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Something for the Weekend: “Mrs. America” on iPlayer

The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg marked the departure of a liberal icon from the Supreme Court.  “RBG”, as she became known as, was more than just a judge, she was a media star, admired and emulated by others.  Although President Trump has promised to appoint a woman to take her place, it looks like they will be of a far different ideological persuasion.  One candidate, Amy Coney Barrett, is reportedly a member of a religious group called “People of Praise”; members of this group are each given an advisor.  A male advisor is called a “head”, a female one, a “handmaid”. 

How did America end up with women with such starkly contrasting views as Bader Ginsburg and Coney Barrett?  The recent miniseries, “Mrs. America” goes a long way to explaining how. 

“Mrs. America” presents two starkly contrasting views of the role of women in the United States: on the liberal side, it’s shown as a team effort.  There are feminist icons like Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne) and Representative Shirley Chisholm (played by Udo Aduba).  Chisholm was the first African American woman to mount a major campaign to run for President of the United States.

The perspective of the right is centred around one character, Phyllis Schlafly, expertly portrayed by Cate Blanchett. 

The sides clash over the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.  At one point, it was not deemed particularly controversial to use a constitutional amendment to give women equal rights to men.  Schlafly founded the “Stop ERA” campaign to suggest otherwise.  There is an irony for those who choose to see it that a career minded, ambitious woman like Schlafly would be so opposed to an amendment that would help her achieve her dreams.  Nevertheless, something in Schlafly compels her to push ever rightward. 

The struggle is played out through the 1970’s.  We see the ideals of the 1960’s start to fade and die.  Some of the action centres around the ill-starred 1972 campaign by South Dakota senator George McGovern for President: to observe the mixture of beliefs among the liberal camp was interesting.  Some felt McGovern wasn’t solid enough on women’s issues: this took me somewhat by surprise given that McGovern is probably the most left wing major candidate for President until Bernie Sanders arrived.  Others spoke about McGovern as if he was likely to win: polling was less of a fine art in 1972 then it is these days, however it was clear given Nixon’s advantages that the liberals simply weren’t paying attention.

If the ground was slipping out beneath the liberals’ feet, the rewards for Schlafly’s work were difficult to find.  She wanted to run for public office.  She was thwarted.  She was hopeful of a cabinet post at one point, particularly given her support for Reagan in 1980: this did not occur because Reagan deemed her too polarising.

To this day, there is no Equal Rights Amendment on the books, despite having been passed by a majority of states as well as by Congress. The battle between liberals and revanchists carries on: the two sides, if anything, have grown further apart.  Was there ever a time that a compromise could occur?  Perhaps if Schlafly was a different person, perhaps if the liberals were more flexible in their tactics.  We will never know.  This fascinating study in an American movement is not just a guide to how we got to know, but points to what the future may hold: if Amy Coney Barrett does take Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place, it will be yet another battle in a much longer war.  

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25 Sep 2020

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