In a key scene of Hulu’s new mini-series Mrs. America, an unexpected cadre of organized housewives arrive at the Illinois state legislature before a crucial Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratification vote in 1972. A slow-motion scene juxtaposes young and stylish feminist protestors with their conservatively-dressed homemaker counterparts as they prepare to lobby legislators in what was considered an uncontested pro-ERA outcome. A Gloria Steinem voiceover (Rose Byrne) remarks, “these housewives are the last gasp of the patriarchy, brainwashed to believe that if they don’t play the game, they will lose the love and protection of men.”
This persistent feminist dismissal of the possible political influence and grassroots mobilization of conservative women is a pervasive theme of Mrs. America. The mini-series follows the historic clash between different visions of feminine futures through the fight over a Constitutional amendment designed to enshrine gender equality as the law of the land. With an all-star cast, including Cate Blanchett as the charismatic leader of the STOP ERA movement Phyllis Schlafly, viewers are introduced to the leaders, stakes, confrontations, and coalitions that characterized the women’s liberation movement and its critics during the 1970s.
The meteoric rise of Phyllis Schlafly is foreshadowed early on when feminist leaders of the National Women’s Political Caucus meet to celebrate the presidential bid of one of their own, the first Black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) dismisses news of Schlafly’s mobilization against the ERA as a reactionary ‘fringe’ position while Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) underscores her irrelevance as she mispronounces her name. This expression of hubris continues as the women’s movement becomes fractured over disagreements on policy priorities. Should abortion be a central issue for the Democratic party platform? How do gay and lesbian rights factor into the feminist agenda? The contributions of Black women activists are clearly overlooked while strategies to minimize the anti-ERA movement gradually falter.
By contrast, Schlafly coalesces and expands her political network. She marshals conservative support by advancing a narrative of protecting families and traditional gender roles. Although her activism ironically takes her away from what she sees as her duties at home, she builds an unprecedented political coalition of religious-based groups including Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and others to prevent the ratification of the amendment. This broad-based partnership sets the stage for the electoral influence of the ‘values voter’ and the Moral Majority into the 80s and beyond. In fairness, the homogeneity of conservative Christian culture in the U.S. has made coalition-building far easier on the right than for progressive activists of any stripe. If anything, this advantage has only grown.
Schlafly’s efforts as depicted in Mrs. America unsettle liberal and progressive expectations from the past, but her success is also a specter that looms in the present. Just beneath the surface of President Donald Trump’s call to “make America great again,” we can hear echoes of Schlafly’s message of a nostalgic return to a mythic past. The political and moral acrobatics required for Schlafly to simultaneously advocate for divinely-ordained female subservience to men while being at the forefront of U.S. political grassroots organizing feels at home within the contradictions of today’s evangelical conservative establishment that claims God’s blessing over Trump’s Presidency despite his extensive history of immoral behavior.
Yet the failed ERA campaign represents an antecedent to the frustrating contemporary reality for those on the left: that well-articulated arguments, logically consistent positions, and educated viewpoints do not always hold the social or political capital we expect them to have among American voters. An appeal to facts doesn’t always get voters to the polls or citizens involved in political causes. Pointing out contradictions in a policy platform may not always lead to support for the alternative.
This predicament of American progressive politics isn’t an indication that activists and organizers don’t fight hard enough to expose these inconsistencies, it’s that they don’t take conservative commitment to their values seriously enough. Like Betty, Bella, and Gloria from the 70s, they dismiss this appeal to tradition as reactionary, fundamentalist, or irrational—the last gasp of the patriarchy, a desperate attempt to stay relevant, or a set of political commitments that will die out in time.
Realizing a future of liberation requires thinking beyond this assumption of inevitable outcomes. It requires moving beyond a disdain for conservative beliefs to open up new possibilities for reframing the language of progressive politics. What if the leaders of the feminist movement recognized the political potential of organized housewives? What if earlier engagement with Schlafly would have tempered the momentum of her movement? What if progressive women also leaned into their religious networks to underscore the diverse liberation traditions within American Christianity?
But we don’t need to engage in speculative history to realize the futures that could have been. Today, the stakes are higher than ever with the erosion of civil liberties, women’s rights, and LGBTQ issues. We face the possibility of conservatives monopolizing the language of freedom, values, and religious charge for another election cycle. This new imagination doesn’t require us to abandon or compromise on core values of the progressive movement. Instead, it presents an opportunity to advance our causes by having the courage to reclaim the language of morals and faith-based activism.