Review: ‘Mrs. America’ draws a faint line from women in Churches of Christ to Equal Rights Amendment fray
Had it not been for my culturally attuned college senior…
Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the modern-day conservative women’s movement in America, was the antithesis of 20th-century feminism. She came out of nowhere, seemingly, to take on the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which Congress passed in March 1972. Against all odds, her coalition of Catholic, evangelical Protestant and Mormon homemakers and activists made sure the amendment never got passed.
The ERA finally died in 1982, after failing to get the required 38 states to ratify it. Schlafly, who was based in St. Louis, was also instrumental in marshaling conservative voters to send Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980.
In April, Walt Disney’s FX Channel began airing a nine-part series about Schlafly, called “Mrs. America.” It also gave major airtime to the women who opposed her, including U.S. Reps. Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, author Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine. Although these women were shown as having their own factions and faults, overall, they came across as brave pioneers on behalf of women’s rights.
Schlafly, beautifully portrayed by Cate Blanchett, fared less well. Not only did she come across as a crass opportunist and a hypocrite, so did the women who worked with her. One of them was Lottie Beth Hobbs, a Church of Christ editor, publisher, Bible teacher and author of many books on the Christian life. In an unusual move at the time for a single, childless woman, she got on board the pro-family movement in the 1970s, becoming president of the National Pro-Family Forum and editor of the “The Family Educator” newsletter.
In the show, Schlafly realizes she needs to build her coalition beyond her Catholic base and hears of Hobbs, who heads up a Christian group called “Women Who Want to be Women.” She visits Hobbs in Fort Worth, Texas, and, in exchange for Hobbs’ 15,000-member mailing list – which Schlafly desperately needs – invites her to serve on the board of the Eagle Forum, Schlafly’s non-profit.
Their first meeting, in episode six, shows the cover of Hobbs’ book “Daughters of Eve,” and plays a country tune as Schlafly and her co-activists show up at Hobbs’ home. It is crammed with stuffed animal trophy heads.
Hobbs doesn’t take kindly to Schlafly’s suggestion that they join forces under the Eagle Forum banner noting that traditionally, “When Catholics and evangelicals got together, you’d have a bloodbath.”
Schlafly responds that they need to band together, but Hobbs is unconvinced.
Later in the episode, Schlafly makes yet another trip to Fort Worth, meeting Hobbs at a hunting blind on Hobbs’ property. Hobbs is impressed when Schlafly fells a buck with one shot. She agrees to join forces if she can be vice-chair of Schlafly’s board. When Schlafly starts talking strategy, Hobbs interrupts her.
“What scares my women more than anything else is mothers killing their babies and homosexuals raising our children,” she says. “That gets them. … Do you want perverts teaching in our schools, touching our children? Don’t you want to see every one of those perverts and abortionists burnt at the stake?”
Finally Schlafly, who has only recently learned that her eldest son is gay, nods. Obviously compromises need to be made.
There’s no proof that such an episode actually happened, nor that Hobbs used such language or would wish anyone to be burned at a stake. But she was a convenient villain for the showrunners, who needed an evangelical counterpart for the Catholic Schlafly.
Refinery 29, a site that used the series as an opportunity to bash conservatives every chance it got, used a backhanded compliment to let on that the writers were never going to give Schlafly & Co. a true break.
The website said: “I was ready to hate Mrs. America. A show that stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, one of the most disruptive conservative forces in modern American history, felt potentially dangerous. Blanchett is a talented and beloved actress. What if, in her hands, Schlafly became a sympathetic figure?”
But have no fear; the writers made sure that wouldn’t happen.
“She’s a pragmatist and a hypocrite, a woman with political ambitions who realized that the only way to be taken seriously on a public stage was to take a stance on women’s issues. And though she does end up convincing herself, watching her undergo that transformation doesn’t inspire sympathy so much as understanding of what we were up against then and now.”
Well, heaven forbid Schlafly or her ilk become sympathetic or likable figures. The show’s creators made it clear through various interviews that they weren’t interested in producing a factual account of Schlafly’s life, as they refused to interview family members or her biographer, Donald Critchlow. They didn’t interview family members of the lead feminists involved in the series either, yet oddly, portrayals of Steinem, Abzug, etc., were fairly accurate, according to the Los Angeles Times fact checkers.
With Schlafly, even the Times admitted the show verged far from reality or posited unprovable assertions, such as the inference that Schlafly was working with the Ku Klux Klan or treated her black housemaids in a despicable manner. None of that was accurate, says Critchlow, who told the Federalist about all the inaccuracies in the series.
Agree or disagree with Schlafly, her role in marshalling conservative women to be part of American politics had never been done before and was a remarkable accomplishment considering the whole operation was run out of her home and overseen by volunteers. Against her were members of Congress on the federal payroll and feminists who had far more access to money and power than she had.
In “Mrs. America,” she deserved to be written about accurately and portrayed in a far more sympathetic manner than she was. As for Hobbs, was she truly the caricature of a Texan woman she was portrayed as, or was she far more personable? We’ll never know, because it’s impossible for an evangelical – or conservative Catholic – woman to get fair treatment from Hollywood these days.
The truth is out there, but you have to want to find it.
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