A nuanced story of liberation and equality

Madeleine Pownall watches the miniseries Mrs. America on BBC2.

It is 1973 in America and the Women’s Liberation Movement is rapidly accelerating across the country. It has now been 10 years since Betty Friedan (portrayed by Tracey Ullman) published her seminal book The Feminine Mystique, which sent a rallying cry of feminism throughout the states. The pull of feminism is growing, and it has its sights firmly set on committing equality to the US Constitution in the form of the Equal Rights Amendment (or, as it’s known throughout the miniseries, the ERA). The ERA guarantees equal rights for American citizens regardless of sex. On the surface, it seems like a relatively unproblematic proposal. Today, over fifty years on, the ERA has still not yet been ratified in the US constitution.

Mrs. America showcases the enduring power struggle of the ERA in American politics, between the ‘libbers’, a group of feminist activists, and its opposers. As the tag line of the series hints: ‘opposition comes from the most unexpected places’. In historic feminist television and film, we are used to seeing high-powered men in high-powered suits being positioned as the enemy of equality. Mrs. America has a flavour of this, including one particularly gutting scene whereby the only woman politician is asked to be the meetings’ note-taker (‘you probably have the best penmanship’ the men shrug).

However, Mrs. America is unique in that it shines a light on one of the fiercest female oppositions to the ERA – a group of suburban homemakers led by the steely-eyed, pink lipsticked conservative activist Phyllis Shlafly (played by Cate Blanchett). The ‘STOP ERA’ group, shorthand for ‘Stop Taking Our Privileges’, see the ERA as a threat to traditional American values.A carnival of televised debates, parallel picket lines, and political lobbying ensues, culminating at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston.

Mrs. America raises some important questions about equality, power, and freedom of speech that, although located firmly in history, feel relevant today. The miniseries also serves as a crucial reminder that feminism is not concerned with pitting men and women against each other. The quest for equality is not a woman’s game. Ultimately, this miniseries is full of troubling but enlightening storylines that address the intersections of race and gender and the slippery, heavily contested definition of true equality. It portrays a nuanced story of liberation and equality that can inform current thinking about feminist affairs.

Madeleine Pownall is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD student at the University of Leeds

Mrs. America is available on iPlayer

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