Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America
Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America

When large chunks of the world seem to be tipping back into conservatism — if not complete right-wing lunacy, the web series, Mrs America, is a pouring-ice-water-on-the-head kind of reminder that women are always this close to losing their hard-won freedom. And the face of the enemy is not always male.

Mrs America (created by writer-producer Dahvi Waller) is about Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), a tireless anti-feminism crusader, who took on the charismatic bunch of second wave feminists like Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Jill Ruckelshaus, and actually halted the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that promised equality for all, irrespective of gender.

The woman (who died at the age of 92 in 2016, so her ideology still hovers in the American air; supported Donald Trump) is considered by many as a traitor to the women’s cause, but also as a saviour of the pro-family, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-libber lobby of women (and men) who want to preserve what they believe is the mom-and-apple-pie American way of life.

Ironically, Schlafly benefitting from the battles of the women’s movement that went before, received a high education, pursued a career and electoral political (she lost), and still convinced millions of her followers that the ERA was bad for women and the family; that it would mean drafting of women into the army, the loss of alimony in the case of divorce, and the overturning of the many privileges to which women had a right. She may not have been correct, but her relentless fear-mongering activism was enough to scare the conservative, white Christian populace into electing Ronald Reagan as President.

A mother of six, she was able to work at her political agenda, because she had her sister and a nanny minding her kids. Her anger and humiliation at her intellect not being taken seriously — at a meeting, men reduced her expertise to note-taking — might have triggered the desire to pick a position that gave her a voice and a kind of legitimacy in the eyes of men being threatened by the rapid gains of the feminist movement. Men held the power and would share it only with a woman who supported their world view.

When American feminists held the National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977 to put forth their liberal causes, the anti-feminists led by Schlafly organised a successful counter-conference, to show that they did not agree with these progressive ideas. Their movement for the preservation of family values actually defeated by a narrow margin the ratification of the ERA.

Historian Judith Glazer-Raymo stated, “As moderates, we thought we represented the forces of reason and goodwill but failed to take seriously the power of the family values argument and the single-mindedness of Schlafly and her followers. The ERA's defeat seriously damaged the women's movement, destroying its momentum and its potential to foment social change.”

Anti-ERA activists, according to information on the net, used traditional symbols of the American housewife, and took homemade foods (bread, jams, apple pies, etc.) to the state legislators, with the slogans, "Preserve us from a congressional jam; Vote against the ERA sham" and "I am for Mom and apple pie.”

According to Adrienne Westenfeld, writing in Esquire, Schlafly’s opposition to ERA was specious. “Schlafly not only mischaracterised the amendment, but dismissed sex discrimination as a concept, saying, "I knew of only one law that was discriminatory toward women, a law in North Dakota stipulating that a wife had to have her husband's permission to make wine." Such an argument was characteristic for Schlafly, who antagonised her opponents with statements like "sexual harassment on the job is not a problem for virtuous women" and "sex education classes are like in-home sales parties for abortions".”

Even today, people in a sexually-liberated US, are willing to support violent pro-life groups that go to the extent of bombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors. The small success of the #MeToo movement in fighting sexual harassment, is in danger of being buried by a backlash against women who speak out, and the easy rehabilitation of the men accused of sexual abuse.

Rebecca Bodenheimer writes in cnn.com. “There are several other ways that Mrs. America, set decades ago, feels even like a harbinger of doom for women's rights even today because of the many parallels between these two historical moments. The most important win of the women's liberation movement was the legalisation of abortion in 1973, which was one of the pro-ERA camp's top priorities. And yet, women's reproductive rights are now under serious threat from an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court shaped by Trump, who could yet have the chance to seat another one or two justices. It feels like we've moved backwards in time, as many states have chipped away at women's reproductive rights, both systemically over time and opportunistically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Feminist leaders made the mistake of underestimating Schafly. “Who the hell is Phyllis Schafly?” asks feminist writer Betty Friedan at one point, in the series. Later, she goes against the decision of her pro-ERA colleagues to not engage with Schlafly by agreeing to debate the STOP ERA leader at Illinois State University. There is no footage of this debate, but in the series, an annoyed Friedan exclaims that she would like to burn Schlafly at the stake. The feminists realised that they could no longer ignore the threat posed by Schlafly and her followers.

The Schlafly effect can be indirectly seen, in the choice of 56 percent white American women voting for Donald Trump, a man repeatedly accused of disrespecting women.

Even today, when women have, at least notionally, equal opportunities, it does not look like the US will have a female president in the near future; it may take even longer for a black woman to shatter this glass ceiling. Which only means that there are more Phyllis Schlafly clones out there than we’d thought possible in the 21st century.

The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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