wed 12/08/2020

Mrs America, BBC Two review - how a conservative revolutionary scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment | reviews, news & interviews

Mrs America, BBC Two review - how a conservative revolutionary scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment

Mrs America, BBC Two review - how a conservative revolutionary scuppered the Equal Rights Amendment

Cate Blanchett as the Republican housewife superstar who battled the Seventies feminists

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly

In the midst of our increasingly confrontational politics of race and gender, it was a timely move to make this series (on BBC Two) about Seventies radical feminism and the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the USA, even if some of the minutiae are liable to sound abstract or alien to British viewers. Cate Blanchett storms brilliantly to the fore as Phyllis Schlafly, a proud Republican housewife and champion of traditional family values, and staunch opponent of the Amendment.

Schlafly is that bewildering paradox, a conservative revolutionary, which apparently is what lured Blanchett to the role. Though a dedicated wife and mother who’s happy to parade in a stars-and-stripes bikini at a political rally, she’s also independently-minded and a ferocious campaigner. For instance, she’s a formidable expert on defence and nuclear arms control, and determined to stop Richard Nixon signing the SALT treaty with the Russians. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress herself, and wrote her self-published book A Choice not an Echo in support of Republican Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign (he lost, but the book sold three million copies).

Thus it seems perverse that she would be so strongly opposed to the ERA, which was designed to give all American citizens equal rights regardless of sex. However, it’s when she learns that the Amendment could mean women being sent to fight in Vietnam and the abolition of alimony payments that she begins to bridle against it. Perhaps even more, as she explains in a rousing speech to her supporters, she can’t stand the idea of “a small elitist group of north-eastern establishment liberals putting down the homemakers.”She also knows that her confidence and magnetism are potent weapons against the stodgy, complacent men she meets on her visits to Washington. She easily bats away their pomposity and ingrained sexism, traits deftly exposed in a scene where she’s running rings round them in a meeting, and they delegate her to take the minutes because she has the nicest handwriting. There are some finely-played two-hander scenes with her husband Fred (the excellent John Slattery), who has reluctantly supported her political ambitions but chafes at the way she can’t help outshining him.

Meanwhile it looks as if the feminists are cantering to victory in getting the Amendment passed, until they realise that Schlafly’s campaign is gathering support and becoming a potent threat. As Betty Friedan (bruisingly portrayed by Tracey Ullman) puts it: “We should be worried about her. Mussolini was very popular.” When she appears on Phil Donahue's TV show, Schlafly is billed as "anti-feminist".

Rose Byrne (pictured above with Ullman) makes a charismatic Gloria Steinem, as we see her launching the pioneering feminist magazine Ms. and trying to keep the flaky Senator George McGovern on-message about getting “reproductive freedom” on to the statute books. Eyeing Schlafly and her homely army of envelope-stuffers and bread-bakers, Steinem proclaims that "these housewives are the last gasp of the patriarchy", but they were its last laugh too. Steinem will join Friedan, Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Udo Azuba) in forming the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Sometimes Mrs America can resemble a crash course in political science, but it’s lifted by the strength in depth of its cast, and communicates a sense of history being made before your eyes. With its funky Seventies soundtrack, period-feel graphics and slightly granular picture quality, it’s a trip back in time while shining a light on the present.

They delegate her to take the minutes because she has the nicest handwriting

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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