Starring Academy Award Winner Cate Blanchett as conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly, Hulu series “Mrs. America” has been getting awards buzz. While the writers are too skilled to give a one-dimensional portrayal of Schlafly, nonetheless the broader agenda of the show is clear: to anathematize Schlafly, build up the feminists who opposed her, and ultimately, to push for a new Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
“Mrs. America” is effective propaganda against Schlafly and conservative ideas because it is not obvious. Show creator Dahvi Waller has implicitly admitted as much in interviews, saying, “I think if we don’t understand her [Schlafly’s] appeal and how she tapped into anxiety among a fairly large group of women, we won’t really understand how to get through to those women today.” The “we” listed in this is unstated but obvious—liberal feminists.
Schlafly always knew the feminist movement and corporate media would misrepresent her views and the views of other opponents of feminism. “Many women are under the mistaken impression that ‘women’s lib’ means more job employment opportunities for women, equal pay for equal work, appointments of women to high positions, admitting more women to medical schools, and other desirable objectives which all women favor,” she wrote in her prescient essay “What’s wrong with Equal Rights for Women?” which kicked off her campaign against ERA in 1972.
Schlafly grasped both the politics and the policy of ERA far better than her feminist opponents, noting that having children gives women financial and emotional security for their whole lives (which numerous studies have shown—and the larger the family, the less likely the parents will end up in a nursing home).
She understood the importance of free enterprise and male inventors in freeing women from drudgery: “The great heroes of women’s liberation are not the straggly-haired women on television talk shows and picket lines, but Thomas Edison who brought the miracle of electricity to our homes to give light and to run all those labor- saving devices—the equivalent, perhaps, of a half-dozen household servants for every middle-class American woman.”
None of this implies women did not face real problems of sexism in the 1970s or today, but the ERA was always far too blunt and misguided an instrument to accomplish what women needed. During a debate with Betty Friedan, Schlafly correctly compared ERA to killing a fly with a sledgehammer: “You probably won’t kill the fly, but you will break up some of the furniture.”
But feminist critics and the media never let facts get in the way of their narrative or their agenda. Doreen St. Felix in The New Yorker opened her review of “Mrs. America” by noting that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, reflecting the left’s intersectional obsession with sex and race.
In general, happily married women, then and now, have been happy to support politicians and political movements that reinforce traditional understandings of the sexes. According to Gallup polling during the 1970s, men were consistently more supportive of the ERA than women were.
Feminist academics, of course, are intolerant of anything that shows Schlafly as something less than a monster. University of North Carolina history and women’s studies Professor Katharine Turk took to Twitter to declare that “Phyllis Schlafly was a sexist, racist homophobe who gave cover to corporations that made millions discriminating against women, and still do.”
Fortunately, in attacking Schlafly, the left has overplayed its hand: As Inez Feltscher Stepman wrote in The Federalist, “Mrs. America’s” writers “made an enormous error in thinking that the activists’ words, even filtered through a hostile writing team, would sound as ridiculous to the average American as they do in Hollywood.”
Yes, some women may find it appealing to be a writer, physician, or partner at Goldman Sachs, but working as a drugstore clerk, as a line cook at McDonalds, or on a high-pressure sales commission to make the mortgage rather focusing on raising one’s children is less appealing even to most contemporary women.
Schlafly is not a figure beyond criticism, of course. There were unquestionably reactionary and even at times conspiratorial elements to her conservatism. But in the two most consequential fights of her time — her support for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and in spearheading the defeat of ERA in the 1970s, both against overwhelming establishment opposition in both parties — she was right and her opponents were wrong.
The feminist movement Schlafly fought is a failure. Whatever gains it helped give to a small but visible subset of elite women, a post-feminist America is one of falling fertility, rapidly rising out-of-wedlock births, exploding rates of both sexual ambiguity and confusion (just 66 percent of Gen Z identifies as exclusively straight), uncertain gender roles, religious collapse, and an explosion in latchkey kids, as their mothers feel compelled to go into the workplace regardless of their desires.
Given its legacy of failure, it is no surprise that a substantial academic literature has shown that women (but not men) have become continually unhappier directly coinciding with the boom in the feminist movement in the 1970s. Just as has happened in our economy dominated by finance capitalism, feminism brought outsized benefits to a few in exchange for the suffering of many.
Despite the defeats those with more traditional understandings of sex have suffered in the decades since Schlafly’s ascendance, all is far from lost. In an obituary of Schlafly, who died during the 2016 presidential campaign, her feminist biographer Carol Felsenthal wrote: “Oh, to be able to hear or read her response on November 8 when Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump. Schlafly, a true believer if ever there was one, would have been certain, until the polls closed, that the Donald was soon to become President Trump.”
As the election of 2016 showed, it is Felsenthal and the creators of “Mrs. America” who are the true believers who often do not understand our society, even as they damage it with their destructive ideology. “Mrs. America” seeks to mock Schlafly and the millions of women who supported her. But is ultimately Schlafly who will get the last laugh.