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Women sound off on Equal Rights Amendment in ‘Mrs. America’

| Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Nia Sylva | The Observer

The TV and movie world is saturated with stories of women dominating in every sphere. FX’s new series on Hulu, Mrs. America, offers a peek at the portrait behind the portrait of the girl power trope. It is a story about the women surrounding the failed ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)— on both sides of the argument, that is.

The show’s all-star cast almost matches the power of the women they portray. Cate Blanchett stars as the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who mobilized women to fight the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. The majority of the first episode focuses on Schlafly, building narrative suspense before introducing the other side of the debate. As the plot develops, Blanchett’s Schlafly faces off against Gloria Steinem, portrayed captivatingly by Rose Byrne, along with Elizabeth Banks, who plays the only conservative feminist on the show. The male performers on the show — John Slattery, James Marsden and a few others — often find themselves playing characters with particularly punchable personalities, but who are interesting, nonetheless.

Because this show follows similarly-themed releases like this year’s “Little Women” and last year’s “On the Basis of Sex,” one might be led to wonder whether it really offers a new perspective. The first three episodes, although enjoyable, do not offer an answer to this question. Even so, the show does reveal an important reality: that women’s opinions on feminism are as diverse as the women themselves. While some women want to rush forward toward reproductive freedom, others want to focus on the ERA and still others want to maintain the place in society they have. One woman is seen sobbing because she is unmarried; another presents a monologue about how being single brings her freedom, destroying her desire to get married.

Though the show is focused on female equality, it also captures the intricacies of politics and families by following a group of people who try to change the Constitution (one of the hardest feats in politics). It shows how politicians and politics change during an election year as well as the dangers of fear-mongering. The female characters’ views are all unique, and each is trying to be heard by her government. However, though the show manages to depict a variety of responses to the proposed ERA, it leaves something to be desired in terms of cultural identity. There are some women of color portrayed in the show (and the historical group of women itself was not extensively diverse), but in the coming episodes, it would do well to include more of their stories.

The show may not offer a fresh perspective on feminism, but it does offer a fascinating historical account of why the ERA failed. The costuming is beautiful, and the “ping pong” style of dialogue is accompanied by a well-curated soundtrack. Watching women in the ‘70s advocate for all the same issues that women advocate for today can be disheartening in one breath and encouraging in the next. New episodes of Mrs. America are available every Wednesday on Hulu.

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