The Mrs. America historical drama series — broadcast on Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTÉ (and originally on US Pay television channel FX on Hulu) — was inaccurate, deceptive, disingenuous, slanderous and malicious.
It was also some of the best television in 2020.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The miniseries covers one of the most fascinating periods in modern American history. While history buffs tend to focus on the tumultuous events of 1960s America, the subsequent decade was no less interesting.
The battle over the proposed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution was one of the most consequential battles of the modern culture wars.
During this period, America became more polarised. A political realignment occurred, with the two great political parties no longer being divided by geography and class, but instead breaking down on cultural and ideological lines.
Secular liberals rose to the fore in the Democratic Party and conservative Christians gradually took control of the Republican Party.
Mrs. America provides a thoroughly entertaining account of how these dramatic changes rocked America, and features brilliant performances by Rose Byrne (Gloria Steinem), Tracey Ullman (Betty Friedan) and Sarah Paulson.
All of them pale by comparison with Cate Blanchett’s performance as Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative icon whose efforts to rally the opposition to the ERA among conservative American women helped to turn the tide of history.
Blanchett’s mastery of Schlafly’s voice and mannerisms was described by Schlafly’s niece Suzanne Venker as unnervingly accurate.
Blanchett’s Schlafly — who died in 2016 — dominates the screen whenever she appears, just as the real Phyllis dominated debates on the ERA which took place over a decade.
But Mrs. America is most definitely not an even-handed portrayal of the conflict over the ERA. What is depicted here is not a good faith disagreement between second-wave feminists looking to enshrine gender equality in law and conservative homemakers tired of being ignored.
From the opening scene of Episode One to the closing scene of Episode Nine, history is rewritten, facts are distorted and outright falsehoods are told with the goal of blackening the names of Phyllis Schlafly and those who stood with her in this fight.
A line-by-line refutation of every error and untruth would take some time, and Christina Hoff Sommers has already gone some way towards doing this.
Of most importance is the relentless attempt to malign the motivations of the anti-heroine Schlafly.
Usually, a conservative American — a Republican politician, for example — will be depicted in the popular media and culture as being myopic, or bigoted, or both. Hence, Richard Nixon was evil, Ronald Reagan was dumb, and George W. Bush was both evil and dumb, as is Donald Trump.
Unfortunately for the makers of Mrs. America, Phyllis Schlafly’s intellect was respected and feared by her adversaries.
Instead of being a dullard who opposed feminism because she did not know what was good for her, Phyllis is instead accused of being scheming and ambitious: she is uninterested in the ERA, but wants power, and sees the battle against the amendment as being the best way to build a follower base.
In the opening scene of the first episode, Phyllis is shown at a Republican fundraiser strutting along a catwalk in a bikini designed in the colours of the American flag.
She and the other wives are eye-candy in a room filled with suited businessmen — capitalism and the patriarchy fused together.
Needless to say, no such event took place, and the Catholic 40-something mother-of-six never wore Uncle Sam-themed swimwear to raise funds for the GOP cause.
Phyllis, as introduced at the start, is a failed Congressional candidate who is out of step in a Republican Party still dominated by centrists from the old Eastern Establishment.
Though disinterested in the ERA, Phyllis comes to realise that her circle of friends (homemakers and traditionalists) feel aggrieved at being left behind in a changing society. That grievance, Phyllis sees, can be channeled into fueling a conservative political revolution.
While recognising Schlafly’s skills, the rest of the conservative women in Mrs. America are shown to be poorly-informed, simple-minded and hopelessly inept. They lack independence from their husbands, and are readily led by the nose by a shrewd and calculating leader.
Apart from Phyllis, the only one of the anti-feminists who is granted any depth at all in the show is Alice (played by the excellent Sarah Paulson). “Alice Macray” is a fictional composite character — no such person existed — and the redemption which the makers of Mrs. America allow her to undergo throughout the series involves Alice gradually distancing herself from her former friend and embracing more and more of the feminist arguments.
For the most part, the producers refrain from including ignorance in the thought crimes imputed to Phyllis, but not always.
The fifth episode centres on a real life television debate between Phyllis and her lawyer husband Fred and the feminist couple Marc and Brenda Fasteau.
Here, Phyllis is depicted as being badly out of her intellectual depth among the three lawyers. Worse still, Phyllis is shown to be badly caught out when she invents a court case to support her line of argument.
After being relentlessly prodded for further details by Brenda, the humiliated Phyllis backs down, her lack of familiarity with the law having been exposed. Facts prevail and the liberals triumph.
Not only did this not happen in real life, the opposite happened. As noted by Maria Steen in The Irish Times on July 11, and as demonstrated by the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles group using the real footage of the debate, the truth here was entirely inverted.
Brenda’s claim that many American banks were reluctant to lend to women unless they proved that they had been sterilised provoked laughter from the audience, and under questioning from Fred and the TV host, she was unable to provide an example of any such financial institution engaged in this behaviour.
Crucially, this was not an oversight on the part of the show’s writers and producers. They had watched the real life debate — a clip of which appears in the concluding montage in the final episode — and seen what had occurred.
It did not suit their argument to show what happened, so history had to be reversed to the expense of Phyllis. Hardly any viewers will have been interested in finding out the truth about that debate or the broader conflict over the ERA. But millions of those viewers will have seen Schlafly being defeated and her alleged “lies” being exposed.
Feminist propagandising is the primary purpose of this series, with entertainment a close second and the accurate retelling of history way back in last place.
Mrs. America would have been far more valuable had it presented the conflict in fairer terms.
The anti-ERA movement, when situated in the context of the conservative counter-revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, is a truly fascinating topic.
As a result of their obvious bias, those who brought us Mrs. America are incapable of examining any issue in a nuanced fashion. More importantly, they cannot even attempt to view issues through the eyes of those who took part on the “wrong side” of the dispute.
This creates problems in quite a few places. Abortion comes up again and again throughout the series. It is clearly a motivating factor for both sides, but only one side actually seems to care.
When pressing for legalisation, Gloria Steinem — clearly the heroine here — breaks down in emotion when speaking of the women who die as a result of botched abortions, and the unwanted babies whose parents cannot afford to feed them.
Episode Four starts with coverage of the landmark Roe v Wade Supreme Court ruling enforcing abortion-on-demand across all 50 States. The feminists such as Betty Friedan are delirious.
Phyllis’s reaction is telling. “They’re winning,” she exclaims. The only other pro-life response shown comes from a priest, and on most other occasions, the conservatives speak of abortion as a political football, as when Phyllis’s husband suggests that abortion “helps the Communists.”
The idea that the conservative women and men might actually be concerned about the fate of unborn children does not match the prejudices of the screenwriters.
Similarly, the role of religion is addressed in an inadequate and deceptive fashion.
Christianity is linked to the pursuit of power and the holding of backward viewpoints. In Episode Six, lawmakers in Washington DC gather for a prayer service, where they ask for divine guidance “as we work together to restore our country to its glorious past”.
Their prayer is as backward-looking as the believers saying it.
Worse still, the sincerity of some of the Christian characters is questioned. In the waiting room before taking part in the debate between the couples, Phyllis removes the small cross around her neck and replaces it with a much larger and more ostentatious cross, smiling in the mirror before heading out in front of the television cameras.
Ever mindful of the current political situation in the US, the makers of the program also inject a large amount of the critical theory approach to power relations between the races.
While the feminist side is visibly diverse, the whiteness of the traditionalist characters is emphasised, as is the racial bigotry of the Southern anti-ERA women, bigotry which Phyllis chooses to ignore as she plots her path to power.
Her only encounters with non-white Americans appears to be her interactions with her African-American housekeepers, who do the hard work of maintaining a home while their employer runs a national grassroots campaign against feminism.
And as thousands of conservative women and families gather for an anti-ERA rally in Houston, a Confederate flag flutters in the breeze before Phyllis makes her long-awaited appearance.
The shoe-horning of modern political issues and controversies into a show set almost a half-century ago also grows tiresome: from the appearance of Trump acolytes Roger Stone and Paul Manafort in the final episode, to the inclusion of a brief homage to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the concluding montage featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic progressive women elected to Congress in recent years.
None of it was necessary, but it makes the intentions of those behind Mrs. America much clearer. The forward march must continue, and those who fail to walk in line with feminist drumbeat must be maligned.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” Orwell wrote.
Mrs. America is a prime example of this, at least for those who are not inclined to look deeper at the real Phyllis Schlafly, and not the twisted — but enthralling — caricature which appeared on our television screens this year.