While it’s a perfectly good episode of Mrs. America, “Jill” isn’t as enjoyable to watch as some of the others have been. I’m trying to figure out why.
The installment tries to wedge a lot of historical references into its 48-minute running time, including the run-up to the 1976 presidential election, the rise of the Christian right, the growing Republican energy around Ronald Reagan, and the sex scandals surrounding Rep. Wayne Hays and other Congressmen on Capitol Hill. It’s a lot, but then Mrs. America tends to do a lot each week.
Perhaps the issue is that this week’s episode focuses on Jill Ruckelshaus, the Republican feminist played by Elizabeth Banks, who co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and, as this episode notes, was appointed by President Gerald Ford to serve as presiding officer of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. She’s an important figure in the movement, particularly from the standpoint of this episode, which examines the shift in the Republican party during this period. But she’s not as much of a character, with a capital C, as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, or Shirley Chisholm.
The fact that she’s level-headed and sturdy are Jill’s superpowers and Banks, who finally gets to stand front and center in a Mrs. America episode, captures that perfectly. She inherently understands that what Phyllis Schlafly wants is power, so, in the episode’s best scene, Jill appeals to that side of Phyllis’s personality by dangling the possibility of securing a meeting between her and Donald Rumsfeld, then serving as Secretary of Defense under Ford. It’s a “keep your enemies closer” sort of approach, but it doesn’t work. Phyllis is smart enough to see through it, but she’s also so protected within her bubble of privilege that she genuinely doesn’t grasp how the problems of many working women could ever apply to her.
Regarding the Capitol Hill secretaries expected to do sexual favors for their bosses, Phyllis asks, “Don’t you think those kind of women are just inviting it?” then adds, “Virtuous women are rarely accosted by unwanted sexual propositions.” That line is a sly reworking of the famous quote from Pulitzer Prize winner Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that will later be published in 1976: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Jill, who, perhaps like Phil Donahue, assumed a lot of Phyllis’s bluster was just shtick, is appalled by her attitude. After finishing her drink, she leaves Phyllis with this verbal hand grenade: “You want to get ahead by climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis? Fine. Just know: they’re looking right up your skirt.” That caps the one scene that puts Jill nose-to-nose with Phyllis. Maybe that’s what makes this episode slightly less entertaining: There’s not as much of that sort of stark, libbers vs. STOP ERA conflict as there was in the previous debate episodes.
Actually, the real issue might be that the things that make this episode really on-point are also what make it a bit of a downer to watch. We’re past the halfway mark in the series — only three episodes remain — which means Mrs. America is starting to more blatantly demonstrate how Phyllis Schlafly, among others, helped pave the way for the extremist, ultra-conservative politics that now defines the Republican party and stands in the way of real progress for all Americans. In other words, we’re closer to the inevitable non-happy ending of this drama, in which the ERA fails. 🎵“And you and me are free to be/You and—” 🎵
This episode shows us how Schlafly and her cohorts cannily formed an alliance with Lottie Beth Hobbs, an evangelical Christian, author, key pusher of a return to family values, and leader of a group called Women Who Want to Be Women. (Seriously, is anyone on the conservative side of the spectrum capable of coming up with a decent name for an organization?) Hobbs — played by character actress Cindy Drummond who you may recognize, among many other things, from the Geico spy commercial with the swimming pool squirrels — eventually died in 2016, almost three months to the day before Phyllis Schlafly died and five months before Trump was elected. But Mrs. America wants us to make no mistake about it: her work is part of what allowed that election to happen.
It’s fitting that this anti-pro-choice firecracker is not persuaded to join forces with Phyllis, at least in the Mrs. America version of events, until Phyllis proves that she (a) knows her way around a gun and (b) can drop a classic, racist Martin Luther quote at the right moment: “Would you rather be ruled by a wise Turk or a foolish Christian?” The problem with that quote is that Martin Luther didn’t actually say or write that, even though he’s often credited with having done so. Which is perfect for Phyllis, whose confidence is built on a foundation of ignorance.
This episode also shows us how men in Congress, including Democrats, have no qualms about harassing their secretaries and continuing to get away with their misogyny in private, while passing public legislation that suggests they will engage in more gender-equitable hiring practices. It’s no surprise that Hays (Curtis Shumaker) — who divorced his first wife, married his secretary and employed another staffer, Elizabeth Ray, who doubled as his mistress — acts impatient with Bella, Shirley, and other feminists. It’s much more disappointing to see how cavalierly other members of Congress, even on the left, treat women as they gather for the Congressional Prayer Breakfast, yet another example of the way conservative Christianity creeps into supposedly secular politics.
(By the way, if you have time to read this Washington Post article about Congressman Hays, published in 1976, do it. It’s amazing for so many reasons, including this paragraph: “He also denied ever taking Ray to dinner and claimed he hadn’t seen her, ‘all this week, or last week.’ However, two Post reporters were present when Hays dined with Ray both at the Hot Shoppes and the Chapparal restaurants in the Key Bridge Marritt Motor Hotel on different occasions, one last Monday night.” Ladies, you know a man means business when he woos you at a Hot Shoppes near the Key Bridge. This detail about Ray’s private office is also quite something: “It is next to Rep. Bella S. Abzug’s (D-N.Y.) office, in which — in only a slightly larger space — a dozen or more Abzug staffers are shoehorned into as many desks piled with office work.”)
Perhaps most importantly and distressingly, this episode shows us how hard it is to find males allies, even among men we love and trust. When Jill’s husband William (Josh Hamilton), the former EPA head and deputy attorney general who resigned during Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, is vetted as a potential running mate for Ford, he’s ultimately dismissed because of his “outspoken” wife. Hearing this news is a gut punch on two levels for Jill, first because her supposedly enlightened husband doesn’t speak up more forcefully for her and two, because the same guy who appointed Jill to that commission for International Women’s Year apparently believes he can’t risk having any feminist stank on his vice president.
For all the victories the ERA supporters have experienced, it still feels like there’s no place for them in Congress, on a presidential ticket, or anywhere else in the leadership of this country. Jill may be right when she tells Phyllis Schlafly that “there are more of us than there are of you.” But she’s dead wrong when she says that the Reagan revolution will fail. Thanks to Phyllis and Lottie Beth and other women who, as Alice puts it, “want roses not rights,” that revolution, over the long term, will experience more success than Jill, the socially progressive Republican, can imagine.
Favorite “Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment in This Episode: I enjoyed the response Hays got from Jill, Bella, and Shirley when he said, with a clear note of condescension: “So you won’t be happy until you make 100 percent of what the men make?” The immediate, in-unison reply from all three: “Yes.”