BBC3’s Mrs. America: A History Lesson I Certainly Needed

Need something new and empowering for your viewing pleasure?

How much did your school really teach you about the Women’s Liberation Movement? Did you go to university imagining you’d discover it all, reading Betty Friedan under a tree on campus? Or do you cringe when someone talks about feminist literature and think, I really need to read… or I really need to know more about… Same.

Realistically, we are all busy and when you live your feminism in your day-to-day, it’s hard enough already without devouring a library of feminist literature and history and social theory. Also, why did no one teach me this in school? My history A Level can tell you all about the Henrician Reformation and every Duke and Viscount and whoever, but I didn’t know who Phyllis Schlafly or Shirley Chisolm or Bella Abzug were until a week ago. If that makes me a bad feminist, I’ll own it.

Thankfully, for useless feminists like myself (Deborah Frances-White, I feel you), earlier in lockdown, BBC3 released a new historical drama: Mrs. America which tracks the dramas and rivalries and defeats and successes of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States throughout its 1970s heyday.

Think Gloria Steinem and the swishy hair and the aviators. Think anti-ERA housewives baking bread for senators and talking about women’s liberation being in the home. Think Betty Freidan coasting off the success of The Feminine Mystique ten years earlier while pissing off just about everybody and continuing to discount and downplay gay rights. At university, I remember hearing The Feminine Mystique described as very second wavey and now I actually get what that means.

This nine-episode series takes a look into dramatised versions of the lives of key players in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

We meet anti-ERA ‘housewife’ (read: lobbyist), Phyllis Schlafly and her cohort of DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution – we’ve all seen Gilmore Girls, right?) women. Forever pristine in a pink skirt-suit, this powerhouse Republican is in a lot of ways a villain and simultaneously a feminist. Nothing’s black and white in this show. No one is a saint and no one is a sinner. These are complex characters and Schlafly is fascinating. She is also… small thing, tiny thing, miniscule thing… played by the almighty Cate Blanchett.

Most of us will know Gloria Steinem. Played by Rose Byrne, she’s the young radical activist who quickly becomes the celebrity of the movement when she’s deemed attractive enough to listen to (hear me gag) by the mainstream media. She simultaneously gets some horrendous treatment in the press and fights ferociously to get women’s right to abortion on the ERA.

Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). I am ashamed to say I only heard this name recently on Twitter after the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests. While we often celebrate Barack Obama (despite his MANY flaws) for being the first person of colour to become President, we often forget that a black woman took on the system decades before. In 1968, Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to congress and she ran for the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, losing out to George Stanley McGovern.

We meet Jill Ruckelhaus, also a Republican but pro-ERA and a massive ally to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Ruckelhaus tiptoes the fence between appeasing the powerful men in the establishment and pushing for change as part of Women’s Liberation.

The series sees the National Women’s Conference in Houston and an ocean of young women in tie dye and flares cycling along after the torch carriers. It sees Reagan’s presidential campaign and the use of family values and law and order as a platform which ultimately won him the White House with the slogan, “Let’s Make American Great Again,” in 1980. Sound familiar?

Mrs. America is a much-needed history lesson for all of us. But not only does it educate its viewers about the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, it also humanises both sides of the debate. Honestly, it’s astounding that it’s not on the curriculum.

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