The Catfight Theory

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist who led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US in the 1970s

No sooner had the ink dried on the 10 Emmy nominations for Mrs America, a FX mini-series about the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US,  than veteran feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem came out to accuse the series of “misrepresenting history”.

The amendment to the US constitution, demanding equality of rights under the law regardless of sex, was  first mooted in 1923 and passed by the US Senate in 1972.  However, to become law the ERA had to be ratified by 38 states before a 1982 deadline.

It became a bitter battleground between the women’s liberation movement (pro-amendment) and STOP ERA , an alliance of the conservative right, headed up by pro-lifer Phyllis Schlafly, who successfully prevented it reaching that threshold.

This week Steinem penned an article in the Los Angeles Times  (along with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation) decrying the series.  She insisted she was not writing out of a personal gripe,  although she says the show “gets my haircut right and my character wrong”.

The plot of Mrs America, she says, seems to depend on a trivialisation of women, putting  the failure to ratify the ERA down to personal feuding and female in-fighting. 

“Would a national legislative failure of the civil rights movement be attributed to a rivalry between followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers of Malcolm X? Somehow, we don’t think so,” she writes. “The bottom line is this: Mrs America has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.  Instead it has given us the Catfight Theory of History.”

For anyone recasting history as fiction – which I’ve spent my whole writing life doing – this is a familiar complaint.   Luckily for me, most of the characters I’ve written about – Franziska Schanzkowska  a Polish factory worker who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, Bella Casey sister of playwright  Sean O’Casey, or most recently Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce – are conveniently dead. But Mrs America chronicles events that are only 40 years old, and some of the players are still with us, including Steinem.

The show runners face the same challenges as historical novelists – how to collate a large amount of factual  material and present it in a digestible way with a satisfying narrative arc and characters with whom the viewer/reader can identify, without distorting history.

“Hollywood can tell any story, regardless of history,” Steinem concedes, “but this one is being presented as fact, and has arrived in a perfect storm of circumstance. Months of COVID-19 lockdown have given the nine episodes of Mrs. America a captive-at-home audience, and reviews have focused on women’s hairstyles and individual rivalries, not the real reason state legislators voted against the ERA.”

As an avid fan of the series, I  wouldn’t dare to argue with Steinem. She was there, after all.

But there are health warnings before every episode making clear that it is fiction not history and flagging that certain liberties have been taken with the characters; also, the series creators can hardly be blamed for the reviews or the lockdown bounce that also helped Normal People on its way.

I came of age in the 1970s, the era of American feminism and politics depicted in Mrs America. I’d read Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), but I found this series illuminating because it introduced me to so much that I didn’t know. I’d never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, the central character of Mrs America.  (Steinem argues that the focus on Schlafly credits her with undue importance as an influencer.)

Likewise, I wasn’t familiar with Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) a three-term Democrat politician who battled to get women’s issues taken seriously inside the tent of congressional politics, and who led the National Advisory Commission for Women in the Carter administration – though she was ultimately fired unceremoniously by the president.

Neither, I’m ashamed to say,  did I know anything about Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba),  the first black woman elected to Congress and a pioneering candidate for president in the 1972 Democratic Primary.  (That’s 37 years before Obama!)  Was that colour blindness on my part?

I’m wondering how many viewers out there are, like me, reaching for factual accounts of the era, as a result of seeing Mrs America.  Fiction, with all its limitations and compromises, has the power to ignite interest in the history.  And there are plenty of sources available – Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Run, is one. Another is the LA Times’ helpful episode-by-episode fact check of  Mrs America so that the discerning viewer can make up her own mind about the show’s filter and emphasis.

Speaking of filters, the creative decision to view a lot of the action of Mrs America through Phyllis Schlafly’s point-of-view was a brave one, given her ultra-conservative views on abortion, gay rights and working women. Cate Blanchett gives a riveting performance that combines a calculating feyness with a steely intelligence.  Schlafly is not demonised here (though Betty Friedan famously called for her to be burned at the stake during a heated debate) but portrayed as a serious woman, whose political and career ambitions were also thwarted by the prevailing patriarchy she so actively embraced.

My criticism of the series is not in its “fictionalising” of real characters for dramatic purposes, but in its treatment of its fictional characters. “Alice Macray” – played by Sarah Paulson – is one of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-hand women, who becomes turned on –  literally – to the other side’s arguments at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.  This was a major political event that attracted 20,000 attendees of all political stripes who met to draft a plan of action on 26 issues, including abortion, rape, childcare, and employment rights  – to present to President Carter.  Macray’s partial dark night of the soul eclipses the conference itself, which was characterised by Gloria Steinem in her autobiography as “the most important event nobody knows about”.

It may have been good drama to give one of Schlafly’s supporters a drug-induced Road to Damascus experience but it’s really a cheap Hollywood set piece. Interesting too, that it isn’t one of the feminist women who becomes a doubter – now that really would have been daring.

Equally underplayed is a counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign group organised in Houston to clash with the conference, which attracted 12,000 supporters and was seen as a crucial turning point in American politics.

Historian Marjorie Spruill has argued that the alliances formed at this counter-rally –  between single-issue voters from disparate religious groups  – had the effect of uniting  opponents of abortion, the ERA and gay rights under a single “pro-family” movement that became increasingly influential in Republican politics. (President Trump gave the oration at Schlafly’s funeral in September 2016.)

The importance of the show is that it demonstrates that the ERA was not just about a battle for the hearts and minds of a sectional interest. As Spruill says: “The issues that polarised American women during the ‘70s basically have polarised the whole nation.”

This is what makes Mrs America so compelling.  Pace Gloria Steinem.

As for the Equal Rights Amendment.  Forty years on the ERA is still not law, even though in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.  But that 1982 deadline still holds.




















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