So I have been hate-watching Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” which is ostensibly about Phyllis Schlafly’s war against the Equal Rights Amendment and the birth of second-wave feminism. It comes with the added humor of having Beatrix Potter playing Gloria Steinem. I just could not escape the mental image of Gloria Steinem making clothes for animated rabbits through the series. (What can I say? I’m easily amused.)
It’s a pretty stupid series. But then again, most of what Hulu produces is stupid. Five minutes looking at all the crap Hulu recommends and you realize the app is basically Netflix for cat ladies. I have also watched “Little Fires Everywhere,” which – despite involving the author of the book in production – somehow bears little resemblance to the novel. It’s like they said, hey, this is a good book, but let’s change a main character to make her black and make the entire story be about white privilege. But if you look at literally every role Reese Witherspoon has ever played, even since she was a child, you realize white privilege is the only role she knows how to play. So if Witherspoon’s going to be included in the cast, that’s what the story needs to be about – boobs getting you into Harvard Law School, angsty affluent housewives who commit murder, you know the drill. The story line did have the only good portrayal of abortion that I have seen from Hollywood, however – where the character does not minimize the fact that she’s deleting an actual human life, and it’s juxtaposed with a brutal custody battle (mothers sacrificing everything to keep a child). So there’s that.
All that unnecessarily long prelude is to say that it seems unreasonable to think that the people who popularized handmaid’s capes as performative oppression would have a fair and balanced portrayal of a conservative icon. And they certainly do not disappoint one’s low expectations.
Had Witherspoon not already been engaged in “Little Fires Everywhere,” you have the impression that she would have been cast in a show scripted with the sole purpose of demonizing Schlafly, because playing a rich white bitch is kind of her thing. But that role fell on Cate Blanchett, who honestly does a pretty decent role of imitating the demeanor and mannerisms of Schlafly, even if much of plot is factually inaccurate or entirely fictive. The writers rely on including just enough of Schlafly’s best-known one-liners to give the series a sense of truthiness even though precious little of it is actually truthful.
To that end, this interview with Schlafly’s biographer, Donald Critchlow, about everything the show got wrong or flat-out made up is highly entertaining:
Modeling in a Bikini
The show’s first scene finds Schlafly modeling a patriotic Marshall Fields bikini on stage at a political fundraiser.
Critchlow: “I looked through the photo album, a family photo album and I actually never saw Phyllis in a bathing suit, but if she had one it wasn’t going to be a bikini, I can guarantee you that. I mean, Phyllis never even wore anything that was a low-cut dress.”
The show injects tension over Schlafly’s professional ambitions into her marriage, depicting exasperation from her husband, Fred, who also insists in one memorable scene upon having sex despite his wife’s exhaustion.
Critchlow: “Phyllis Schlafly had a very, very, very happy marriage. It was one of great respect between her husband who was 12 years older. So the scene where she comes home and he insists upon marital relations is totally, totally absurd.”
“Both of them were extremely devout Catholics. He had immense, immense respect for her intellectually and as a person. And Phyllis Schlafly was a kind of person that you would respect. That was that was her bearing and persona both in public and in her relationships.”
“And I know from looking at Fred Schlafly’s personal papers that he had immense respect for her. I found a letter that he wrote at one point profusely apologizing to her for having raised his voice slightly at an airport over an issue, and he said it would never happen again, ‘I’ve never raised my voice at all in our relations.’ It was one of a partnership, not one of a domineering male patriarchal husband.”
“Fred really worshipped Phyllis and treated her, if I can use this word, like a princess.”
Personal Experiences with Sexism
When Schlafly is the only woman at a meeting in Barry Goldwater’s Senate office, she’s asked by an aide to take notes. She complies, but is clearly insulted by the request.
Critchlow: “A very prominent Republican senator had made a pass at her, Phyllis told me about. This was in the daytime, by the way, she thought he was drinking. He had come to visit her with another Republican at her house in Alton and Phyllis was so insulted by this, he was a conservative Republican. Phyllis had never forgotten that.”
“She wouldn’t have used these words, but she thought a lot of the men in the Republican Party who were supporting [the feminist constitutional Equal Rights Amendment] were just demeaning grassroots women, that they treated them like they didn’t know what they were doing.”
“To make her this cowering woman is absurd. I mean, she took on all of the men in the Republican establishment, including the president of United States, Gerald Ford, at that point. All of the major Republicans in the party were in favor of ERA. She took on those male figures.”
Her Relationship with Eleanor Schlafly
Schlafly’s sister-in-law Eleanor is portrayed as increasingly disillusioned with Phyllis’s activism.
Critchlow: “The depiction of the sister-in-law Eleanor Schlafly was really just downright despicable. Eleanor Schlafly had her own very active social life in St. Louis, she lived in Ladue. The idea that is expressed in the episode that she wanted to marry a divorced Catholic to see if he was eligible was—if you knew the Schlaflys or Eleanor, whom I knew quite well—really laughable. That was really a travesty how they depicted Eleanor Schlafly.”
Tolerance for Racism in STOP ERA
A scene at a STOP ERA meeting shows the leader of a Southern chapter attacking “commie radical lesbians” and “uppity Negroes,” proceeding to depict Schlafly’s efforts to keep the woman and her allies involved in the organization because they’re effective organizers.
Critchlow: “STOP ERA reached out specifically to the black community and there were busloads in Houston of black church members attending the STOP ERA conference. So there was a deliberate tactic of reaching out to black churches in particular. Similarly with the Jewish community — Phyllis Schlafly is often accused of being antisemitic, but she in the 1950s had received the award from the Jewish Christian Fellowship Committee in St. Louis.”
“In the South, in some chapters, there were women who were involved in the John Birch Society*, and there were a few, a small minority of women who have been involved in activities against desegregation. But this was a clear, clear minority. So I think charges of racism are completely unfounded.”
[*As far as reports that Schlafly was herself a Bircher, Critchlow said, “I found no record of Phyllis Schlafly being a member of the John Birch Society,” noting that the society “openly attacked” Schlafly over her books on the Soviet arms buildup.]
“Phyllis Schlafly, one of the attacks on her, was that she was working with the KKK. What happened was that the KKK, which is many organizations, one chapter in Illinois came out against ERA and claimed they were working with Phyllis Schlafly, and Phyllis Schlafly repudiated the KKK.”
“Phyllis Schlafly’s files are immense, with great correspondence between state organizers, state activists and Phyllis Schlafly and I did not find a instance of people raising racial issues. Indeed, I found a lot of discussion about reaching out to black churches. So I didn’t find a record of that. That’s not to say that some people, some of the activists, and I think some of the activists might have had racial feelings and that they opposed desegregation earlier, but not at that point.”
“There’s no record of [Schlafly tolerating racism.] In fact, Phyllis Schlafly actively worked for Richard Nixon in the ’68 campaign and her role in that campaign was trying to persuade voters who might go for Wallace to vote Richard Nixon. The race issue in the ’68 campaign, in the Wallace third-party run was important, and Phyllis Schlafly stood on the side of Richard Nixon.”
Her Relationship with the Family Housekeeper
The show implies towards the end of Episode 3 that Schlafly lack of self-awareness insulted her African-American housekeeper
Critchlow: “They did have a black housekeeper that was really part of the family. After Fred had died and Phyllis had moved from Alton to St. Louis, she continued to work in the home. I think she was an important figure in the house. I got to know her, I spoke to her just individually. She was quite forthcoming, and she had great respect for Phyllis Schlafly.”
The final scene on Episode 3 follows Schlafly into the basement of her home, which is stocked with gas masks and canned goods.
Critchlow: “I never found any evidence they were expecting a nuclear attack… I didn’t get any sense that she was a prepper. She was worried about the Soviet arms buildup. I don’t think she was worried about a direct attack at that point from the Soviet Union, so that seems a little absurd to me.”
Overall, Critchlow, who says he disagreed with certain views of Schlaflys but had a great relationship with the activist, remarked “it was really deplorable, quite frankly, how they depicted Phyllis Schlafly.”
“It wasn’t just her, but the people who were involved in her campaign, were depicted as either opportunists, or fools, or just completely misguided,” he added.
“Phyllis,” whom Critchlow described as “extremely warm” in intimate social settings, “could be very abrupt,” he said. “She could be quite charming, she had a really funny sense of humor, she was quite gracious.”
“Mrs. America” benefits from beautiful directing and some genuinely award-worthy performances (Rose Byrne). But the show obviously contorted Schlafly to fit a narrative, peddling egregious factual inaccuracies that undermine the historical record of her character. That does a disservice to viewers, and to our shared understanding of the past. As Critchlow’s insights demonstrated, the truth is more interesting than fiction anyway.
I mean, none of these are small details to get wrong. What Hulu is doing is a full-scale revision of someone’s life with the purpose of making her seem like she mentally ill, racist, and desperately wants to be someone who is less than she is.
I think it is interesting that folks on the left feel the need to lie on this scale about someone whose life is well-researched, has been written about extensively, and is available in the public record. I guess they think if they make a lie go viral, they won’t have to – gasp – engage her ideas. This isn’t a new thing with respect to Schlafly in particular, either. Amy Sherman-Palladino did the same thing in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Her idea of feminism is not a woman campaigning for office (when doing so was rare) so much a comedienne full of mindless dick jokes, evidently.
But this ranks right up there with CNN faking Chris Cuomo “officially” emerging from his coronavirus quarantine after he’s been all over tabloids out playing in the Hamptons with a group of his family and friends. They know that you know it is a lie on some level, but they are betting (probably correctly) that some folks within their audience would prefer a glitzy lie to engaging real human beings, their real lives, and their real philosophies.
And this is why folks will never, ever be able to get along.