Where to begin?
I finally watched Mrs. America. I am deeply invested in the story, both as historical narrative and political trajectory, so I’ve been hesitant to view the way Hollywood interpreted feminism of the 70s. The casting is stunning and as such the historical figures are brought to life admirably. Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug? I mean, come on, it’s just too good. But the historian in me rears her ugly head to question/push back/problematize (I know, I know)/critique/do what historians do best. So here are my thoughts.
What is Mrs. America About, Really?
A friend said she thought this was a show about Phyllis. I see it as a show about the ERA. I know the title suggests a Phyllis focus, but the framing is very ERA. The final episode ends, after all, with the recent state votes to pass the amendment (and not with sad Phyllis peeling apples at her kitchen table). This is a story of two views on gender politics in the seventies and how two camps of women galvanized political power to advance their positions. It would feel powerful if 1) both sides didn’t get fucked over at the end and 2) this wasn’t a story of women fighting women.
Let me start with point one. From the feminist perspective, the lost opportunity of the ERA is a clarion call at this moment. Presidential elections continue to show us that the state of gender politics in our nation. Abortion access has been gutted. Childcare is the issue of this pandemic moment. I could go on. But what about the Right? Technically, they got what they wanted with the defeat of the ERA (though long term many of their “feminist totalitarian nightmare” talking points have come to fruition). But in the story of Phyllis we see that this campaign didn’t bring her the security or power for which she hoped. The message, of course, is that even when women play the patriarchy game, they can’t be guaranteed they will get ahead like men. This is the tricky thing about how Phyllis is portrayed. Was she letting the winds of the time (in the guise of Phil Crane and Sam Ervin whispering sweet toxic somethings into her ear) direct her towards the most expedient path to power by acting as a dupe for conservative men? What was her investment in the politics she advanced and her overall level of agency? I know viewers have been troubled by what they felt are sympathetic depictions of Phyllis. Except that there are plenty of times she is portrayed as an asshole, too, throwing her friends under the bus just as men did her. Women are raised in the same patriarchal society men are. We can feel sympathy for the ways even the most noxious figures are shaped by this system even as we identify and name our disgust with the ways their actions harm others.
Now for point two. Mrs. America would have us believe that feminism and anti-feminism are movements of women fighting women, because what else can we expect of women? It obfuscates the real villain of the story: the deeply embedded misogyny (racist, heteronormative misogyny) that is the bedrock of American society. We know that the feminists portrayed herein sought to upend the patriarchy. We see this in the incidents big and small that litter the nine episodes. From Jill’s spot on monologue about what women in politics had to put up with to gain the ear of men to the Gloria ad in Screw, from Shirley’s campaign against sexual harassment to the Bella’s “we’re all just secretaries to them.” Their take on the antis ebbs and flows throughout the series but nevertheless the show pits them against the women of the Right.
Certainly, women can be agents of the patriarchy. But the focus on Phyllis as the linchpin of the ERA’s defeat removes all of the other forces at play (save for brief conversational references): the insurance industry, a capitalist economy that depends upon women’s cheap labor, a patriarchal society that depends on women’s free labor inside the home, the economic crisis and rising conservatism of the decade, and so on. But even if we do focus on the STOP ERA women, we have to consider how much they too, were fighting the patriarchy in their own way. Weren’t they confronting anxieties about the level of security they did/did not have as wives? Finding meaning in the skill-building they developed through activism? Recreating a Republican Motherhood for the 20th century to establish self-worth within their prescribed boundaries of womanhood? To make this a story of Phyllis v. Betty/Gloria/Shirley/Bella is to let the patriarchy off the hook. No thanks.
Images of 1970s Feminisms
One of my main objections is the portrayal of conservative women as grassroots activists while feminism is framed as an entrenched, top down movement coordinated by a coterie of celebrity leaders. This suggests that Phyllis and co. had little formal power while feminists had far reaching institutional support. What of the organizational and financial power of right wing think tanks, white power groups, and evangelicals/Mormons/Catholics/etc. who fueled conservative activism of the 70s?
By and large the show reinforces the straight white middle class east coast second wave feminist narrative that historians have so skillfully dismantled in recent years. An expansive network of women of all backgrounds drove a grassroots feminist movement that defined women’s liberation in the postwar decades. We do see tensions in the threads of organizational, political, women of color, and radical feminisms in Betty, Bella, Shirley, and Gloria, respectively. But at its core feminism has always been much more fully a story of grassroots organizing than it has big name leaders. Despite the differences of the named leaders, and in spite of their interpersonal conflict, we are to believe that they alone steered the priorities and outcomes of the movement. Nope.
WHICH BRINGS ME TO LESBIANS. If we deny grassroots activism, we erase lesbians from the story in any substantive way. The lesbians of Mrs. America are secondary or tertiary and are barely named. Margaret Sloan is outed when Flo Kennedy tells women at a party, “there will be no lavender menace bullshit here.” The story of Midge Costanza and Jean O’Leary only comes to light when fighting with Bella about the sexual preference plank for Houston (Jean isn’t even named until this moment – she was the co-executive director of the National Gay Task Force, for crying out loud). Then there’s Brenda’s sexual experimentation. To be fair, there were plenty of political lesbians and “lesbians for the seventies” that make up the lesbian feminist story. But Marc’s comments are gross (lesbian sex as a right of passage for a radical feminist) AND misleading because there was a WHOLE LOT of homophobia among radical feminists. All of this, combined with Gloria’s statement that Betty “almost single-handedly kept lesbians out of the movement for a decade,” suggests a queer void in seventies feminism.
This creates a problem for the lesbian baiting that is threaded throughout the episodes. Sure, there’s a natural line to be drawn from female independence to hatred of men. But the power of such imagery loses something from the relative absence of lesbian feminism throughout. Part of the problem here is that Mrs. America begins in 1971, by which time lesbian feminists were already creating a vision of women’s liberation safely supported by lesbian separatism. This erases the context for at least two important events that are referenced throughout the show. Largely as a result of Betty Friedan’s fear that lesbian issues would prove a lavender herring re: women’s liberation, lesbians were pushed out of organizational feminism. This provoked the now infamous Lavender Menace action at the Second Congress to Unite Women in May 1970 (thus, Flo’s reference above). Then there was the December 1970 press conference in support of Kate Millett whose outing as bisexual led to suggestions that she could no longer be a legitimate leader in the movement. This is what Betty refers to when she states, “I never said I was against lesbian rights,” but rather that she didn’t want to participate in the press conference. Except that Betty made it quite clear she didn’t believe lesbianism was a feminist issue.
Betty’s place in the story of lesbian feminism takes us to the end of 1977 and the Houston episode, too. It suggests that ultimately, the passage of the sexual preference plank can be credited to Bella’s benevolence and Betty’s support. This leaves out the wildly active grassroots mobilization at the state level in support of lesbian voices being included in Houston. And Betty did not decide on a whim to support lesbians. Dolores Alexander had to convince her it was the appropriate action to take in that moment. This by no means solved the debates over the place of lesbian within women’s liberation, but it was a healing and hopeful moment. And it does give us a glimpse into why the Right was so emphatic about women’s liberation posing a queer danger to their way of life. Here is the advert that Midge referenced in Houston, talking about how mean the STOP ERA folks had become in their organizing:
Race, too, needs to be addressed. There’s a Shirley Chisholm episode. Great! She was amazing! There’s a tiny shout out to the Formation of the National Black Feminist Organization. Also amazing! Know what isn’t amazing? The fact that the few other women of color aren’t even named in full. In most cases, I knew immediately who these characters were. That’s kind of my job. But the failure to name is powerful. Maybe the greatest loss of potential storyline is with Flo Kennedy whose personality begs the spotlight and who had her fingers in just about everything. Margaret Sloan got short shrift too. And these two were exceptional in that they were named at all. As Barbara Ransby says over at truthout, this suggests “they were simply there to add a little color to the story.” I do appreciate, at least, the moments in which the show makes white women sit with their white feminism, as with Gloria’s clueless response when Margaret raises tokenism at Ms. But again, this is a problem of a top down second wave narrative.
I Didn’t Hate It?
Look, all these misgivings aside, I’ll probably use bits and pieces in class? Of course I’ll make my students critique the hell out of it, but I can see it being a useful entry into conversation in the same way the Iron Jawed Angels is for suffrage.
There were glimpses of the reality of a society being reshaped by feminism that are important indicators of just what the movement sought dismantle: Phyllis asking Fred to sign her credit application and, even more troubling, Phyllis giving in to Fred’s sexual advances because spousal rape was not yet named or legislated; women taking notes in meetings; male politicians refusing to take abortion access seriously and the woman so overcome with shame in talking to Gloria about her abortion; the struggles of young Pamela to fulfill and defend a dated role even as despaired within it.
There were also things I really enjoyed: the hair and the fashion and all those radical buttons and protest signs; shout out to Free to Be You and Me; Betty’s Maude reference; Margaret Sloan’s daughter – “Why is your mama straight?”; Bella to Gloria – “You wrote a book ten years ago”; Frumpy Betty (was this a dig? Because I’ve been in rooms of women who knew Betty and they always mention how image-obsessed she was); and finally, this exchange –
Flo: I walked past Andy Warhol, he didn’t even say hello.
Gloria: You did represent Valerie Solanas.
Flo: Not that well, she got three years.
Ultimately, Mrs. America left me feeling profoundly sad. Partly it is a deep grief tied to our current political moment. But it also reminded me of times in which feminism felt so much more hopeful to me. The early episodes brought me back to a time when sisterhood and the promise of our activism and smokey treats sustained us from action to action and political crisis to political victory. Twenty plus years of activism later, I turn to history when I need to reignite my hope and purpose and drive. By its end, Mrs. America was not this kind of history for me.