Puppet of the Patriarchy
The fabulous miniseries Mrs. America completed its nine-episode run last week. It leaves us questioning why things have changed so little in the meantime. It was so well-produced and acted that I looked forward to each episode, even if it meant I had to be reminded of Phyllis Schlafly. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you can access it on Hulu. Please note that there are spoilers in this article although if you know your history, you will not be surprised.
The series focuses on the second wave feminist movement’s work for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Phyllis Schlafly’s grassroots organizing against the measure. In the series, we see the work of the big names in feminism, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, and many others. We watch their attempts to move presidential candidate McGovern toward their side. We watch as they face the difficulties that intersectionality presents to the movement. There is some infighting and rivalry between the leaders around racial and LGBTQ issues raised within the movement. It is not pretty and even today there is no easy solution to having such a big tent. But having the opportunity to see these women in action is inspiring and an important historical lesson.
The series primarily focuses on Phyllis Schlafly, (played magnificently by Cate Blanchett) and her work to maintain the status quo for women to stay in the home and be homemakers. Phyllis is a published author on foreign policy, a Radcliffe graduate, married, a mother of six older children, and most importantly a woman who wants to leave her mark. In one of the earlier episodes, we learn that she previously ran for Congress but lost. She wants to run again, but her husband discourages her. Once she figures out that by opposing the ERA, she can create a name for herself, she uses all of her resources to create a powerful grassroots movement called STOP ERA. She organizes housewives to her cause and creates a nationally read newsletter. She establishes the STOP ERA movement as a means to raise her profile in conservative circles. As the series unfolds, we understand that while she may believe some of what she is preaching, she herself has no interest in staying at home. She is a full-time activist who has the luxury of financial support from her lawyer husband and help in the home from her black housekeeper who does all of the cooking and cleaning. Her sister, who is unmarried and to whom Phyllis is frequently terrible, often babysits and drives her children around. Phyllis is, in fact, a “working girl” as she likes to call the “libbers”. She is occasionally called out on this hypocrisy in the show, but it never seems to stick.
Phyllis is not shy about twisting people’s words to make them seem like something they are not. There are a few scenes that jump out because they reflect the politics that happen today making you wonder if she was not the originator of these dirty tricks. In one scene, Phyllis is speaking publicly as to how the ERA will force all women to work and be conscripted into the military. After her speech, when someone challenges her as to the veracity of her claim, she simply says that it does not matter if it is true, what matters is making people believe it is true. Sounds like a precursor to KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts”, right? In another episode, she is creating a “mixtape” where she is taking pieces of Bella Abzug’s speech to the National Women’s Conference out of context and mixing them with Christain preaching making Bella sound like a heathen. When one of her co-conspirators points out that she is taking Bella’s words out of context, Phyllis’s reply is “She said it!” Doctored tapes are the precursor to the doctored videos we see on the internet today.
In watching the show, it becomes evident that not only did Phyllis Schlafly defeat the ERA, but she was instrumental in creating the “family values” movement that blossomed during the Reagan presidency. This movement stays with us today as the hard right’s Evangelical wing. The shadow of Phyllis Schlafly looms over American women even now as we continue to fight for equality.
The irony of all of her hard work is that while she is successful at getting the ERA stopped, she does not achieve her personal goal. What she wants most is a foreign policy cabinet position in the Reagan White House. But after using her extensive mailing list to get elected, Reagan tells her that she is too divisive with women. Instead, he appoints Jeanne Kirkpatrick as UN Ambassador, the position that Schlafly wants. Her life is still controlled by men as decision-makers. She does not understand that she is a puppet for the patriarchy. No matter how smart she is, they are never going to let her have real power. And that is the saddest part of this story. Phyllis Schlafly’s work prevented women from gaining access to equality by law, and in the process, she stomped all over the sisterhood she could have embraced. If the ERA had passed, that law is what would have opened the door to give her what she wanted.
Note: Recently Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA, but Congress had placed a deadline of 1982 for passage. However, the House of Representatives recently passed legislation to extend the deadline, but it is unlikely the Senate will take it up any time soon.