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Mrs. America review, Cate Blanchett delivers knockout performance as Phyllis Schlafly

Mrs. America begins today on FX on Hulu. It is a limited series and features a cast of award-winning actors who deliver incredible performances told in chapters named for the key women featured in the series, starting with “Phyllis” today.

The first time I heard the name “Phyllis Schlafly” was back in the late ’70s. I read an excerpt in my mother’s Cosmo magazine from a 1977 book, Phyllis Schlafly’s penned advice published in “The Power of Positive Women.”

It said women should always be dressed, made up, and perfect whenever their husband was going to and coming home from work.

Her rationale? His secretary was dolled up every day, and so she [the wife] must be mindful to keep his interest and always be appealing, lest she earns a big fat divorce.

Schlafly, of course, was much more than a grooming advisor for America’s weary housewives. She was a prolific writer and author and a tour de force for her team, the GOP.

These conservatives felt culturally under siege during the ’60s and early ’70s riotous social upheaval that saw political assassinations and a bloody Vietnam war that aired nightly on live television, as well as racial and gender injustices flipped on their head.

Her tribe’s vision of America was deemed antiquated. The patriarchal and traditional family, and this God-fearing place that was the US of A, was challenged at every turn.

And even though I was just a child, vividly I remember my mother’s NOW (National Organization of Women) meetings held at our home, and Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazines coming to the house in the post (along with those Helen Gurley Brown Cosmopolitan magazines).

The feeling that the universe was changing and anything was possible for a girl.

The series Mrs. America artfully depicts all of this energetic shift in American politics, gender rules, and social mores.

This series reveals that the woman who I had written off as a ’50s era kook, was one of the biggest reasons the GOP is as organized and successful in pushing their agenda today.

Schlafly is owed a debt of gratitude by their ranks.

And Phyllis was like no one else, all of her hard work and organizing accomplished before the Internet, before cell phones and online groups and social media.

She galvanized a base, focused their efforts, and spoke eloquently to their platform. She was – politics aside – a magnificent communicator blessed with a sharp legal mind and a take no prisoners approach to getting her way.

Mrs. America, take a bow

Cate Blanchett
Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly is a tour de force, in Mrs. America for FX on Hulu Pic credit: FX/ Hulu

Actor Cate Blanchett does her a great service in her what should be considered an award-winning interpretation based on the cumulative research that she and producers Dahvi Waller and Stacey Sher fleshed out in this nine-part limited series airing on FX on Hulu.

Also of note are the stellar performances by Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, Tracey Ullman, Margo Martindale, Niecy Nash, Uzo Aduba, and John Slattery cast as Schlafly’s husband.

The creatives are executive producer and director Ryan Fleck, executive producer and director Anna Boden, creator and executive producer/writer Dahvi Waller, executive producer and star Cate Blanchett, executive producer Stacey Sher, and executive producer Coco Francini.

Their combined efforts retell the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a simple statement that declares we are all equal regardless of gender.

Initially dismissive of it, Schlafly was swayed to interpret this legislation as an existential threat to her world, the wife, the mother, the backseat power to the male throne.

The series introduces the players of the era, the second wave feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and Jill Ruckelshaus and more.

We get details of their own inner political struggles and power plays, including the riffs and communication disconnects between the white and black feminist factions.

The series serves as a historical lesson that shows how the grassroots efforts and dogged organizing and cajoling and connecting that Schlafly was able to do birthed the Reagan Revolution and the Moral Majority.

Her efforts, and the results we live with to this day, is reflected in a world-view divided America.

Mrs. America is absolutely riveting thanks to Oscar-winning actor Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the nuances and frustrations subtly doled in her jaw-dropping perfect performance.

The accolades must be shared too with many scene-stealers, including a spot-on Rose Byrne cast as Gloria Steinem, and pitch-perfect Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug.

The performances by Uzo Aduba cast as congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Niecy Nash as Flo Kennedy, a feminist activist, and lawyer, and also a friend and confidant to both Gloria Steinem and Chisholm, who created the Black Feminist Organization from salon-style gatherings in her apartment, will blow you away.

Also, look for Elizabeth Banks cast as Jill Ruckelshaus, and Tracey Ullman who shines as Betty Friedan.

Sarah Paulson cast as Schlafly’s friend, John Slattery cast as her husband, and a poignant turn by Jeanne Tripplehorn cast as her unmarried sister is memorable and profound.

Our chat with Cate Blanchett, Dahvi Waller and Stacey Sher for Mrs. America

On a recent conference call, Monsters and Critics participated and was up first to ask Cate, Dahvi, and Stacy:

After watching the first three episodes, I really felt that Phyllis was the architect of the strength of the GOP today and her work really set in motion their organizational skills. I wondered if all three of you could talk to that, especially Cate, how you interpreted her as you played her?

Cate Blanchett: Well, she’s such a polarizing figure and quite contradictory. But it’s undeniable that I think she is a contemporary woman who’s really changed the course, as you suggested, of the American political landscape.

And I think she did that by shifting the language. She really did move the notion of anti-abortion, which then became her life as a central plank into the Republican party and conflated that with being pro-American and pro-family and characterized the feminist movement as being anti-family.

So, the language, the rhetoric, which she employed during the course of the campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment has had a profound influence in the way the Republican party not only talks to the American populace but talks to itself about what it stands for.

Dahvi Waller: To add to what Cate was saying, prior to the 1970s, politically conservative women were not organized in any way. And what Phyllis did was she organized not only Catholic women like herself, but she reached out to all other religious denominations who were socially conservative.

And she organized all of them into a very strong block. And they really became some of the foot soldiers in the Reagan revolution.

Stacey Sher: Adding to what Dahvi said, you really see the shift from socially liberal Republicans like the Fords into that Reagan revolution, which was a direct link to the time that she got engaged.

Mrs. America, in conclusion

Tune in to see how Phyllis rose to prominence and organized a network of supporters from the late ’60s as she built her base using a typewriter, and the US mail.

Her newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, was the alpha and omega to her power and reach. It was how she took on the ERA campaign, a brilliant marketing and public relations’ disruptor power play.

She was a superpower. So was Gloria Steinem who is still with us today.

Interestingly we find out that Steinem avoided any debate or appearances with Schlafly. That was not the case with Betty Friedan.  The series also shows their strained relationship during the rise of the women’s liberation movement.

Make every effort to see this excellent series.

Mrs. America airs on Wednesday, beginning April 15, on Hulu.

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April is an accredited entertainment writer, interviewer and television critic. She is a current member of the Television Critics Association (TCA), Gay and Lesbian Entertainment... read more
April Neale
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