The third episode of Mrs. America, set in July of 1972, when the contentious Democratic National Convention took place, begins and ends with scenes that echo each other.
The opening takes place during a meeting at Phyllis Schlafly’s comfortable suburban home, where her gang of housewives are beginning to build their anti-ERA effort into a national campaign. The ending features a self-satisfied Phyllis in her bomb-shelter-esque basement, which is filled with canned goods, gas masks, and other emergency items that could be needed when Russia drops the big one. Both of these scenes show us white women in safe spaces as they revel in the idea that they can organize their way to hanging on to all the advantages they already possess. To that point, in the first sequence, Phyllis and her fellow anti-feminists decide to call their group STOP, an acronym for Stop Taking Our Privilege, an absolutely laughable name that underlines how completely blinkered they are to a world beyond their own.
The song used in the opening sequence, Anita Bryant’s 1960 hit “In My Little Corner of the World,” conveys that narrow-mindedness musically with lyrics like these: “Come along with me / To my little corner of the world / Dream a little dream / In my little corner of the world / You’ll soon forget / That there’s any other place.” In yet another echo, the piece of music featured in the last scene is also by Bryant, a white female pop singer and very vocal opponent of gay rights; this time we hear her version of the patriotic “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she performed at the most American of all events, the 1971 Super Bowl.
The irony of all this — or one of them, anyway — is that this episode is called “Shirley” and is supposed to focus on Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and the first African-American to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. The fact that she’s not in the picture at all in the beginning or the end seems deliberate, since “Shirley” is largely about the lack of intersectionality in the feminist movement. Shirley Chisholm is ultimately sidelined by a system run by white men and enabled by white women. Even the structure of the episode reflects that.
Does that sound like pretty heavy TV viewing? It could be, but in “Shirley,” written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Amma Asante, both black women, Mrs. America once again pulls off what seems to be this show’s signature: an ability to tackle history with depth and substance while making television that’s compelling and invigorating to watch.
Mrs. America is also stacked with great performances. Uzo Aduba is the standout in “Shirley.” She’s defiant and proud when Bella (Margo Martindale) tells her to give up her delegates to Senator George McGovern and drop out of the race. “I didn’t get anywhere in my life waiting on somebody’s permission,” she says, her eyes brimming with contained anger but also sheer exhaustion at the predictability of Bella’s response. “If you can’t support me, get out of my way.” She’s also justifiably paranoid — she’s convinced she’s being surveilled by the government, not an unreasonable assumption considering what Nixon and his cronies were up to in the summer of 1972 — and shaken by the betrayal of her supposed sisters. “One hand won’t clap,” she says of the applause she gets from her white feminist counterparts, “and they can’t see it.”
Shirley is, of course, correct. Bella, at first, seems to be guided by pure practicality. She argues that the Democrats have to project party unity — wow, this sounds so familiar — and that Shirley can’t pick up the delegates she’ll need to secure the nomination on the convention floor in Miami. But then, frustrated by Shirley’s insistence on staying in the race, Bella erupts, noting that Shirley was endorsed by the Black Panthers. “Her campaign’s a joke,” she says, and then two seconds later: “I shouldn’t have said that.” But it’s too late. The quiet part has already been said out loud.
Meanwhile, over in the land of Schlafly, some of the white women don’t even realize they’re supposed to be quiet about their bigotry. As STOP begins its version of a convention to choose its leadership, a representative from the Louisiana chapter, Mary Frances (Melinda Page Hamilton), addresses the group and goes on a sidebar about “commie radical lesbians” and “uppity Negroes.” Alice (Sarah Paulson) and Phyllis (Cate Blanchett) are appalled, but for slightly different reasons. Alice seems genuinely disturbed by Mary Frances’s racist rhetoric, while Phyllis’s primary concern is how the overt racism might hurt the organization’s cause. It is worth noting that neither of them seems to care about the commie lesbian comments.
Phyllis is an absolute master at not sticking her neck out too far, which is why she suggests that Alice should say something to Mary Frances about the “racially charged language.” When she does, Mary Frances and her friends threaten to leave, because the real crime here is that they’ve been called racist, not that they actually are racist. Phyllis immediately plays cleanup and starts handing out leadership positions to people, including Mary Frances, while noting that all of these mini-captains will have to convey the same unified message. Phyllis gets what she wants: control over what’s being said without offending her deplorable base. (Side note: The inner celebration dance that Rosemary, played by Melanie Lynskey, is clearly doing when Phyllis throws her the role of Illinois chapter head completely cracked me up. Rosemary may be soft-spoken, but girlfriend is power hungry.)
Juxtaposing this process with what goes down at the DNC makes it clear that (alleged) democracy isn’t any more fair than the racism-enabling Schlafly method of delegating. Gloria (Rose Byrne) and Bella are convinced by McGovern’s team that if Shirley steps aside, they’ll allow for a vote on whether to include abortion rights in the party platform. At first it seems like things are going the women’s libbers’ way; a majority of the North Carolina delegation votes in support. But before the tide can turn, McGovern’s people push it back, sending tons of male delegates back to the floor to take control and make sure that the notion of being pro-choice won’t taint McGovern’s campaign.
“He put on a good show, but don’t mistake that for political power,” Shirley tells Gloria, who naïvely still thinks maybe Shirley could have a shot at being VP, or that the Democratic nominee will advocate strongly for women’s rights. “Power concedes nothing.” That statement explains the core idea in Mrs. America, that what Phyllis and STOP are trying to do is the same thing the white men in the Democratic Party and elsewhere are trying to do: hold on to their perceived power and concede nothing. The harder, longer struggle is that women, and especially women of color like Shirley, are fighting to take even a tiny piece of that power from people gripping it too tightly.
When Shirley eventually joins McGovern onstage to celebrate the clinching of his nomination, Gloria, Bella, and many other women in the audience cheer. It’s supposed to be a celebratory moment, a symbol of how far a black woman was able to get in her pursuit of the nation’s highest office. But despite her smile, what’s written all over Shirley’s face in that moment is how tired she is of just being a symbol.
The action cuts from there to Phyllis’s house, where her black housekeeper is helping her sort through her emergency-preparedness kit. The housekeeper suggests that some of the canned goods are probably still edible because the expiration dates are just there to make people buy more. Phyllis’s response: “If you want them, they are yours’.” Translation: I’m not going to eat it, but you can take my unsavory leftovers. “Shirley,” again, invites us to see the racism that exists on both sides of the ideological divide. By appearing at the beginning and the end of this episode, the sounds of Anita Bryant remind us that in American politics and culture, the music may change, but the voices that get heard stay the same.
“Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment in This Episode: It’s absolutely Shirley’s galvanizing convention speech that wins her more support, though sadly not enough to crack the highest, hardest glass ceiling. “In this country, everybody is supposed to be able to run for president, but that has never really been true,” she says. “Somebody had to do it first. So I did it.” Someone give Uzo Aduba the lead in a limited series solely about Shirley Chisholm.