Meet the real women behind the new political drama Mrs America

As Australian stars Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne go head to head in the brilliant drama Mrs America, we investigate the real women who inspired this sizzling feminist versus housewife battle for equal rights in the US.
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We’ve all heard of Gloria Steinem, the charismatic poster girl for America’s feminist movement, founding editor of Ms magazine and ardent activist in the battle to legalise abortion, but Phyllis Schlafly – who is she?

Phyllis was in many ways Gloria’s nemesis, a conservative self-professed homemaker whose grass roots campaign against what should have been a shoo-in amendment securing equal rights for women – and men – was not only audacious, but succeeded.

The seemingly prim pillar of the right is the subject of Foxtel’s superb nine-part series Mrs America, starring the cream of Aussie acting, Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne – and interestingly it is the buttoned-up right-winger who steals the show.

In pastel A-line dresses and soft knits, her hair an undulating bouffant up-do with chaste kiss-curls, Cate’s Phyllis is an intriguing anti-heroine who you can’t help but admire for her intelligence, tenacity and disruption, even if her opinions feel out of whack with the times and hard to stomach.

As the show’s Executive Producer, Coco Francini, says: “If you’re on one side of the political divide you’re watching the rise of a superhero and if you’re on the other side of the political divide you’re watching the rise of a super villain.”

Whatever your viewpoint, we are clearly watching a super woman with the sort of reactionary views that in the 21st century have helped populist leaders get elected around the world – not least the vanquishing of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump.

The very fact that this Illinois housewife took on the icons of bubbling second-wave feminism provides a fascinating dramatic tension that pitches proudly old-fashioned Phyllis against the Pied Piper attractions of the queen bee of women’s liberation, Gloria Steinem, slickly imagined by Rose Byrne.

Rose’s Gloria is smart, sassy and, alongside her verbal putdowns and intellectual magnitude, lifts hippy fashion onto a platform of sophisticate chic. Who else could pull off wearing glasses through a cascade of hair and look both studious and fashion-forward at the same time?

While there is a serving of dramatic licence, Mrs America is largely based on fact and its wardrobe-perfect dramatisation of the era puts its production values on a par with The Crown.

And, like The Crown, the series had me heading to the library to sift the fact from the fiction and notably to find out more about the curiously little-known Phyllis Schlafly.

Stop ERA national Chairman Phyllis Schafly leads members opposed to the equal rights amendment in a song about the pro-ERA forces plan for a national demonstration in the capitol city.

(Image: Getty)

The real Phyllis

Mum of six Phyllis died on September 5, 2016, aged 92, when her own state of Illinois had still not ratified the now controversial Equal Rights Amendment (that happened in 2018). Incredibly, she had spent five decades fighting the bill.

What’s more, the day after she died, Phyllis’s last book – she wrote 26! – The Conservative Case for Trump, was published. And two months later, Trump was voted in as US President.

Phyllis’s crystal-ball gazing was spot on; loathe her or love her, this twinset and pearls “mom” undeniably made a difference and had her finger on the pulse of US Republicans who felt trampled on by what she saw as “the Eastern states kingmakers”.

“Phyllis Schlafly was a force of nature and one of the quintessential grassroot conservative organisers I think this country has ever seen,” says Cate Blanchett, who has admitted that she knew little of the activist before she was sent the script by creator Dahvi Waller (also a writer on the uber-stylish, award-winning series, Mad Men).

“Phyllis galvanised thousands upon thousands of housewives who felt marginalised by the feminists to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment,” adds Cate.

In truth, the real Phyllis Schlafly was also a very canny opportunist. In the beginning she wasn’t really interested in women’s politics at all. She campaigned in Illinois for a place in Congress in both 1952 and 1970, losing both times. Her interest was national defence.

Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis in Mrs America with her usual acting prowess.

(Image: Foxtel)

She had a Masters in Political Science from Harvard University and wrote five books on the thorny topic of national defence.

Phyllis knew a great deal about nuclear armaments, was fiercely anti-Communist, and saw any arms deal with Russia as a huge mistake. Then in 1971, she saw an opening to reignite her political ambitions by fighting the Equal Rights Amendment.

Incredibly, a version of the ERA was first talked about in Congress as early as 1923. It didn’t succeed then, but with the rise in the women’s movement in the 1960s, the amendment was dusted off and reintroduced in 1971.

By this time, it seemed unthinkable that anyone would have issue with the idea of equal rights. Times had changed and women wanted equality written into the constitution.

This time around, the bill would also cover discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It passed in the lower house in 1971 and was ratified in the upper house in 1972.

But under the US constitution, it then had to be ratified by a minimum of 38 state legislatures to be adopted. By the time Phyllis came on board, 28 states had already approved the amendment and, looking back, the fact that she managed to turn the tide is mind-blowing.

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Stop the ERA

Phyllis created the Stop ERA movement, starting with polemics written in the newsletter she posted to a mailing list of 5000. From this she also established the Eagle Forum, a conservative group of which she remained Chief Executive Officer until she died.

“I think the women’s lib movement is anti-family and destructive,” said Phyllis in a TV interview in her later life.

“The Equal Rights Amendment was presented as something that should benefit women.”

“The truth was it was a big take away of the rights women then possessed, such as the right to be exempt from the military draft and to be exempt from military combat; the right of a wife to be supported by her husband, and have her children supported by her husband.”

Phyllis had married attorney Fred Schlafly in 1949.

“He was tall, dark and handsome,” she said. “He was smart, he was successful. He had a political, moral and family outlook on life that was very much like mine, so it was a wonderful companionship.”

“I nursed all of my six children for at least six months and I put everything else aside. I feel that there is nothing more helpless than a new born baby and that baby needs his mother around the clock.”

Phyllis spearheaded a fearmongering campaign suggesting that with the ERA in place, America’s daughters and granddaughters would be sent to frontlines to die in combat in some foreign land.

What’s more, the ERA was anti-family, and promoted abortion and homosexuality, both of which she saw to be against God.

In fact, in her TV debate with feminist Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman), which is recreated in the series, Phyllis infamously called homosexuals “perverts”.

“Betty Friedan was an extraordinary woman,” says Tracey, who captures the passion and the fury at the heart of the icon. “She wrote [the book] The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and it changed a lot of women’s lives.”

“So she became a big star and a campaigner and activist. Struggles that the feminists went through then have become apparent again today. Women are still fighting for true equality.”

Even though she may not personally support Phyllis’s views, Tracey applauds the show’s representation of both sides of the argument.

“We have to stop all this tribal political bias which is destroying us, and I think this show is trying to listen to everyone’s point of view and it’s understanding that women are not a monolith, there are different factions, different thoughts for all of us.”

Gloria Steinem giving a speech in 1972. She still tours and speaks on feminism and women’s rights to this day.

(Image: Getty)

In the series, Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis says: “You’re never just a housewife. There’s no more important job for a woman … We want the right to be a mother, the right to be a wife. The libbers want to create a sex-neutral feminist totalitarian nightmare.”

Phyllis didn’t pull her punches and her rhetoric was powerful, which is fully represented in Cate’s performance.

But Mrs America does also point out some of the many contradictions about Phyllis Schlafly. Although she preached women should be in the home, her political work took her well outside the home and she also studied law as a mature student.

She employed help to cover off her ‘home’ duties, and the series suggests her son John was gay.

In 1992 John, then a 41-year-old attorney, was actually outed by a gay magazine, which Phyllis ironically called out as “hateful”.

In one of her early stunts, the Stop ERA crew win over male congressmen with home-baking gifts.

“To the breadwinners from the bread makers” is her catchy slogan.

When cornered in interviews, Phyllis would make up statistics or adopt the familiar politician’s tactic of changing the subject.

Australian actress Rose Byrne takes on the role of Phyllis’ opposer, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem.

(Image: Foxtel)

Gloria fights back

From the opposite corner Rose Byrne’s Gloria argues: “Why should women accept this picture of a half-life instead of a share in the whole of human destiny?”

“The majority of people in this country support a woman’s right to control her own body. How long are we supposed to wait … or am I the only one who’s tired of waiting?”

In 1970 Gloria Steinem, then 36, had given a ground-breaking speech in the Senate supporting the reintroduction of the ERA.

“During years of working for a living, I have experienced much of the legal and social discrimination reserved for women in this country,” she told the predominantly male senators.

“I have been refused service in public restaurants, ordered out of public gathering places and turned away from apartment rentals. All for the clearly stated, sole reason that I am a woman.”

When in the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade legal battle, the US Supreme Court declared state regulation of a woman’s right to seek an abortion as unconstitutional, the women’s liberation movement was rightly jubilant.

“The ability to decide when and whether to have children is the single biggest determinant, worldwide, of whether a woman is healthy or not, educated or not, active outside the home or not, and how long she will live,” Gloria Steinem has said since.

WATCH BELOW: Cate Blanchett shares her thoughts on women dressing sexy in the current era. Story continues after video.

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But the issue of abortion was also tied up in the Equal Rights Amendment and Phyllis revelled in a marketing campaign that focused on killing innocent babies in the womb.

It became a cornerstone of her campaign and proved a magnet for the religious right to jump on board.

Phyllis was delighted at early success in her home state when she staged a Stop ERA rally.

“I prayed that we could bring 1000 people to the rotunda of the Illinois state capital and I remember that day they came,” she said later.

“The buses rolled in. Our capital had never seen such a demonstration before, and when I saw them come from all over the state after long hours of riding in buses from all the various churches I knew that we were putting together a movement that could win this battle and other battles in the future.

“The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment was terribly important for America, for the constitution, for families and for our American way of life.

“It was also terribly important to the conservative movement. Our battle against the ERA created the ‘Pro Family’ movement, which has become a vital force in national politics. Our fight against the ERA also taught conservatives they could win.”

Winners and losers

At the beginning, Gloria Steinem and her associates dismissed Phyllis Schlafly. They were in charge of the narrative and felt they were winning.

In 1971 Gloria had joined forces with feted feminists Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and more.

“Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman and the first woman to run for President,” says Uzo Aduba, who plays her.

Together these women formed the National Women’s Political Caucus which, says Uzo, “was an organisation creating a place for women’s voices to be heard”.

In time the Caucus realised Phyllis Schlafly’s power, but too late and the rest, of course, is history. The Equal Rights Amendment finally achieved its target of 38 states this year with Virginia’s ratification, but with five states revoking their earlier votes and legal wrangling at work, the ERA is still not part of the US constitution.

“Not much has changed in 50 years and everything in the headlines now were the same things these characters were talking about,” says Mrs America executive producer Stacey Sher.

“We hope Mrs America starts a real conversation again,” says actress Margo Martindale, who plays Bella Abzug.

The show has certainly achieved that.

Mrs America screens at 8.30pm Tuesdays on FOX SHOWCASE, and Foxtel Now.

Read this and many more articles in the June issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

Lisa Wilkinson on the cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

(Image: The Australian Women’s Weekly)

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