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On Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, and ‘Mrs. America'

Family and friends of the iconic women of the 1970s ERA battle weigh in on their portrayal in the Hulu mini-series. There were some misses, but it’s still worth watching.

Chris Pizzello/AP
Dahvi Waller (center), who wrote and produced the Hulu limited series "Mrs. America," discusses the show in Pasadena, California on Jan. 9, 2020.

I’m glad my 20-something daughter recommended the Hulu mini-series “Mrs. America,” a dramatic retelling of the 1970s battle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. It pits Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist from Alton, Ill., against the leaders of second-wave feminism, such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

With Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Schlafly – and she was always “Mrs.” – and Rose Byrne as Ms. Steinem, what’s not to love? Plenty, it turns out. I immediately noticed the problem with Ms. Byrne’s portrayal of Ms. Steinem. She comes across as self-absorbed and uncharismatic, in other words, nothing like the real Ms. Steinem.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, like Ms. Steinem a founding editor of Ms. magazine, also took issue with her friend’s depiction. In a column in Moment magazine, she writes that the “nasal-voiced, lock-jawed version of Gloria” barely resembles the woman she’s known five decades. More important, she adds, “it galls me when ‘Mrs. America’ keeps underscoring the friction among feminists, rather than grappling with the complexity of our challenges.” The series turns it all into a catfight, she laments.

The late Mrs. Schlafly’s family and allies have their own critiques. Anne Schlafly Cori, chair of her mother’s Eagle Forum, told Vanity Fair that while the hair, makeup, and clothing seemed accurate, she found Ms. Blanchett made her mother appear “cold, cruel, and calculating.”  

“Phyllis Schlafly was warm and gracious and her beliefs were sincere,” Ms. Cori says.

Ralph Reed, a Christian conservative leader who knew Mrs. Schlafly for 25 years, tells the Monitor that the series missed “how incredibly tough she was.”

“She was very, very wily, one of the smartest and toughest customers I’ve ever met,” Mr. Reed says. “Tougher than just about any man I’ve ever met.”

I pushed back. Mrs. Schlafly came across as plenty tough, I said. After all, she defeated the ERA.

For me, it was also fun to see Tracey Ullman portray Ms. Friedan, who lived in Washington in her later years. I once gave her a ride to her apartment, and remember her as elderly but still feisty.

But most of all, I’m heartened that my daughter watched the series, and got a glimpse into the social conflicts of the 1970s. Now I’ll make sure she reads up on how it all really went down.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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