How unsurprising that Dahvi Waller, creator of the recent miniseries about Phyllis Schlafly, Mrs. America, used to work on AMC’s Mad Men. The things people say in this miniseries are laughably retrograde, and everyone looks great saying them.
Whatever other virtues writer-producer Waller picked up working for Matt Weiner, they did not include his notorious attention to detail in period accuracy. Waller is telling a real story about real people, so her duty to get the facts right was greater. But as Schlafly biographer Donald Critchlow has rightly said, some scenes in Mrs. America are “so inaccurate, it’s absolutely shocking.”
The first scene has our title character parading down a runway in an American flag bikini as part of a beauty pageant for a congressional fundraiser. The MC introduces her as “the wife of one of our biggest donors, Mrs. J. Fred Schlafly.”
The woman who wrote A Choice Not an Echo would not have needed to show off her legs or invoke her husband’s money to be invited to a congressional fundraiser. Schlafly had worked at the American Enterprise Institute and co-written a book on nuclear deterrence with Rear Adm. Chester Ward. She was a widely sought-after speaker on defense policy.
What is it that attracts showrunners like Weiner and Waller to reactionary characters whose views they obviously hate? Not just to write about them, but to glamorize them? Schlafly, as played by Cate Blanchett, outdoes her feminist opponents in poise and self-possession (not to mention wardrobe) as much as Don Draper does Pete Campbell.
These showrunners must imagine that their antiheroes are safely in the realm of kitsch. The difference between kitsch and genuine bad taste is that the artist can’t imagine anyone liking kitsch seriously. If no one could possibly believe the things Don Draper believes in the twenty-first century, then it’s acceptable to glamorize him because viewers are only enjoying him ironically.
Waller certainly has every reason to think that Schlafly’s beliefs have been safely rendered unbelievable by unanimous taboo. All of Schlafly’s political victories have, over the four decades since the ERA failed, been effectively reversed by the undertow of elite opinion.
Earlier this year, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA. The amendment finally received ratification from the required three-fourths of the fifty states—and hardly anyone noticed. Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg urged feminists not to put their energy into fighting a legal case to overturn the congressional deadline that closed the window for ratification in 1982.
Justice Ginsburg is right. Once you’ve decided that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the Virginia Military Institute to go co-ed, what is the point of the ERA anymore? Everything Schlafly warned about—and was mocked as an alarmist for warning about—from gay marriage to unisex bathrooms, judges like Ginsburg have accomplished perfectly well without the ERA through creative readings of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.
The only reason to pass the ERA now is abortion. It would give Roe v. Wade the constitutional pillar to rest on that it currently lacks. Of the thirty-five states that ratified the ERA before the original deadline in 1979, thirty did so before Roe was decided. The amendment’s potential to enshrine a right to abortion in the constitution has long been, for many, its greatest attraction.
It is also the issue where Mrs. America is most tone-deaf. Episode 2 focuses on Gloria Steinem’s effort to get an abortion plank into the platform at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. In the candidate’s suite, McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart makes Steinem this offer:
“What if we stay neutral, let our delegates vote their conscience?”
“And you don’t let the right-to-lifers speak? We don’t want anyone saying abortion is murder right before the vote.”
“And we don’t want anyone up there saying women are being butchered on kitchen tables.”
“But women are being butchered on kitchen tables.”
“Yes. We just don’t want to hear about it.”
“When I started writing episode two,” Waller told Esquire, “one of the notes I got back was, ‘How are young women today even going to relate to the idea of abortion being illegal?’ Can you believe that was a note I got?” Hard as it may be for Waller to believe, many young women find an end to legal abortion not only imaginable but desirable. It’s just one of many facts that Steinem’s side would prefer not to hear about.
Mrs. America imagines that it can safely romanticize Schlafly’s pastel-colored suburban world because no woman today could possibly want to go back to it. There are fewer stay-at-home housewives today than there were in 1972, and women today are more likely to have an advanced degree and to work outside the home.
But Schlafly had a master’s degree in government from Radcliffe, and she still believed that God created two sexes for a reason. Anne Marie Whittemore, the Virginia lawyer who defended VMI in its sex discrimination lawsuit, was a graduate of Vassar and Yale Law, and she still believed in the value of sex-segregated education (as well a Vassar woman might). As for working outside the home, women’s firsthand experience with wage labor has rendered less credible, not more, feminism’s promise that employment is the only possible path to self-actualization.
The heroic figure of Phyllis Schlafly will break free from Waller’s kitschy depiction of her, just as she broke free from the role of housewife to become a political organizer and policy intellectual as well as a wife and mother. Fred Schlafly and the reactionary old men of the conservative movement were delighted to see Phyllis forge her own independent path. If Waller discovers that she inadvertently made her antihero too attractive and viewers are rooting for her unironically, will she be just as delighted?
Helen Andrews is a senior editor at the American Conservative.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.