‘Mrs. America’ ERA miniseries shines light on trailblazing women of color who fought the good fight
While the story is driven by Cate Blanchett’s conservative powerhouse Phyllis Schlafly, attention is paid to the women of color who fought for civil rights and to make “second-wave” feminism of the 1960s and ’70s address the obstacles they alone faced.
LOS ANGELES — “Mrs. America,” which dramatizes the Equal Rights Amendment fight that pitted a surprising and determined opponent against a deep bench of supporters, is a marvel in many ways.
The impressive cast includes Cate Blanchett and Margo Martindale. The miniseries was created by a woman, Dahvi Waller, and largely written and directed by women. It drills down on how the constitutional amendment was blocked while deftly painting both the broader and finer points of America circa 1970, when a wife, as a jaw-dropping moment illustrates, needed her husband to co-sign for credit.
One more achievement: While the story is driven by Blanchett’s conservative powerhouse Phyllis Schlafly, attention is paid to the women of color who fought for civil rights and to make “second-wave” feminism of the 1960s and ’70s — successor to the suffrage movement — address the obstacles they alone faced.
Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) are among the movement’s white luminaries featured in “Mrs. America,” but alongside them are African Americans including trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm and firebrand activist and attorney Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, who are played, respectively, by Uzo Aduba and Niecy Nash.
While Chisholm is best known, “there are many Shirleys of the world we have never heard of,” Aduba said. “That’s why it’s so exciting to see a project like this, telling not only Shirley’s story but quite a few of these women that, I would argue, the population at large doesn’t know their names.”
Chisholm was the first African American congresswoman, the first major-party black candidate to seek the presidency and the first female Democrat to run. She’s heard loud and clear in episode three, which is anchored in the 1972 Democratic convention and the machinations that pit Chisholm against what should be her sisters-in-arms.
In a revealing scene, Chisholm is pressured to end her bid in favor of eventual Democratic nominee Sen. George McGovern, with New York Rep. Bella Abzug (Martindale) chastising her for failing to get a campaign green light from the power brokers.
Aduba, a two-time Emmy winner for “Orange Is the New Black,” quotes Chisholm’s succinct reply: “I didn’t get anywhere in this life waiting on someone’s permission.”
The first three episodes of the miniseries debut April 15 on FX on Hulu, the streaming platform’s hub offering FX series and exclusive releases such as “Mrs. America.” The remaining six episodes will be out weekly through May 27, with an ensemble cast that includes Sarah Paulson, Elizabeth Banks, John Slattery, James Marsden and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
Nash (“When They See Us,” “Claws”) calls it a blessing to play an “unsung hero.”
Kennedy was “absolutely amazing. And that mouth, man!” said Nash, who watched footage of her in action and used it to shape her performance. “On set, I was like, ’Listen, do you want me to say these words, or do you want me to talk how this woman really spoke? Because she didn’t have a filter.”
A wealth of books by Schlafly, Steinem and others was part of the material that helped “craft this highly researched and very clear-eyed view of this time period,” executive producer Stacey Sher said during a Q&A with reporters.
Making the series inclusive, both on screen and off, was never in doubt, said writer-creator Waller (“Mad Men,” “Desperate Housewives”), also an executive producer.
“It was always obvious to me that you can’t tell the story of second-wave feminism without telling the story of intersectional feminism, so it was obvious that I would include women of color leaders in the story,” Waller said. “The question for me was how to do that when your way into the series is Phyllis Schlafly?”
Schlafly was a defense hawk and a onetime Republican congressional candidate who is introduced in the series as intent on derailing a U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms pact. Then the proposed ERA, approved by Congress with bipartisan support and nearing the required number of state ratifications, caught Schlafly’s eye. She argued it would subvert, not secure, women’s rights and, if both sexes could be drafted, put national security at risk.
Schlafly proved an astute grassroots organizer and champion for her cause even, as the series depicts, she faced slights by men who underestimated her.
She debated only white opponents, Waller said, so her political arc didn’t intersect with that of Chisholm or the other women of color depicted in the series, including young political leader Audrey Rowe Colom (Melissa Joyner) and activist and poet Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson).
With Chisholm, the way in was to tell “the story of Phyllis’ world and the story of Shirley’s world” and depict their thematic intersection ”of women, race and power,” Waller said.
Episode two, titled “Gloria,” is about Steinem but also focuses on Sloan (as she was then known), who was lesbian, and the pivotal 1977 National Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas. The meeting became a flash point for the “tension between whether to include race and also gay rights in the women’s movement,” Waller said.
While she would like to have made more episodes about other leaders of color, she hopes viewers are inspired to further explore their lives and achievements.
That goes for Hollywood, too.
“Mrs. America” did its best to honor overlooked women but is “by no means comprehensive,” she said. “There could be a whole series just on Flo Kennedy, and I hope there are many biopics of Shirley Chisholm.”