Missing From ‘Mrs. America’

The failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the weaknesses of the miniseries are the same. Both efforts ignore the broader views of Americans who may be silenced or ignored, but they are not powerless to act.

Above, Cate Blanchett portrays Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America; inset: Phyllis Schlafly (l) and Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, smile together.
Above, Cate Blanchett portrays Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America; inset: Phyllis Schlafly (l) and Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, smile together. (photo: main, FX/Hulu; inset, courtesy of Kristan Hawkins)

The problem with the time capsule that is Hulu’s Mrs. America, a Mad Men-styled glimpse into the tug-of-war over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment between conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly and feminists leaders in the 1970s, is that what it leaves out explains why the ERA agenda has failed today.

Surrounded by a visually and musically appealing backdrop, feminist powerhouses are portrayed in their fight to push abortion as their first and only uniting agenda item, through any means possible, the ERA included. 

Nothing was going to stand in their way — not presidential politics, personal life choices or friends and allies. As the feminist activists sang at one point in the miniseries, “Move on over or we’ll move on over you.”

But Phyllis Schlafly would not be moved.

As someone who was mentored by Phyllis, I knew her as a strong, passionate and articulate leader who inspired. And while Cate Blanchett captures her mannerisms and speech, she doesn’t capture her heart. The production leaves the false impression of a sometimes cold and jealous leader who was constrained by an often unsupportive husband. 

Phyllis’ daughter, Anne Schlafly Cori, and I talked about this on the day that the first three of nine episodes were released, remembering a mother of six who would never take No for an answer. The show paints a false picture of Phyllis as cold, jealous, sloppy with details and grasping for the spotlight, which was a far cry from the woman I knew. Phyllis had a brilliant grasp of policy and argument, which she shared with all who knew her.

One of her most endearing qualities was her commitment to training other women (me included) to lead across the country, rather than trying to keep the attention on herself alone. Shortly before she died in 2016, Phyllis took the time to advise me as she held my little daughter. Faith and family were motivations for her efforts, and she celebrated that in others.

And as a brilliant political strategist, she rallied women across the county to a cause that all believed was lost. Mrs. America depicts politicians willing to pass the ERA as a vote to appease feminist activists only because no one was making the case to resist. Stepping into that vacuum was Phyllis Schlafly, who became the one-woman fulcrum that moved a nation. 

Already a formidable Republican organizer, she transformed her connections and already-developed list of activists and her publication into a grassroots operation that no one saw coming. 

Like Netflix’ House of Cards, the backdoor, grassroots activism made for fascinating viewing, as leaders played to their bases and organized results. 

Yet the real star of the show is the issue of abortion that united warring feminist leaders, who wanted to see it advanced in every setting. The ERA was portrayed as another potential legal hook for abortion to be pursued. Ironically, over the last few years, ERA advocates have mocked people like me who have discussed how it would be a Trojan Horse for abortion in the Constitution.

When the House debated extending the ERA deadline earlier this year, Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “This has nothing to do with the abortion issue. That is an excuse, not a reason.”

Mrs. America proves that false. The ERA and abortion are hand in glove throughout.

Rose Byrne, playing Gloria Steinem, tries to get George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee for president, to stand publicly for abortion, which he privately supports. Not wanting to engage in an open abortion debate during the election, McGovern agrees to use her term — reproductive rights — to camouflage the ERA proponents’ true agenda. As portrayed in the miniseries, Steinem and others are willing to throw their feminist ally, Shirley Chisholm, under the bus to get a floor vote on adding abortion to the Democratic Party platform, part of a deal they made with McGovern’s campaign that included blocking pro-life speakers at the convention. 

McGovern’s team sabotaged their efforts when it appeared they may win, leading to Steinem’s furious retreat from the convention floor, saying, “They’re never going to take us seriously. We’re just walking wombs.”

Abortion equals empowerment in Mrs. America. In a flashback, an abortionist readies Steinem for a procedure, telling her that after this she should “do what you want with your life.” 

To the feminists portrayed on the show, women like Phyllis Schlafly are either ignorant or servile to men. The housewives who love their lives are to be cannon fodder for a revolution underway. Their point of view deserves no consideration.

But never underestimate a room full of mothers who have been marginalized.

The timing of the show seems designed to be a victory lap for ERA supporters who had reason to believe that, by now, with Virginia’s vote in favor of ERA ratification last year, this could have been a gloating glimpse into the efforts that lead to its success. 

But the failure to ratify the ERA and the weaknesses of Mrs. America are the same. Both efforts ignore the broader views of Americans who may be silenced or ignored, but they are not powerless to act. A democracy eventually requires a vote. 

In one touching scene, a woman talking with Steinem weeps in describing an abortion she endured because she did not feel she had the financial resources to raise a child. Real empowerment shouldn’t lead to grief. 

While Mrs. America and the feminists it portrays seem to believe that abortion is a social cure-all for women, it doesn’t persuade. It asserts, mocks and forces a picture of a moment in time, which though beautifully done, won’t change hearts and minds, as the truth about abortion is already out there. 

Kristan Hawkins is president of Students for Life of America, with more than 1,220 groups on college, university and high-school campuses in all 50 states.

Follow her @KristanHawkins or subscribe to her podcast, Explicitly Pro-Life.