‘Mrs. America’ miniseries portrays the tense, exciting battle for ERA

Illustration by Erin Joo

Jiana Smith, Contributing Writer

It’s 1972. In an office, the women immortalized as second-wave feminist giants — Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Rep. Bella Abzug, among others — celebrate. The Equal Rights Amendment is gaining support, and Rep. Shirley Chisholm is breaking barriers as the first black woman to run for president. 

American women’s political equality is being realized, and it seems like nothing will stop its progress. 

“Who the hell is Phyllis Schlafly?” Tracy Ullman’s Friedan asks. She mispronounces Schlafly’s name, excluding the first L, and is corrected. 

“What do I care if it’s ‘Schafly’ or Schlafly?” Friedan dismisses. “It’s not like I’m ever gonna say that fucking woman’s name again.”

Dramatic irony is a given in historical dramas, and that scene employs it well. 

“Mrs. America” is a nine-episode miniseries that dramatizes the political battle for the ERA from the perspectives of feminists like Steinem and anti-feminists like Schlafly. The show’s dynamic performances, insightful writing and immersive costume design convince viewers to watch how things unfolded. 

It features award-winning actors such as Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba and Sarah Paulson. Dahvi Waller of critically-acclaimed “Mad Men” is the showrunner and writer. 

Virginia recently became the 38th state required to ratify the ERA, decades after it failed to meet its 1979 and 1982 deadlines due to the efforts of Schlafly and the Moral Majority organization that boosted her. 

Each episode of the three-part Wednesday premiere focused on a single woman: Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly, Byrne’s Gloria Steinem and Aduba’s Shirley Chisholm. 

“The show is so far impressive, drawing viewers in with compelling performances and multifaceted interpretations of historical figures.” — Jiana Smith

Blanchett, with her leonine gaze and viperish smile, portrays Schlafly as a shrewd political mind who desires power but is overlooked due to her gender. She’s portrayed as passive-aggressive as she rebuffs sexist comments and is understandably upset when people belittle her political prowess. Thus, Blanchett’s performance humanizes Schlafly. 

It also makes it frustrating to see Schlafly decide opposing the ERA is the best way to gain power. Strangely, the show downplays her racism, portraying her as a complacent unifier rather than the active bigot she was. 

Byrne’s Steinem seemingly is the antithesis of Blanchett’s Schlafly. She’s single and hip, preferring era-appropriate mini-skirts and go-go boots over Schlafly’s pristine tweed skirt suits. However, both women face the issue of being reduced to their looks. Steinem struggles to be seen as a political activist by fellow feminists instead of a pretty, news-friendly figurehead. 

While Byrne’s free-spirited delivery makes her performance of Steinem impressive, the show’s writing occasionally portrays Steinem as an ingenue rather than the capable adult woman she was, which feels strange. Steinem’s progression in later episodes will be interesting to see. 

In “Shirley,”‌ the show departs from Schlafly and Steinem to highlight often-overlooked feminist Shirley Chisholm. Aduba’s performance remains confident and eloquent as viewers witness the intersectional discrimination Chisholm faced as the first black woman to run for president.

Through passionate line delivery, Aduba isn’t afraid to show Chisholm’s vulnerability, which makes the weight of Chisholm’s decision to remain in the race palpable. 

Other cast members play their roles with similar vigor: Ullman’s Friedan is frank; Margo Martindale’s Abzug is bold but political; and Paulson’s fictional “Alice,” like many in Schlafly’s Stop ERA movement, is frighteningly saccharine. 

Meanwhile, costume designer Bina Daigler, known for Netflix’s “Narcos” (2018) and Disney’s “Mulan” (2020), transports viewers to the ’70s with realistic pieces. 

The show is so far impressive, drawing viewers in with compelling performances and multifaceted interpretations of historical figures. It will be exciting to see what interactions take place as the second-wave feminists and Schlafly’s camp continue on their collision course.

Episodes of “Mrs. America” release every Wednesday on Hulu. 

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