Considering its relatively quiet release on Hulu on April 15, it’s astonishing how compelling “Mrs. America,” the streaming service’s newest miniseries, is, both as a portrayal of political history and as a riveting television drama. Hulu released just the first three episodes of “Mrs. America,” a show that follows the 1970s movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which is a proposed piece of legislation — it remains unpassed today — designed to guarantee legal rights for Americans regardless of sex. Each episode examines the story and perspective of different central figures in the narrative.
While the first three episodes center around three different individuals — conservative organizer Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), feminist activist Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Congresswoman-turned-presidential-candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) — the show primarily concerns Schlafly’s efforts to oppose the ERA and prevent its ratification. Schlafly is the titular “Mrs. America,” operating against an era of energized social movements and a desire for progressive social politics. Bolstered by compelling performances from its cast and a seamless recreation of the decade’s political atmosphere, “Mrs. America” excels in its examination of a critical chapter in the feminist movement’s history.
The first episode “Phyllis” introduces the protagonist of “Mrs. America,” with a focus on Schlafly’s plans to start her own congressional campaign and seek endorsements from high-profile Republicans. Schlafly’s individual exploration of her own political ambitions is juxtaposed against conversations in the media, the government and the general public about the ERA.
Although the series still manages to circle back to Schlafly’s storyline, the second and third episodes primarily center on Steinem and Chisholm. Steinem, a member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, works closely with Chisholm as the congresswoman initiates her presidential campaign. The tension that emerges in these episodes highlights the more nuanced divisions between the women of “Mrs. America.” While the Schlafly-led conservative women may hold an opposite ideological stance to those at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement, arguments emerge between Chisholm, Steinem and other feminist organizers like Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) over issues of race, labor and abortion.
Of the central figures, Aduba captures Chisholm’s spirit, attitude and emotions with a sense of ease and dignity. Far from being a historical impression based solely on appearance and imitation, Aduba’s performance relies more on relaying Chisholm’s experience with depth and sincerity. Byrne bears a striking resemblance to Steinem — especially when donning the latter’s signature 1970s garb and sunglasses — but seems to focus more on her likeness to the feminist icon and less on capturing her motivations. Still, with a cool and sophisticated performance, Byrne provides “Mrs. America” with a sharp, modern edge to contrast the traditionality behind characters like Schlafly.
But ultimately, Blanchett runs away with the most memorable performance in the show, as she imbues Schlafly with all the contradictions and complexities that history never truly gave her. Several moments in “Mrs. America” indicate Schlafly’s own exhaustion with the patriarchal system that prevents her from pursuing a full-fledged political career. The Schlafly of “Mrs. America” is visibly irked at the subtle, sexist jabs that continue to be dealt, and yet, she manages to convince the conservative people around her that she’s never felt discriminated against. It’s difficult to determine how much complexity the writers and Blanchett allotted to the real-life conservative figure, who, on paper, seemed uncomplicatedly attached to her anti-feminist convictions. While Blanchett’s performance undoubtedly makes Schlafly impossible to root for, she is incredibly compelling to watch.
“Mrs. America” arrives at an interesting moment in American politics. Although the show follows, in part, the journey of the first woman of color to run for president, we in 2020 find ourselves still effectively deciding between two white men to hold the position. And while the show examines each of the ERA’s opposing forces, we know from history that Schlafly will emerge victorious. What we can expect from the show, then, is a portrayal of the interactions between women with complex identities, differing ideologies and varying degrees of power — and how a piece of legislation based on the seemingly widespread notion of gender equality was ultimately defeated.