By Anne Brodie
Cate Blanchett executive produces and stars as a conservative force of nature, the late Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America April 15th exclusively on FX on Hulu. Schlafly is the woman who effectively squashed the US Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the late seventies, through the sheer force of her personality, strategic use of language and fear. She was a powerful Washington influencer and no thanks to her campaign, the ERA is not fully in place across the US. She changed the course of American politics in extraordinary ways that are still in place today. Blanchett co-executive producer with Montreal born creator and writer Dahvi Waller and Stacey Sher. We spoke with Blanchett from her home in the UK.
You can literally see Phyllis’ distaste when she says to her husband, “Thank you, daddy” for some small permission and all these traditional microaggressions that she gets. But she doesn’t see how the liberation movement could change things.
It’s not a documentary or biopic on Phyllis Schlafly, it’s about the various sections of the women’s movement. But no matter who you’re playing, you have to put them on the couch and ask them the hard questions. I found her role models as a child fascinating. Particularly when you look at her long term, successful marriage and the fact she had six children and she had a very, very public career and to seemed to be able to balance both. I don’t think anyone balances anything. Her mother was a very strong influence in her upbringing and worked 24/7 to put her and her sisters through a very exclusive Catholic girls’ school. Her father was unemployed for a number of years yet remained the patriarch. And I think therein lies the rub. She grew up in a very contradictory, unusual household. A line that always sticks in my head is that Fred, her husband, saved her from the life of a working girl. But she was always the most overqualified person in the room.
She’s such a polarizing figure and quite contradictory but it’s undeniable that she is a contemporary woman who really changed the course of the American political landscape. She did that by shifting the language. She really did move the notion of anti-abortion to pro-life, which was a central plank into the Republican party and conflated that with being pro-American and pro-family and characterized the feminist movement as being anti-family. So, the language, the rhetoric which she employed during the campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment has had a profound influence in the way the Republican party not only talks to the American populace, but talks to itself about what it stands for.
Do you think that as Schlafly learned more about the Equal Rights Amendment, she genuinely believed it was detrimental to America?
I think she saw it as the thin end of the wedge. Initially when it was brought to her attention, she thought it was a fairly innocuous piece of political business and it wouldn’t have a lot of impact on her life or the lives of the women that she knew and lived alongside. But when she started to see it in terms of the way it could dismantle, from her perspective, America’s already fragmented and fragile defense capacity, I think that it was through that prism that she moved into it. And I think also that she was able to mobilize and identify with very special interest groups who thought in defeating the women’s movement that they could shore up their own platforms, which of course were anti-abortion or, as it became, pro-life, or non-integration or to decrease or diminish government intervention and to shore up patriarchal family values and isolationism.
She was extraordinarily persuasive in public speaking.
One of my favorite scenes in the series from Phyllis’s perspective is when her husband Fred teaches her how to debate. There’s the first-person negative trick where you frame the terms of the argument. I had always thought of the constant American Constitution as being an inspirational document from which legislation flows. She laid the terms of the conversation that were incredibly literal and that each word was to be taken as read rather than an aspirational notion of equality, embedded into the Constitution. And I think that ambushed the feminists, but it also meant that she kept the conversation small. She always kept it down to the literal. Therefore, she was able to terrify the women with whom she identified and galvanized, the homemakers and the self-described traditional women, who felt alienated and marginalized and terrified of the notion of change and the growing power and of the liberation movement. She kept the conversation that they were going to be thrust out into the workforce, they were going to be drafted and of course, she jumped the gun. She moved towards the worst-case catastrophized pieces of legislation that no one wanted. So, she stopped it dead from her kind of her literalism.
She truly did believe that healthy families – whatever that means – are the foundation of every other political cause and it was the women’s place to hold the family and therefore American society together. Rather than entering the conversation in an open-hearted way saying there are women who are forced to work and are in jobs with as many qualifications as men who are not receiving equal pay for equal work. Cut to 2020 where that’s still the situation. She didn’t want to talk about those nuances or those possibilities. She was always catastrophizing the effects that the Equal Rights Amendment, a disaster for women who felt unprotected apart from by their husbands. So, she really did sell this notion that it was going to be the Equal Rights Amendment that would break apart the American family.
How effective was she?
She saw all these things could be brought into the public discourse in a politicized way and it also opened the door for her into Washington. I don’t know what other words you use about Phyllis, but she is continually on the outside. Obviously two failed bids to Congress, but even through her embarking on a political career through by default or by design – the Equal Rights Amendment debate and battle, she still wasn’t able to get through the door. So, there’s something, even though she had a huge influence, there was something about the system or something about her as a person that wasn’t able to breakthrough.
But she would never have said at all that she was prevented from doing anything. She would say that she got a law degree when she was in her 50s and she couldn’t have done that and had children when she was younger. She was not able to practice at the same level as men seem to because she decided to have children. I know myself as a working mother who identifies as a feminist that it’s a constant juggle between following your personal, professional passion and trying to give yourself over to and serve your family. In a way she knew as even feminists know, that still really at base that women have to make it work. You know, it’s a very rare partnership where the men also accept that responsibility in making things work.
Did the project help you define your own feminism?
Growing up in high school, I always identified as a feminist. But I grew up in a backlash. We’re in another backlash now. But I grew up in a backlash when you were considered a man-hater in the 1980s and that you wanted to prevent men from doing things, simply because you wanted equal possibilities. And I couldn’t understand how even as a teenager, the notion of equality was so difficult for people. But of course, the thing that Phyllis did identify, perhaps more roundly and realistically than feminists, is that in order to reach equality, certain white men in power are going to have to share their privileges. And she identified that that ain’t never gonna happen.
She knew that the patriarchy was a much stronger structure than the feminists perceived perhaps it was. And a much more intractable structure, a resilient structure and well-supported structure and less pliable structure than perhaps the feminists were hoping it was going to be. And so, she knew which side she was going to stand on. The feminists tried to be genuinely intersectional so there was always room for discord and doubt. Whereas in Phyllis’ camp, it was a very pyramidical hierarchical, patriarchal structure where there were all the voices – there were many voices – but they were really channeled through her. And she very happy to be the only woman in the room. It was quite a sort of a solo, singular voice to fight on from her perspective.
Why do you think they underestimated her?
They certainly did, even though she wasn’t established and wasn’t well known. She had about 5,000 subscribers to her newsletter, but they underestimated her capabilities and her endurance and her job and her ability to simplify a message, to reduce it to its core. And that is so-called family values. And Phyllis was able to get a message out that was simple, and was fear-based, actually. The homemakers’ big fear, that their world, their lives that they’ve spent all their lives protecting and defending, were going to be busted apart by the feminists. And so, once she found that rhetoric, she increasingly simplified it. So, she was able to hold her audience, I think in a way, and use the media. She was very media savvy. So, I think that that is a skill – perhaps a dubious skill – but it’s a skill that the feminists absolutely underestimated in Phyllis. She had a fire in her that I think made her a long-distance runner. I knew precious little about Phyllis, but a large part of why I wanted to do this series was to work out what made her tick and how she could think in such a binary way. She represents a way of thinking in America that really has to be acknowledged, this whole stepping back. She personifies this notion of individualism in America and a fear of centralized government. A love of tradition and hierarchy and order. But also, the abhorrence of being told what to do. And so, I think for her, the ERA crystallized all those feelings and fears. It’s interesting that in everything I read about Phyllis that for her supporters, she was a Joan of Arc figure to be admired and revered. But I didn’t come across a lot of people who were very close friends with her.
Di the experience of making the film leave you hopeful?
I, for one, became increasingly sad but also really galvanized I think by the fact that week by week as we’re filming, all of the issues that the feminists were talking about, the traditional women’s movement that is really big in the UK for instance, where I am now, that all of these issues that feminists were locked in time and space in the 1970s and 1980s were erupting each week, as if they were up for grabs again. These achievements and advances that American society had made, they are somehow back in the courts again. To me, that’s the importance of the series, is to keep that conversation alive. What is so frightening about equality?
What has been a lesson you’ve learned on how to stay strong these days?
I hate giving advice to people. I think it’s a very, very difficult time and my heart goes out particularly to the people who are really risking their lives for the rest of us. The medical workers and first responders – I think that they’re extraordinarily brave and self-sacrificing and we couldn’t be functioning without them. But for me personally, I suppose that’s the only way I can speak. I think our bullshit radars are very acute at the moment. And I think it’s about getting back to the authentic and reclaiming the word “truth” and allowing ourselves to deeply listen to what is happening to us as a species and our effect on one another. The virus is a great leveler and reveals a lot to us about the building blocks of the societies in which we live and which parts are working, and which parts aren’t working and working for whom. I think the series does speak to that because it’s a terribly painful moment in human history for so many.