I’ve said this before about Mrs. America, but I’ll repeat it: it’s a real shame this show is organized by character. The strain shows in this episode as it did with “Betty,” but less because Jill Ruckelshaus is a household name and more because of the huge leaps in time and story. A million things happen in this episode, set a year after the last one, and I wish it was at least three separate episodes. The year is 1976, and the National Women’s Caucus is scattered—Betty, Gloria, and Brenda don’t even show up in this episode, and Bella and Shirley have a storyline that barely overlaps with Jill’s or Phyllis’.
That doesn’t mean they don’t at all—if there’s a thematic connection between these stories, it’s that boys will be boys, even if they’re men in leadership. It’s a phrase that echoes throughout the episode with all the tone of a depressing drag of a cigarette. As Jill tells Bella and Shirley in a meeting with Congressman Hays (Curtis Shumaker) after a particularly crude joke on the Congressman’s part, “I’m used to suffering for my cause.” It’s there that Shirley tells Bella that nothing came of her organizing an exposé on how senators regularly sexually harass their secretaries. It’s there that Phyllis smiles politely as Reagan’s campaign staff, supporters, and donors make an even cruder joke in her presence. There are countless little moments when this connection appears, and it’s so painful to watch.
What was so surreal about the first episode of Mrs. America was seeing Republicans agree without a second thought to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. I admit that sometimes I feel too young for this show—so much of the history feels like something I could only understand if I had lived through it. But this episode gave me a feeling of déjà vu—or rather, jamais vu. While I didn’t live through these events, this episode really shows how much the revolution of the ’70s led to the backlash of the much more conservative ’80s led to the political moment we’re at now. And it does so without condensing it into such basic terms like I just did, instead following so many different threads before approaching the bigger picture. It pinpoints the turning of the tide. My guess is the next few episodes will have a similar gut-wrenching effect—most of us are watching this show know that the Equal Rights Amendment will remain a few states short of ratification. But it’s still painful to feel it. It reminds me of the very same feeling I had on November 8, 2016.
And actually, the comments and actions of the men throughout the episode remind me of the week before the election, when a tape of our current president was released where he gloated about how he forced himself on women. The crude jokes the Congressmen make, the condescending cartoon they pass around during a Congressional Prayer Breakfast (!), the haunted eyes of the secretaries who tell Shirley about being sexually harassed. It’s all just “locker talk,” except these men have no shame. They don’t need to keep it in the locker room because there are literally no consequences to their actions.
Or at least they think so. Wayne Hays’ secretary, the blonde reading outside his office, is Elizabeth Ray (Hanna Galway), the main figure in the sex scandal that Shirley calls “The Washington Fringe Benefit,” the name of the roman à clef Ray would later write about the scandal. Unfortunately, the episode barely gets a chance to delve into the scandal, which sucks because it’s fascinating! “Jill” does sprinkle a few details of the story from the article breaking the story—Bella notes that Ray only got $14,000 a year to “shtup” Hays (a word that is hilariously censored in the article) and the men in Reagan’s campaign suite chuckle at her name. We even see Ray reading Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying.
While Shirley and Bella’s storyline make the subtext of the episode simply text, Phyllis and Jill approach the subject much more sideways. Which makes sense; they are Republican women after all. The first shot of the episode is Phyllis shot front and center, protesting for the ERA, before fading to a shot of Jill, front and center as she accepts the role of heading the National Campaign for the ERA. The characters themselves recognize some of their similarities, and Jill even asks Phyllis to get a drink to connect with her.
So far, Mrs. America has given Phyllis many motivations, ambition being chief among them. Jill asks Phyllis to get a drink with her, seemingly as equals. Jill points out Phyllis’s myriad accomplishments and knowledge of nuclear peace talks, letting her know Jill could definitely introduce her to Donald Rumsfeld. But this episode we see the crueler, darker side of that. When Jill opens up to Phyllis about how, in order to get money from Congress for the National Campaign for the ERA, she had to deal with men touching her constantly—
touching her arm, her shoulder, her backside. Phyllis shakes off the talk of sexual harassment, especially when it comes to the secretaries: Don’t you think, she asks Jill, “Those kind of women are really just inviting it?” Jill is appropriately appalled, which Phyllis makes fun of her for. The friendly drinks ends abruptly.
Let’s talk about Jill, shall we? It’s so fun to see Elizabeth Banks in this role. She’s such an interesting actress, having directed both the most recent Charlie’s Angels remake as well as this PSA for the American Heart Association, which is what made this episode so disappointing. There just isn’t enough of her! I wanted to learn more about Jill’s history, how she personally became part of the National Women’s Caucus and how she transitioned from Nixon’s administration to Ford’s. (She does make the smallest reference to her husband resigning in the Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon tried to make him fire special prosecutor Cox during the Watergate scandal.) We do at least get a look at her marriage, as Mrs. America is always examining the Mrs. in the title.
Jill and her husband Bill Ruckelshaus have a seeming relationship of equals, but of course on this show marriage is never that simple. Jill has a hard time trusting Ruck (as he’s nicknamed) with the kids, even though she should be chill considering Ruck’s played by Josh Hamilton, the sweet dad from Eighth Grade. At the same time, he doesn’t really know how to balance supporting his wife’s career when it goes against his. I don’t think they consider Ruck’s career as coming first, but he’s certainly got farther to go, what with being Gerald Ford’s potential VP pick. But as a man he would always seemingly have farther to go—as Jill tells Phyllis, men and women were seemingly equal in college, but men got to go off and do “interesting things.” Kind of reminds me of when I interviewed a young female astrophysicist, who told me that her college class was pretty equal across gender lines—but her coworkers were almost all men.
But on a certain level, Ruck doesn’t understand what he’s asking Jill to sacrifice for him. God, it’s heartbreaking watching those scenes. It starts small, with Ruck’s VP vetting group discussing how “outspoken” Jill is, and how that’s a liability. Jill, frustrated, agrees to Ruck’s suggestion that she stay out of the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately, Phyllis Schlafly and the Reaganites have come out in droves.
“You’re in big trouble,” says Audrey (Melissa Joyner), when she calls Jill about it. “They’re threatening to take ERA out of the platform.” She says they can save ERA if there are concessions.
Jill freezes. “Abortion?!”
Audrey says she wishes Jill could be there, but Jill does the best she can while not at the convention. She spends as much time as possible on the phone, and it’s so painful to hear what she concedes or throws out to keep the ERA—social security reform, credential challenges, childcare subsidies, and the NOW March. “Lobby every member of that committee, remind them that we were the first party to endorse in 1950,” she says.
In the end, Ruck comes to Jill and tells her he’s been passed over for Bob Dole anyway. She points out that he supported the pro-life amendment plank. “We held our own,” says Ruck, apparently blind to all of Jill’s corralling and cleaning up of the mess made from her not being at the convention. “I could’ve been there. I should’ve been there,” she says, sadly. She tells him she found the speech she gave to the 72 convention. It starts, “What a beautiful morning to be a woman, and the best possible time to be a Republican woman.”
Meanwhile, Phyllis is changing what it means to be a Republican woman. She’s frustrated her mailing list has plateaued at 10,000 members, and she scouts a way to add more people beyond the women she and her friends already know. She spends hours on the phone, and eventually starts reaching out to people of different faiths. At one gathering, she tells the people of several denominations and faiths to look to their left, and their right. “You can’t save [that person], but you can be nice to them,” she trills.
This leads to her meeting with the conservative evangelical Christian Lottie Beth Hobbs, who wrote a book about her ideology called Daughters Of Eve. She lives in a home straight out of a room at the Great Northern and looks like the Log Lady (but she’s played by Cindy Drummond). Phyllis points out she’s been lifting from Phyllis’ newsletter to publish in her own newsletter, “Have you heard?” for her organization, Women Who Want To Be Women. She has a much bigger mailing list compared to Phyllis’, and eventually opens up to sharing it with Phyllis, with the latter’s promise that it will lead to an anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ platform.
She joins Phyllis at the RNC, but Phyllis is the one called to meet with Reagan’s campaign. As Jill had told her, her mailing list is very precious to the campaign. She is invited by Congressman Phil Crane to meet with Reagan’s campaign and supporters. Reagan’s campaign manager John Sears (Brendan Halloran), Senator Jesse Helms (Brian O’Neill), and a couple of rich GOP donors greet her. “Ron wants to see your mailing list,” Sears tells her. Phyllis says he should give her a call if so. They also tell her Jerry Falwell is very interested in learning from her (although the way they say it, it sounds like he’s just going to steal her ideas).
They then start discussing the Hays sex scandal, saying that Hays should’ve “controlled his secretary,” before discussing some hella creepy jokes about how they’d do that. Even Phyllis seems uncomfortable, especially when Sears touches her shoulder and says she needs to drop the ERA floor fight. “The delegates on the fence will be upset.” But she doesn’t talk back. The episode ends with Lesley Gore’s spooky song, “You Don’t Own Me.”
- I glossed over this aspect of the episode, but I find the show’s exploration of Phyllis and her son John’s relationship so odd. I suppose she told him not to go to Wash U so he wouldn’t blow up her spot, but I felt very little watching her feel conflicted about her son. I think it’s a little bit of how the show phones in this storyline, but also because I’m just not going to relate to a woman feeling conflicted about her gay son.
- Also, part and parcel of Phyllis’ coldness towards the sexually harassed secretaries is how she similarly blames her pregnant colleague’s problems with her temperamental, emotionally abusive husband on the woman not having learned “how to control him.”
- The Ford “Keep Him” campaign slogan is one for the “how did this get chosen?” campaign slogan books. I mean, really?!
- An update on Elizabeth Ray: “Ray went on to become a standup comic, pose for Playboy, and pen a roman à clef entitled The Washington Fringe Benefit.”
- Looking up the correct spelling of Falwell, I found out why Liberty University has been kept open recently. I guess the apple doesn’t fall from the tree. As a tonic, I recommend reading Molly Jong-Fast’s excellent essay about being Erica Jong’s daughter, and her most recent essay about the current allegations against Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
- It took me a second to realize that the “Ron” they keep talking about in the meeting is indeed Ronald Reagan. He just doesn’t seem like a Ron, you know? That just makes me think of Ron Weasley. I told you I sometimes feel too young for this show.
- The VP vetting group includes DICK CHENEY, who is played by Andrew Hodwitz right down to that damn sinister little smirk. His face looks so similar to the aged version of Cheney I know that I was shocked. How did they find someone that gives me the same exact visceral chill as Cheney himself? Christian Bale who?!
- Audrey Rowe Colom is the black Republican that Jill introduced to the Caucus in the “Betty” episode, a.k.a. yet another black woman who could’ve had her own episode of this show. Dammit!