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Hulu Crowns Phyllis Schlafly Mrs. America

The firebrand mother of the Religious Right has always been a foil for the feminist left. But this new biopic could go deeper.
Phyllis Schlafly

FX on Hulu, a network known for its reenactments of post-war pop history like Fosse/Verdon, is tackling yet another touchstone: the war over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment from 1972 to 1982, in a miniseries that debuts April 15. 

But what might make this appointment TV for conservative viewers is that Mrs. America frames the story not through feminist firebrands like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), but through the woman who became their Waterloo—Religious Right founding mother Phyllis Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett. As such, it’s time for us to take our own look back at how “Mrs. America” redefined Republicanism and conservatism in her heyday.  

For the liberal left, she was always a foil. Margaret Atwood said she used Schlafly as the model (along with a side order of Jan Crouch and Tammy Faye Bakker) for boss-wife “Serena Joy” in The Handmaid’s Tale. And one look at Dana Carvey’s upswept hairdo, pastel skirt-suits, and judgy facial expressions left little doubt as to whom his famous SNL “Church Lady” was based upon.  

But Schlafly, who died aged 92 in 2016, and had been campaigning for Donald Trump to the very end, remains a conservative hero to this day, particularly with the pro-life grassroots.

That is because it was Schlafly’s mass mobilization of working class, overwhelmingly Evangelical, Greatest and Silent Generation housewives and mothers, combined with well-placed attacks on the Republican establishment, that helped redefine the GOP over this period into the socially conservative and populist party it is now today. It was Schlafly’s vocal perseverance during the tumult of the Equal Rights Amendment push, then as a pro-life hawk for decades later, that cemented her as a leader of this movement.

Mrs. America appears committed to sussing all of this out, and more. It brings Schlafly in to complicate and color, rather than delivering the usual broad brushed treatment of the era.

The ERA was intended to empower women and expand their opportunities. Instead, the fight over the ERA, along with the concurrent Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, came to symbolize the dis-empowerment of socially conservative women. The ERA happened at the precise moment when liberal state governors and federal judges began repealing and striking down laws against abortion and homosexuality, and liberalizing divorce laws. Religious conservatives felt that these new changes were “erasing their existence.”  

Many of Schlafly’s opponents thought she was a Class-A hypocrite: an educated, wealthy white woman (who no doubt had domestic help) telling her overwhelmingly lower-middle-class fan base to stay home; a power-wielding public intellectual who waxed on about hearth and childrearing. Schlafly gave back as good as she got, always making sure to sarcastically “thank” her businessman husband Fred for “allowing” her to go on her speaking engagements and book tours.  

But she never failed to portray second-wave feminism as laughably bougie and corporate, with next to nothing to offer working-class women of any race. And that, in part, is why they hated her so much.

As feminist author Susan Faludi noted in her book Backlash, one of Schlafly’s most successful strategies was framing the Equal Rights Amendment as a step down for women. Either Schlafly or one of her many volunteers coined the phrase S.T.O.P. ERA—Stop Taking Our Privileges! Schlafly ran with it, complete with “stop sign” pickets and badges.   

“Equal Rights” may have been great for a woman trying to climb the corporate ladder, said Schlafly, but what about an Edith Bunker who’d relied on her husband to support her after she stayed home and raised the kids? As the Vietnam War subsided, Schlafly asked, how would you like to see your daughters drafted into front-line combat next time, alongside your sons? How could factory women hope to keep maternity-leave exceptions, or not have to lift 50 and 100 pounds (just like a man) in order to keep their jobs? And how could you keep gay couples from getting married or trans people from using your bathrooms—if “equality of rights shall not be abridged on account of sex?”  

Forty years before Obergefell and transgender awareness, Schlafly was throwing those arguments out there. And revealingly, the very idea of gays getting married and adopting children or trans people using girls’ locker rooms was so shocking back then —including to many mainstream feminists—that most of them refused to even dignify Schlafly’s allegations with a response. Instead, many wrote her arguments off as simple hate speech, the equivalent of white supremacy. “I consider you a traitor to your sex, an Aunt Tom!” Betty Freidan sneered during a 1973 debate at Illinois State University. Civil rights firebrand Flo Kennedy famously laughed that she’d like to see someone “hit Phyllis Schlafly in the mouth!” 

Yet love her or hate her, one is hard-pressed to find even one of Schlafly’s predictions that didn’t in some way come true. Women fought and died in combat positions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gay marriage is now the law of the land. Trans restrooms and drag queens in libraries are facts of everyday life in many major cities. The divorce rate has been above 40 percent for decades. The only thing she wasn’t able to do before she died was help to overturn Roe v. Wade, but with a conservative court and President Trump at the helm, there is more of a chance than ever that it might be revisited in this lifetime.

Not surprisingly, Schlafly was a classic Cold War mother. She put herself through Radcliffe working the night shift at a defense plant during World War II. Her big break into national recognition, along with her contemporary, the influential social-conservative philosopher Harry Jaffa, came during the Goldwater ’64 campaign, where Jaffa was a speechwriter and Schlafly wrote the bestselling book A Choice, Not an Echo.

Barry Goldwater was a classic libertarian, focused on individual personal freedom. Schlafly and Jaffa were many things, but one thing they weren’t were hyper-individualists. All of them shared a revulsion at the totalitarian, statist abuses of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, so they could thereby work off the same Cold War playbook.  

Yet when “the personal became political” in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the two roads sharply diverged, setting up a battle that has smoldered from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump. Goldwater was delighted when friends and colleagues like Harry Blackmun and Warren Burger liberalized abortion laws. I don’t have any respect for the Religious Right,” he told the press. A woman has a right to an abortion.” And “Mr. Conservative” thought laws against homosexuality were “unconstitutional” relics. Quit discriminating against people just because they’re gay,” Goldwater fumed, later famously adding that it didn’t matter if a military serviceman was straight, “so long as he can shoot straight.” 

Unlike Goldwater, Schlafly and Jaffa were not nearly so optimistic.  They felt that once society stopped caring about cultural norms—against abortion, open sex, easy divorce, and self-fulfillment at all cost—the rest was bound to collapse. When you started yanking at the threads, they believed society’s sweater would soon unravel.   

One may not be a fan of the woman to appreciate what Mrs. Schlafly is trying to do here. The story of the “other side” of the feminist movement is one that’s been too long overlooked in recent years. On one hand the militant left started to become the thing they feared the most—lurching toward the fascistic. Conservatives were able to use this fight to remake her own party to match the times and become politically relevant. 

That job was tough enough for the strongest man. But Phyllis Schlafly proved that it was a job made for a woman.

Telly Davidson is the author of the book Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player. He also worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”