It seems strange to start a miniseries of the who’s who of the 1970s women’s movement with Phyllis Schlafly, whose claim to fame is spiking the Equal Rights Amendment. She’s credited with starting the “war on women,” to the point that she helped turn the Republican Party’s fairly liberal (especially compared to today’s standards) gender and reproductive rights into the incredibly retro platform today. (Check out Schlafly’s obituary for more, unless you’re worried about spoilers.)
But as the first episode, titled “Phyllis,” shows, there’s something both compelling and creepy about following this woman. Only Cate Blanchett could sell the little faces Phyllis makes when no one’s looking—what she won’t say and can’t say. Her performance isn’t exactly eliciting sympathy; it’s just a masterwork in letting you read her mind without missing a beat. She has one of those moments in the beginning of the episode, during a fundraiser for Congressman Phil Crane. She walks on stage wearing a two-piece in honor of her husband, a major donor, to the cheering and jeering of the fellow donors. She walks on with a brilliant smile, but her face turns haunted as she walks back out.
The conflicted expression is gone by the time she’s back in the dressing room, where she and her fellow model/donor wives discuss Crane’s (played by James Marsden) run. Phyllis mentions her own recently failed run, and wilts slightly when Crane’s wife seems totally unimpressed. Crane visits them in the dressing room, which is reminiscent of another politician we all know so well nowadays. Phyllis appears on Crane’s show, where he promises to give her easy questions, while she bowls him over with her strictly realist foreign policy ideas. She dismisses SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) with the Soviet Union as dangerously diplomatic because the U.S., to her thinking, will be the only ones to comply. Crane is stunned, and in a perhaps different show, this is where Phyllis would get a talking-to about how things get done in this town.
Instead, Crane walks into her dressing room once again. There’s a moment where the audience is made to wonder if Phyllis is in danger with just Crane around. It doesn’t help that he calls her “electrifying” and a “star,” before he switches the sound guys’ access off. Instead, he encourages her to run for Congress a third time, invites her to a meeting in Washington, D.C., and tells her that she needs to convince Senator Goldwater (Peter MacNeill) to convince Nixon not to sign the SALT treaty.
Part of what makes Phyllis a compelling figure is the dark side of her confidence. As she speaks with a young pregnant women in the salon, she tells her the oft-repeated, but hardly conclusive adage that formula doesn’t have the same nutrients as breast-feeding (something I learned about in Adam Ruins Everything’s “Adam Ruins Having A Baby”). She talks with total conviction about something it’s likely she has no actual factual citations for, but believes in her gut is true. Her friend at the salon, Alice Macray (Sarah Paulson, who plays a composite character), is the one who says the Equal Rights Amendment will lead to the destruction of alimony and drafting women into the military, which is fundamentally not true of the amendment and also obscures the millions of rights it would wholly grant to women.
They discuss alimony more in depth, and husbands in general, specifically because Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) doesn’t seem to need one and Phyllis wouldn’t have her political career without her husband. In contrast, Phyllis’ mother complains that her father didn’t make enough for her to be able to take care of herself after he’s gone. When Phyllis excitedly talks to her husband Fred (John Slattery) about preparing for this third campaign, he’s not that keen on her ambition, even though he paid for her last campaign. It’s clear he doesn’t really believe she could win, and that he is getting less and less interested in the idea of her living in Washington, D.C., far away from the family.
Fortunately for him, Phyllis feels the same when she visits Crane in D.C. First, Crane is even more handsy than he was when she was on his show, trying to convince her to get dinner with him. She dismisses the ERA to Senator Goldwater, saying she’s never been discriminated against. But seconds later, she finds herself in a room of men who are asking her to take minutes.
Thanks to directing duo and Captain Marvel helmers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the pacing of the premiere is so finessed, that I can only describe this moment to you as something I myself experienced. The sounds of the men get low while Phyllis asks Goldwater’s secretary for a pad and pencil, but the sounds of the women protesting in favor of the ERA just get louder and louder. She realizes, unlike her husband, the men of D.C. have much less reason to listen to her. They have less respect for her than she feels is due to her (which is probably just a little more than is actually due to her), and a lot more power to push her around. So she gets angry about something they will feel compelled to listen to her about. And when Goldwater says that the housewife vote that Phyllis so staunchly represents is exactly what could’ve put him (or Reagan) in the White House, you can practically see the wheels of Phyllis’s mind start turning.
But for now, we’re not privy to them. Instead, when we see Phyllis again, she’s comforting her sister Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn, somehow deglamorized with her ’50s housewife styling) for being unmarried, telling her she had a bit of bad luck, a strange exception compared to how she spoke a scene earlier. We also see Phyllis acquiesce to her husband’s affections, over her own protests. The way Phyllis acquiesces to Fred makes me think of Phyllis’ politics on marital rape—mainly, that it doesn’t exist. It’s similar to the contemporary dismissals (which can come from both the right and the left) of certain #MeToo stories as simple complaints. One of the many complicating factors in even more privileged women dismissing specific rights for all women is that they might feel they have no right or ability to claim those rights themselves.
When Phyllis and Fred sit down to dinner later, she tells him she’s not going to run again—but her mother is moving in. Here is where Phyllis really comes into her power. All those little faces she makes when people aren’t looking are less about her secret pains or frustrations (although there is that), but more about the strain of keeping those thoughts to herself. She refuses to be tragic; everything she does is to evade tragedy, including not running again. She may want it, and feel it’s her right, but she’s not sacrificing the power she does have in her family and community for much lesser powers and much bigger struggles outside of it.
Though Phyllis comforted Eleanor in private, she’s very willing to sell out her story at the mother-daughter luncheon—probably because she knows her sister has no power to fight back. She sends out her little newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, to her giant mailing list, which includes the National Women’s Political Caucus, an effective way to introduce the other characters to be featured in upcoming episodes.
There’s Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), among others. There’s also a divine moment where we go from the little TV in Phyllis’ kitchen to Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). Every one seems as much of a character as Phyllis. I’m so excited for this series.
- That CREDIT SEQUENCE. Amazing, beautiful, masterful—and Danette found the original song so now I can play it on a loop for the next month:
- I’m curious if the creators knew that the year the show premiered, 38 out of 50 states would’ve ratified the ERA—the exact number needed to officially amend the Constitution. Which means it’s one step closer to becoming law, but of course, there’s a lot more obstacles now than there were in 1972...
- Edited to note: Mrs. America is an FX on Hulu series.
- You can learn more about passing the ERA here, and more about the tangled web of legality here.
- Hi there, I’ll be recapping Mrs. America for the A.V. Club! As a teenager, I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and considered Phyllis Schlafly my personal nemesis (I was a very dramatic teenager). I’ll have two more recaps up today, as the series premiered with three episodes. The stray observations will include some historical context for the series, but if you have your own to share, please post it in the comments!