Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug. by the Forward

In ‘Mrs. America,’ only well-mannered women make history

Phyllis Schlafly is doing sit-ups.

It’s the second episode of FX’s “Mrs. America,” and the anti-feminist crusader, portrayed by Cate Blanchett, is prostrate in her oak-panelled Illinois manse, getting her reps in while the television advertises diet Fresca. “When I put on a red pantsuit and my husband doesn’t notice, that’s bad,” a model croons. Immediately after her workout, Schlafly is on the phone with women who oppose the ERA, her physical fortitude mirroring the mental determination that makes her into such a potent political force.

The scene is timeless: we may now listen to wellness gurus instead of gauzy models and say we want to be “strong” instead of slim, but the joyless waist-trimming exercises — and voices dictating how female bodies should look and feel — remain the same. The moment is also sneaky, priming the audience to sympathize with Schlafly by suggesting that she’s a victim of the patriarchy she strives to propagate. But more than anything, it’s an apt representation of Schalfly’s modus operandi: using the mannerisms of conventional, upper-class white femininity to disarm and outwit her opponents.

As Schlafly moves from simply maligning working women to stoking anti-gay paranoia, allying with extremist anti-choice factions and even collaborating with the Ku Klux Klan, her methods becomes increasingly troubling. But they work. By contrast, the behavior of “Mrs. America’s” feminist faction — including the pugnacious Congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), “The Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and feminist poster woman Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) — which the show characterizes as unmannerly in specifically feminine ways, fails more often than it succeeds. By pairing political success with good manners so often and so explicitly, “Mrs. America” argues that while there are many ways for a woman to behave, Schlafly’s is the smartest.

Throughout “Mrs. America,” Schlafly’s canniest maneuvers are accompanied by gestures of conventional femininity. She slicks on lipstick before acquitting herself well in a debate, clicks into an influential politician’s office on impossibly high heels and puts together ladies’ luncheons designed to unite suburban women behind her cause. It’s a trick that works on the home front as well: Schlafly’s husband Ted may be controlling and condescending, but when she needs a credit card, she simply brings a box of muffins to his office alongside the application. (Before the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, a woman could not obtain a credit card unless her husband acted as a cosigner.) Through moments like this, “Mrs. America” initially establishes Schlafly’s way of moving through the world as an alluring one, a way of being that promises both acceptance within the patriarchy and freedom from the limits it places on women.

Meanwhile, in cluttered Congressional offices or the chaotic headquarters of Ms. Magazine, Friedan brags incessantly about a book she published a decade ago in a tone we’ve been taught to consider strident and grating. Steinem apologizes for her perennial lateness in a stereotypically ditzy Valley girl accent. While Schlafly pushes through her sit-ups, Abzug can’t stick to her grapefruit diet for five seconds. That’s not to say “Mrs. America” fails to capture nuance within the feminists’ ranks. Almost everyone within the movement considers Friedan’s behavior egregious and unhelpful. Steinem radiates a combination of glamour and authenticity that in some ways echoes the traditionally feminine allure Schlafly cultivates. (“She’s so pretty,” says one of Schlafly’s disciples mournfully, surveying a glossy magazine portrait of Steinem. “How could she not find a husband?”) Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), America’s first black Congresswoman, carries herself with impeccable composure, but as a black woman on the political stage, there’s little she can do to prevent others from perceiving her as radically unconventional.

Their lapses in manners are ordinary, so relatable that they should be endearing. Who among us hasn’t trumpeted smaller accomplishments than penning “The Feminine Mystique,” or dared to talk while chewing every once in a while? But “Mrs. America” tacitly shames those behaviors by using them to represent larger political failings that eventually threaten the movement: Freidan’s conviction in her intellectual invincibility causes her to challenge Schlafly to a debate she bungles, while Steinem’s blithe confidence in her own popularity leads her to underestimate those who disagree with her, like the housewives who eventually emerge as a potent political force. And the show’s timing strengthens the notion that Schlafly’s methods are simply better than those of her opponents: the action takes place during Schlafly’s political ascendancy, capturing the feminist movement at a time when cracks are beginning to appear.

The New York Times called this approach “iconography without hagiography.” And the show’s refusal to view second-wave politics through rose-tinted glasses is productive when it critiques, for example, Steinem’s dismissal of pitches from the only black editor at “Ms. Magazine,” or Freidan’s description of lesbian feminists as “the lavender menace.” But when it came to making comedy from manners, I was startled by my craving for some good old hagiography. In the fourth episode, the divorced Friedan embarks on a rare first date, during which she talks a little too much about the anti-Semitism she experienced as a girl in Illinois. Her date isn’t exactly bored, but he’s definitely bemused by a woman who’s so forceful in making herself the center of the discussion. The scene is an attempt to humanize Friedan, to show that she can be both a trailblazer and a slightly bitter middle-aged woman, able both to write a seminal activist tract and to hog the conversation. It’s a nice goal, but doesn’t quite work. By inviting viewers so explicitly to chuckle at Friedan’s foibles, and cringe at her lack of social sensibilities, the show makes it too easy to dismiss her intellectual legacy as well.

And that’s the trick of “Mrs. America.” By drawing us in, by making us wish the feminists would occasionally take a cue from Phyllis Schlafly’s methods, the show points out how little the way we evaluate women who live in the public eye has changed. The behaviors for which feminists risked ridicule then still make good comic relief now. In the 1970s, it was revolutionary for a woman to aspire to power or recognition without also cultivating an appropriately pleasing exterior. Turns out, it still is.

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

‘Mrs. America’: only well-mannered women make history

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