It is tempting to watch the end of Mrs. America and conclude that, in the battle of Phyllis Schlafly versus feminism, nobody won.
As we see in the series finale, “Reagan,” the only Mrs. America episode named after a man, Bella Abzug gets fired by President Jimmy Carter from her role as the head of the National Advisory Commission for Women, prompting every member of the commission to resign. Carter loses the election to Ronald Reagan, a turn of events that Bella predicts will “turn back 50 years of human progress in this country.” Lastly, the Equal Rights Amendment movement stalls, and the amendment never gets ratified and added to the Constitution.
Despite her endorsement of Ronald Reagan and the surrender of her precious mailing list to his campaign, Phyllis winds up without the coveted Cabinet position she assumed she would receive. As the title cards that close the episode remind us, Jeane Kirkpatrick instead became the first woman to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and help the president formulate his anti-Communist policies. Kirkpatrick, the title card pointedly notes, was in favor of the ERA. The women on both sides of the political spectrum look powerless by the time this series is done.
There is also another way to interpret the ending of Mrs. America, and that is to conclude that ultimately somebody did win, and that somebody was Phyllis Schlafly. Though she may not have gotten exactly what she wanted in 1980, this episode, co-written by showrunner Dahvi Waller and Joshua Allen Griffith and co-directed by Mrs. America mainstays Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, goes to great pains to demonstrate that Schlafly’s crusade planted the seeds that eventually grew into the Republican Party under Donald Trump.
Reminders of this appear in abundance in this episode. For starters, there’s Phyllis and Rosemary’s blasé attitude toward lying about the crowd size (!) at the anti-ERA rally in Houston. When Alice expresses concern about stretching the truth in the press release, Lottie Beth responds, “Satan’s destructive forces are so large and well-financed, it’s easy to get confused,” which sounds not unlike something Kayleigh McEnany might say during a future White House press conference.
The misogynistic mockery of Bella and Gloria Steinem that serves as entertainment at Phyllis’s “ERA Follies of 1979” gala in D.C. (by the way, yeah, that shit really happened) proves that Trump didn’t invent the concept of making childish jokes about Democrats. Repeatedly, the justification of everything that Phyllis and her fellow conservatives are doing is framed within the context of religion. “After years of being ostracized and discounted, religious voices are being heard in the political arena,” Rosemary tells Alice, explaining why their movement is even more important than it was in the beginning. “We are winning because we have God on our side,” Phyllis proclaims in her nauseating gala keynote speech, delivered in a dress that makes her appear to have angel’s wings. Even after Phyllis forgets to pick up her daughter from college because she’s so preoccupied with what is, contrary to her own rhetoric, absolutely a career outside of the home, Phyllis tells her daughter that must do her work because “she was anointed by God.” That sounded so familiar for some reason … oh, right. That’s why.
If all that doesn’t do enough to connect the dots from Schlafly to Trump, then the introduction to Phyllis of up-and-coming Republican Paul Manafort and the shot of her pro-Reagan button from 1980, with its “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan, certainly finish the job. All of these allusions are less than subtle. Their effect is blunt, and, assuming you’re not a Trump supporter or an anti-feminist, effectively chilling.
It’s funny to think that, when this series and these recaps began, I was concerned that Mrs. America might try too hard to make the audience empathize with Phyllis. While Waller and her colleagues, not to mention Cate Blanchett, have done an admirable job of finding nuance in the woman, it’s hard to imagine anyone truly liking her by the time the credits roll on “Reagan.”
Pretty much everything Phyllis does in this episode is awful. She tells poor Pamela (Kayli Carter), who of course has a second baby, to basically put up with her husband’s abuse. She belittles Rosemary (Melanie Lynskey) by reminding her that the foreword to her book, penned by Senator Jesse Helms, was really written by one of his aides. In her speech, she implies that she’s managed to raise six children single-handedly, eliciting an understandably irked expression from her sister-in-law Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who did as much, if not more, to nurture those kids as Phyllis did. She completely tosses aside her husband’s feelings and opinions to spontaneously endorse Ronald Reagan without consulting him first. And not only does Phyllis forget to pick up her daughter, she thoughtlessly forces her housekeeper Willie (Novie Edwards) to alter her schedule and go get her, then, when her daughter gets a ride home from Alice instead, fibs and says she absolutely would have come and gotten her.
“When did you get so mean?” Alice, the divine Sarah Paulson, snaps at her during their big blow-up at the gala. The thing is, Phyllis didn’t get mean. She was always mean. Alice, now gainfully employed, just got better at seeing it. What Phyllis did get was more power, or at least the belief that she had more power, which works the same way: It allows her to show her mean side without concern for repercussions, because who would dare cross the God-anointed Phyllis Schlafly?
Well, it turns out, Ronald Reagan would. In the closing sequence of the episode, he calls Phyllis to thank her for her support — “I guess I have a woman problem,” the president-elect laughs, referring to his lower level of female support during the election — and doesn’t offer her any role in his administration. One senses that Reagan doesn’t bring her onboard for reasons that echo the one Carter’s aide gives for firing Bella: “We can’t have the president being pushed around by a bunch of women. It makes him look weak.” In both scenarios, women who have demonstrated political savviness are not taken seriously and pushed aside.
If there’s a moment to feel for Phyllis Schlafly, it is in this moment, after she’s been rejected for the job she’s always wanted and the only thing she can do is sit down and peel some apples. But you don’t feel sorry for her. She’s stuck in exactly the place that she has been claiming, for years, that women should be happy to be: the kitchen. When you earn your power from saying that women shouldn’t have the same amount of power as men, you can’t be surprised when men don’t want to grant you any. Phyllis Schlafly got exactly what she campaigned for.
But, per the acknowledgement at the end of the show that Schlafly’s final book was titled The Conservative Case for Donald Trump, maybe she got exactly what she campaigned for, just not in time for her to see it. Schlafly died on September 5, 2016, two months before Trump was elected and conservative politics got its day in the Oval Office.
To come at this from a more meta POV, maybe the real “winners” here are those of us who watched Mrs. America and earned a deeper understanding of the dynamics at work during the feminist movement that almost, almost made the ERA reality, while absorbing nine episodes of great television. One example of Mrs. America’s greatness that I didn’t appreciate until the very end: the degree to which, with the exception of Fred and maybe Marc Feigen Fasteau, all the male spouses and partners were truly support players. With all due respect to Jay Ellis, Jake Lacy, and the other actors who played these guys, it was refreshing to see men in the role that women traditionally have been cast in since Hollywood began: that of the dutiful, not entirely fleshed-out romantic partner.
Actually, the real winners in Mrs. America might be the cast. Seriously, how is this even going to work at the Emmys? Is the entire Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series category going to consist of nothing but women from Mrs. America? Maybe it should. Every performance in this was excellent.
But to bring this back to the politics of the series, the takeaway may seem to be that Phyllis Schlafly won in the end, but the finale argues just as strongly that this story isn’t over yet. In the final moments of “Reagan,” as we see footage of the real Gloria, Shirley, Bella, Betty and all the rest of these fierce feminist pioneers, we are reminded that Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017, and Illinois did in 2018, and Virginia did, too, earlier this year. We are shown footage of the 2017 Women’s March, including a sign that is completely relevant to Mrs. America’s interests: “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”
Title cards announce that the Democrat-led House of Representatives enacted a measure to rescind the deadline on ERA ratification, opening the door to it finally becoming a reality, but the Republican-led Senate is “highly unlikely to take up the measure.” That conclusion is another way of saying that the ERA battle could still be won by the “libbers” and all of their allies who have come of age since.
It’s also Mrs. America’s subtle way, perhaps, of conveying this final message: “Ladies, don’t boo. Vote.”
Favorite “Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment in This Episode: Certainly the montage and celebration at the end of the episode was great. But I loved the slow-clap, stick-it-to-the-man sight of every Advisory Commission for Women member waltzing in and placing a letter of resignation on the desk in front of Carter’s weaselly aide, including Elizabeth Banks’s Jill Ruckelshaus’s wry comment: “Like I haven’t quit the White House before.”