s blowing it” – which earned me a nasty look from the female student and English-supporter in front of me.

This scenario similarly played out over and over again in Schlafly’s skirmishes with feminist proponents of the ERA in the previous decade. The National Review recently decried a “shoddy attack” against Schlafly, who died in 2016, in the Washington Post by NeverTrump blowhard Max Boot, who identified her as a key factor in “the origins of our current madness,” claiming she “pioneered the kind of incendiary, irrational rhetoric” that ultimately led to the ascendance of Donald Trump. But if you’ve ever seen Schlafly in the media, or watched any videos of her many TV appearances, you know that, far from employing incendiary, irrational rhetoric, she could be forceful but was unfailingly cool, calm, collected, reasoned, articulate, and never sank to ad hominem – or more precisely, ad feminam – attacks, in contrast to the kind of incendiary, irrational rhetoric regularly used by her radical opponents like Diedre English.

This comes up because the FX network and Hulu streaming service have combined in the recent release of a nine-episode series about the battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment called Mrs. America. The show is an ensemble piece which devotes more time to the bevy of feminist characters than one might expect, considering the title and the fact that Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett is the centerpiece as Schlafly, who is depicted as an anti-heroine. Reviewers have missed no opportunity to praise Blanchett’s “complex” characterization and to demonize the real-life Schlafly. The Loud and Clear review describes Mrs. America as “the story of Second Wave Feminism in America [told] from the side of the villain.” Slant Magazine states that “Schlafly resembles Trump in her truth-flexing fearmongering,” and in another sideswipe at President Trump, a reviewer at RogerEbert.com claims that “few, if any, of her arguments are based in fact. This leads the ‘libbers’ [in the show] to write her off as a quack, dismissive of the massive power of her lies, conspiracy theories, and nightmare scenarios. (Sound familiar?).”

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Blanchett claimed in a recent Harper’s Bazaar article that as a feminist herself, she took on the role precisely because she is so different from Schlafly, whom she condescendingly claims must have been “quite, quite lonely” in her anti-ERA crusade because Schlafly was so busy juggling home, motherhood (of six children) and activism that she didn’t have time for “what’s traditionally called friends” (by contrast, Blanchett paints the gaggle of radical feminists who opposed Schlafly – and lost – as “more of an intersected collective,” suggesting they enjoyed a congenial diversity and sisterhood). “For me,” Blanchett states loftily, “it’s always about trying to understand someone else’s perspective.”

But it’s clear from watching her depiction of Schlafly in the series that Blanchett either couldn’t or didn’t bother to understand the defender of mothers and housewives at all, because instead of a sympathetic portrayal, the actress plays her as an icily ambitious but misguided woman with an insincere smile for the cameras, a victim herself who undermined her own interests by siding with the patriarchy and who had to resort to lies to defend her anti-feminism.

Show creator and writer Dahvi Waller too, admitted that the appeal of centering the show on Schlafly was about “the challenge of getting inside the mind of a character who is completely different from me and who, ideologically, I completely oppose.” [Emphasis added] Waller asserted that Schlafly “had quite a bit of influence on the polarization of the country.” In fact, Schlafly represented the traditional viewpoint of the average American at the time; it was the hardcore feminists like Gloria Steinem (portrayed in the FX show) who polarized the country.

Revealingly, Harper’s Bazaar notes that in their “research” for the series, Blanchett and Waller didn’t bother contacting any of the living, real-life figures depicted on the show or their families. “We really wanted to be free to imagine these private conversations and not be beholden to one person’s memory of what happened 40 years ago,” Waller said. Translation: We wanted to be free to rewrite history and not have our feminist Narrative corrupted by anyone who personally experienced the people or the events we lied about.

In fact, Ed Martin, president of Schlafly’s Eagles, the conservative interest group she founded in 1972, has undertaken a series of short videos fact-checking Hollywood’s distortions and fabrications in Mrs. America. Yes, all docudramas make certain concessions to storytelling – choosing some events and not others, conflating or creating characters, inventing dialogue where there is no record of it, etc. In that respect, the first episode of Mrs. America begins with a seemingly innocuous disclaimer that “This program is based on actual events that occurred during the political struggle and debate over the Equal Rights Amendment. Some characters in the program are fictional and some scenes and dialogue have been invented for creative and storyline purposes.” But Martin devastatingly demonstrates that what the filmmakers consider “creative” is actually blatant lying – and in the process presenting Schlafly as the liar.

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One of the most egregious examples is Mrs. America’s depiction of a famous debate on The Tom Snyder Show between Schlafly and her husband Fred, on one hand, and feminist Brenda Feigen-Fasteau and her husband Marc on the other. As Martin shows by comparing clips from the series with actual footage of the debate, Mrs. America flips the truth on its head by asserting that Schlafly desperately invented an outrageous claim to bolster her point, and that Feigen-Fasteau called her out on it. In fact, as the actual video shows, it was the feminist who lied, and Fred Schlafly who shot her down. No one watching the series would know this unless they had seen the original debate – and Hollywood is very well aware of that.

The FX series ultimately is not a docudrama – it is propaganda. It is yet another example of Hollywood rewriting the past for future generations, because the left has understood for decades that those generations will get what little history they know not from textbooks (except from Howard Zinn’s propagandistic The People’s History of the United States) but from movies and shows on TV or the internet.

The Hollywood left doesn’t mine the past for stories to illuminate who we are and how our world came to be, because the left doesn’t care about the lessons of the past (if they did, they wouldn’t keep advocating for communism). Instead, the left searches for stories from history that they can adapt or completely fictionalize to have clear relevance to contemporary political situations, in order to lend metaphorical support to their agenda in the present. Hence, Mrs. America is not just about Second Wave Feminism or the failed ERA movement, and it certainly is not an homage to Phyllis Schlafly; instead, it serves to brainwash impressionable viewers that (according to leftist dogma) women are still a victim class without equal rights in today’s misogynistic patriarchy under Donald Trump, and that we still need feminism.