Issues of Representation and Change in “Mrs. America”
May 25, 2020
Robyn Bacon is a recent Cinema Studies undergraduate from the University of Toronto. Her interests include feminist film, comedy, and horror film. Robyn hopes to become a screenwriter or open up her own production company. Robyn aims to and write and create complex roles for actresses she loves with an emphasis on building new opportunities for female-identifying individuals and historically underrepresented groups
Mrs. America is a historical and biographical television series that details the complexities of the Equal Rights Amendment and its rival contender Phyllis Schlafly—a conservative leader and lobbyist who aims to stop the ratification of the ERA to the United States Constitution in the 1970s.
Mrs. America is a wonderful crash course in Women’s Studies and American History—endlessly educational and compelling. Although this is not the first time that the second wave feminist movement has been documented onscreen—there is an effective way that Mrs. America organizes the narrative. Each episode is dedicated to showing the individual lives of the female leaders involved in the ERA and STOP ERA movement. Another interesting aspect of Mrs. America is that the first episode begins from the point-of-view of Phyllis Schlafly—the antagonist and villain of the story. This episode details the personal events in Phyllis’s life that eventually fuel her vigorous pursuit to stop the ratification of the ERA to the United States Constitution.
Television functions as the perfect medium for Mrs. America. If the show had been condensed to a film—which is usually less than three hours—it would not provide adequate time to tell the multi-layered stories of these women and their personal and political struggles. It would give the audience less time to thoroughly understand and empathize with their struggles.
What Mrs. America does so brilliantly is that it shows the issues of representation within the ERA rather than solely focusing on the more obvious problems of the STOP ERA movement. From the second episode on the audience is introduced to iconic feminist activists like Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisolm, Bella Abzug, and Betty Friedan who bare many other titles and together created the National Women’s Political Caucus. Many scenes in Mrs. America focus on this group of brilliant and fierce feminist leaders consistently debating issues of feminist representation within the ERA.
Some of these issues within the ERA that concern gender, sexuality, race, and economic class are personalized by these women as the show delves into the backstories of each feminist figure. Gloria struggles to be taken seriously as a leader of the movement while pushing for abortion laws to be passed and rejecting the heteronormative pressures of marriage. The headstrong feminist author Betty Friedan feels excluded by the ERA and struggles to find joy as a single parent post-divorce. In the current political zeitgeist, Shirley Chisolm faces racial tensions as the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress. Chisolm receives racial slurs and
death threats that further ignite her visceral determination to prove to the world why there needs to be political change and runs for President of the United States. Lesser-known characters within the movement such as feminist activist and attorney Brenda Feigan-Fasteau struggles to understand her own sexuality as a woman feeling trapped within the confines of a heterosexual marriage while having discreet sexual experiences with women.
But, most importantly, the show demonstrates how an anti-feminist character like Phyllis Schlafly benefits from feminist morals to achieve her goals. Schlafly is a University educated woman with a degree in Law, a dedicated wife, a mother to six children, and travels around the United
States to fight for her cause. While her political causes may be unjust and ill-informed the series carves much empathy for Phyllis—who like most women—fights to have her voice heard within patriarchal society.
Issues of representation continue to be debated by the leaders of the ERA. Gloria claims that the ERA is a political party and not a sorority, Brenda argues that the ERA movement should not include housewives, Bella believes that Gloria should be the primary spokeswoman for the ERA
while Betty believes she should be, and Shirley fights to stay in the political race for President despite Bella and her campaign advisors giving her advice to the contrary.
In one notable scene black feminist, lesbian, and civil rights advocate Margaret Sloan pushes for the conversation about tokenism in the workplace during an ERA meeting with Gloria and other members present. Margaret explains to the group of women that tokenism is when one minority is propped up to cover the experiences of an entire population. As Gloria takes important note of the idea some white women in the room become defensive.
Mrs. America highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the Equal Rights Amendment as well as the complex issues that affect second wave feminism. The show highlights the primary issues of representation and intersectional feminism which are deterred by the problematic manifesto of white feminism and conservative political views. Mrs. America is teeming with captivating female acting performances and provides a historical framework that serves to unpack feminist politics in the United States. Most importantly, Mrs. America leaves the audience to ponder Gloria’s fundamental question—“How long do we give people to adapt to change?”
Image Source: Rolling Stones, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-reviews/mrs-america-fx-hulu-review-980011/