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Mrs America, the first woman President the US never had?


ON Wednesday I sat down to watch the opening double bill of the FX historical drama Mrs America on BBC 2. I had been looking forward to this series ever since I found out it was being made. For those of you who do not know, it is a nine-part show loosely detailing the conservative backlash against the Women’s Liberation Movement and their determined campaign to insert the Equal Rights Amendment into the US Constitution during the early Seventies.

Rose Byrne plays one of the most famous libbers of that time, Gloria Steinem, and Cate Blanchett takes on the title role of traditional housewife and activist Phyllis Schlafly, aka the quintessential Mrs America. Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Banks also star. The show is set in a time of social upheaval and legal change: civil rights, the war in Vietnam and gender equality.

Feminist campaigners are confident that their ERA will be passed with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. That is, until Mrs Schlafly comes along with her pretty dresses and coiffed updo and puts a spanner in their dreams of an egalitarian utopia. The ERA ends up being defeated due to Phyllis’s successful grassroots advocacy and composed debating style.

So naturally Mrs Schlafly has been portrayed over the years and in Mrs America itself as a cold-hearted, paranoid, power-hungry gender traitor. According to her critics, consumed with institutionalised misogyny, she betrayed other women and set the fight for women’s rights back at least fifty years. There’s even speculation that she formed the basis of the character Serena Joy Waterford, the deceived and embittered Commander’s wife in The Handmaid’s Tale. But this kind of attack is nothing new. Phyllis Schlafly was a conservative woman (she died in 2016) and conservative women are common fodder for hypocritical, sexist vitriol aimed from all sides: Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Kellyanne Conway, to name but a few.

Despite their rhetoric of sisterly support, Left-wing feminists seem to be anything but warm to other women who do not think or live like they do. Phyllis was a happily married mother of six, a proud homemaker, devout Catholic and staunch Republican who believed in limited government and states rights. In other words, anathema to the likes of Steinem and second-wave feminist Betty Friedan who infamously compared being a housewife to living in a comfortable concentration camp.

Homemakers and stay-at-home mothers have for too long been dismissed and demeaned by the feminist elite and made to feel unwelcome in the modern women’s movement. But if they took the time to do some research on women such as Phyllis Schlafly (as I did when I first heard of her a few years back) they would take her a bit more seriously.

Before she married, she worked as a technician in an ammunition factory during World War Two. She earned first and postgraduate degrees from Radcliffe College, wrote and distributed a regular newsletter, ran for Congress twice (albeit unsuccessfully) and spoke out on issues such as national defence and arms control. Yes, just your average repressed cipher. When they could not question her intelligence, they labelled her a hypocrite for advocating domestic duties over a career.

Except that Mrs Schlafly never said that every woman must marry, have children, and stay at home. She made only the valid point that if a woman decides to marry and raise a family, she will have to make sacrifices elsewhere otherwise she will end up not doing any job well and feel miserable because of it. Which sadly has become all too evident in this post-feminist world. ‘You can have it all’ is the biggest lie sold to women in the past century.

Not to mention that when she started her campaign against the ERA her youngest child was thirteen and she had the support of her unmarried sister-in-law, Eleanor, while she was out on the road campaigning. She openly admitted that her husband would chastise her for being away from home so much, which seemed to raise the women’s libbers’ hackles even more. Her honesty affronted them profusely.

Of course, this unfair and spiteful depiction continues even now with how she is portrayed in Mrs America, judging by the first two episodes at least. It is Hollywood after all. Will this change as the series continues? Probably not, but we can always hope. I am more than happy to come to the defence of the woman who could well be called the ‘American Iron Lady.’

It could be argued that Phyllis Schlafly did more for women and equality between the sexes in America and throughout the world than any supposed feminist icon these past two generations. She promoted literacy, free enterprise and individual freedom, all of which are benefits to both women and men. She rejected negative attitudes, exemplified meritocracy, told some home truths and forged her own path in life. Maybe she was the first female President that America never had?

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Laura Buckley
Laura Buckley
Laura Buckley is a writer from Co Tipperary, Ireland, where she lives with her family. When she's not writing, she's at her day job or the cinema/theatre.

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