We’re Living in Phyllis Schlafly’s America

A striking new miniseries reveals the conservative author’s deep impact on contemporary politics.

Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly in Hulu's 'Mrs. America'
Cate Blanchett plays Schlafly as an elegant coil of wound ambition. (Hulu)

If, as per Baudelaire, the greatest trick the devil played was convincing the world that he didn’t exist, the irony of Phyllis Schlafly’s legacy is that she undermined women so efficiently that her pernicious influence on American politics hasn’t gotten the credit it deserves. During the 1970s, Schlafly was camera-ready pith in pearls and a pie-frill collar, a troll long before the term existed, who’d begin public speeches by thanking her husband for letting her attend, because she knew how much it riled her feminist detractors. Armed only with a newsletter and a seeming immunity to shame, Schlafly took a popular bipartisan piece of legislation—the Equal Rights Amendment, which affirms men and women as equal citizens under the law—and whipped it up into a culture war as deftly as if she were making dessert.

For all her efforts, she actually won very little—she was too toxic for a plum Cabinet post, and too early for a prime-time cable-news show. After her heyday, only glimmers of Schlafly lingered in mainstream culture. The character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, who once worked full-time lecturing women on the sanctity of staying home, was partly inspired by her. By the time a hagiographic biography of Schlafly was published in 2005, reviewers deduced that although her impact on the ugliness of American politics had been profound, her manipulation of grassroots resentment (not to mention her isolationism and hostility toward immigrants) had rendered her fogyish and obsolete in the George W. Bush era.

The other great irony of Schlafly is that she died in September 2016, two months before Donald Trump, a leader anointed in her image, beat the first female candidate for president of the United States. Like it or loathe it, the new Hulu series Mrs. America makes clear, we are living in a moment that Schlafly begot. From dirty tricks to media manipulation, brazen lies about crowd sizes to the weaponization of privilege, her ghost is everywhere, and it may never be banished.

Mrs. America is maybe the first great television series of 2020, a project that manages to capture the complicated essence of real characters while telling a story at both micro and macro levels. Perhaps predictably, the show divided people before it debuted: One of Schlafly’s daughters disavowed its portrayal of her mother, while some critics argued that it was too flattering a portrait. On its face, the nine-part show from Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) is about the years-long fight over the passage of the ERA, a window into second-wave feminism that sweeps activists such as Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) into Schlafly’s orbit. Most characters are based on real women, although some are composites or fictional creations. But it’s Schlafly, played as an elegant coil of wound ambition by Cate Blanchett, who turns Mrs. America from a starry historical miniseries into a stunning explainer on the poisoning of national politics. “The person that everybody’s paying attention to always wins,” Schlafly explains in one scene, as neat a distillation of the Trump era as might be imaginable.

Waller’s series resists flashbacks and heavy exposition; its characters reveal who they are by what they say and do in the moment, and the rest is up to viewers’ interpretation. The show opens on Schlafly, who is posing in an American-flag bikini at a fundraiser to reelect Representative Phil Crane (played by a pleasantly oily James Marsden). From the beginning, there’s a discernible disconnect between Schlafly’s public face and the private mechanics of her mind, but it’s not one that seems to ultimately deter her. “Don’t forget to smile,” Crane tells her, as he hosts her on a local cable talk show. “Smile, with teeth.” A flicker of irritation passes over Schlafly’s face, until she swiftly replaces it with a broad, telegenic grin.

Schlafly was always a strange candidate for the leader of an anti-feminist revolution. During the Great Depression, when her father lost his job, her mother, who had two degrees, worked as a teacher and a librarian to support the family. Schlafly herself graduated from college at 19 and alternated classes during World War II with working as a ballistics gunner at a munitions factory. When she married her husband, the 15-years-older lawyer Fred Schlafly (played in the series by John Slattery), she promised to cherish him, but not to obey, her New York Times obituary revealed. By 1971, when the series begins, she had worked for the American Enterprise Institute, positioned herself as a national-security expert and strident anti-communist, made a failed run for the House of Representatives, and published five books, including a best-selling manifesto for Barry Goldwater that challenged the Republican establishment and helped Goldwater secure the GOP nomination for the presidency in 1964.

Schlafly’s rise is contrasted with the concurrent activism of feminists such as Gloria Steinem, played by Rose Byrne. (Hulu)

In the first episode, Blanchett’s Schlafly is at the beauty salon when her friend Alice (Sarah Paulson) brings up the ERA. “Oh, I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” Schlafly sighs dismissively. “There are so many more pressing issues, like national security.” But this is a question of national security, Alice argues: If women are equal to men, then they can be drafted, and everyone’s daughters can be shipped off to Vietnam. Schlafly gives short shrift to the idea. But weeks later, when she flies to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with senators about national security and the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, and her expertise is ignored as she’s asked to take notes, she spots an opening. “The women I know are terrified,” she tells the assembled men, who suddenly aren’t so eager to talk over an avatar of the 40 million housewives whom they need, in one congressman’s words, to “stop clucking and get out the vote.”

Mrs. America presents Schlafly as half opportunist, half contrarian—someone who refused to accept that her gender might be holding her back, who was completely disinterested in women’s issues but could get people to pay attention to her only when she was talking about them. “I am not against women succeeding; I am not against women working outside the home,” she says at a Daughters of the American Revolution luncheon, something she’d repeat to her critics whenever they accused her of hypocrisy for building her career on preaching the virtues of women not working. What she is opposed to is the women’s-liberation movement, which she broadly characterizes as “a small elitist group of northeastern establishment liberals putting down homemakers.” (The movement is neither small nor elitist in the series, but Steinem fully admits to being “against housewives.”) As the room responds approvingly, Schlafly’s arguments get more heated, and more risible. The “libbers,” she states, won’t be happy until the women are all drafted and the men are all home nursing the babies. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “And it’s downright un-American.”

What Schlafly tapped into before anyone else, the show suggests, was the power of a certain kind of polemic. Stoking resentment against a so-called group of privileged snobs who threaten the authentic American way of life is easy. So is provoking judgment by making people feel judged. From the first episode on, Schlafly evolves into a strikingly sophisticated peddler of outrage before anyone has calculated its potential. When put on the spot, she brazenly lies; when challenged, she smoothly changes the subject. She’s a master of messaging whose first anti-ERA campaign involves giving homemade bread and jam to male congressmen with a card celebrating traditional gender roles: “To the breadwinners, from the breadmakers.” (The series makes clear later that much of the bread is made by the black maids who actually do the domestic work while Schlafly and her nascent group of supporters are out lobbying.)

In contrasting Schlafly’s rise with the concurrent activism of feminists such as Steinem and Chisholm, Mrs. America illuminates how simple it is to spark conflict, and how much trickier a task it is to bring people together. “People are always trying to divide up women,” Byrne’s irresistibly glamorous Steinem murmurs to Ullman’s Friedan as she takes the seat next to her on a plane. “It’s just another way to take away our power.” But the women’s movement is trying to unify divergent groups and leaders, each with their own priorities and desires and hard-fought battles to bring to the table, decades before the term intersectional feminism would be coined. The third episode, which focuses on Aduba’s Chisholm, sees the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination being challenged by male members of the black congressional caucus, who question whether she’s “really the candidate for blacks, or just for women.” But Chisholm is also upbraided by Martindale’s Abzug, who insists that the women’s movement can’t afford to alienate male allies. “I didn’t get anywhere in my life waiting on somebody’s permission,” Chisholm snaps back.

“I didn’t get anywhere in my life waiting on somebody’s permission,” Shirley Chisholm, played by Uzo Aduba, says in Mrs. America. (Hulu)

Meanwhile, Schlafly is shown doing the familiar dance of courting the racist supporters she needs without outwardly endorsing their views, with Blanchett making clear that the only factor that actually matters to her is maximizing her own power. If Mrs. America has a flaw, it’s that it can’t quite bridge the void between Schlafly’s palpable maneuverings and what she might actually believe underneath it all. She almost bonds with the anti-abortion Republican activist Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) over drinks, until Ruckelshaus brings up the harassment of female congressional staffers. “Don’t you think those kind of women are really just inviting it?” Schlafly replies. “Virtuous women are rarely accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions.” She’s deliberately goading Ruckelshaus and enjoying the angry response she provokes, but she also seems, on some level, to buy into what she’s saying.

That scene reminded me of Donna Rotunno, Harvey Weinstein’s defense attorney, saying on the New York Times podcast The Daily that she’d never allow herself to be in a position where she might be assaulted. Such a statement suggests a myopia so severe that it liberates the afflicted from having to consider anything outside her own experience. That kind of terminal self-centeredness feels wearily familiar now, in this moment of unending presidential press conferences and Instagram scandals. When Schlafly insists, in one scene, that the crowd she’s drawn at a rally is more numerous than the attendees at the conference she’s opposing, and refuses to back down even when confronted about it, the contemporary parallels are easy to align. But it’s still fascinating to see in Mrs. America how shrewdly and effortlessly Schlafly flexes her ability to repeat false things until they dominate the narrative.

Schlafly’s most enduring legacy, in a sense, is the poisoned well of national politics. “While she may not have been consistent in her choice of targets,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker in 2005, “Schlafly was unwavering in her characterization of them … Her opponents have invariably been not just wrong or misguided but downright evil.” This kind of rhetoric enables one side to consistently label the other as anti-American, to co-opt national symbols (such as the flag, or the eagle) for themselves, and to claim, seemingly without self-doubt, that God is on their side. In Schlafly’s words, her foes, Kolbert writes, “have always aimed at nothing less than the destruction of ‘civilization as we know it.’” It’s a charge so lofty that not even logic can rise to meet it.

Schlafly almost single-handedly weaponized the battle over abortion rights to realign Republicans and Democrats along liberal and conservative lines. (There is currently not a single Republican abortion-rights supporter in the House of Representatives.) She was able to orchestrate the defeat of a group of women trying to magnify opportunities for everyone by mobilizing a group of housewives determined to protect their relatively affluent and secure way of life. (In the show, Schlafly’s first anti-ERA movement is called STOP, an acronym for “Stop Taking Our Privileges.”) And without being troubled by fact or reason, Schlafly was able to dominate people’s attention to the extent that she could divide and conquer. What she won, personally, is negligible. But the lessons and tactics she pioneered have been adopted by countless disciples, each one profiting enormously from remaking the world in their own image.