MRS. AMERICA Misses the Truth
By Colleen Holmes Holcomb, Esq., Contributing Writer
The FX/Hulu released the miniseries MRS. AMERICA. As the trailers promised, the program rewrites history to construe Phyllis Schlafly and conservatives in the worst possible light.
Cate Blanchett does a brilliant impression of Phyllis Schlafly’s voice and intonations, but it is clear that producers were more interested in objectifying Schlafly by portraying her in accordance with their stereotypical biases, than they were in striving for authenticity.
Those who know or have studied Phyllis know that MRS. AMERICA gets her entirely wrong by depicting her as a victim of sexism, and as power-hungry, megalomaniacal and micromanaging rather than portraying the strong, complex woman who inspired so many and reflecting the truth about her legacy. Producers wrongfully depict her supporters as racist, bickering mean girls, rather than the hard-working, unselfish, principled, Jewish and Christian patriots they were.
Victim of Sexism?
Depicting Phyllis as being upset by sexist behavior is a far too simplistic and patronizing interpretation of frustrations she might have faced. Anyone who has worked with her closely, as I have, knows that a key reason Phyllis was so successful and productive is that she did not seem to register personal offenses. She could not be bothered with being bothered. She had too many important things to do. Phyllis would get frustrated with leaders who did not take seriously the threats she discerned to America’s freedom and national security. But, sexism, even where it existed, was entirely below her notice.
MRS. AMERICA also misrepresents Phyllis by depicting her as seeking power and attention. One aspect of Phyllis’ character that made her so effective is that she was motivated by principle, not power. She did not care who was popular in Washington, D.C. or in Hollywood, she cared about the state of American democracy, and she worked around the clock to protect it. This inspired fierce loyalty and dedication from her supporters and infuriated her detractors. Phyllis could not be bought or co-opted, because, as she encouraged her supporters, she believed that faithfulness was a greater aspiration than success.
The program depicts Phyllis as a petty, condescending attention-seeker, jealous when a volunteer in Oklahoma takes credit for stopping ERA ratification in her state, discouraging an eager volunteer by telling her that public speaking is not as easy as it looks, and urging supporters to name the organization after her. This characterization is laughable to anyone who knows Phyllis, especially those of us she inspired toward lifelong service. Her supporters know how unconcerned she was with who got credit for victory. Her “Eagle” leaders often joked that they were afraid to mention a new issue to Phyllis, because, unlike some leaders who might lead the charge and take the credit, themselves, Phyllis would immediately appoint that person as Chair to lead lobbying efforts on that issue.
Much to many of her volunteers’ chagrin, instead of doing all the debating herself, as the series portrays, Phyllis recruited and trained her supporters to debate ERA supporters on college campuses and to invoke “the fairness doctrine” to book themselves on local television stations to oppose the amendment.
As Center for Military Readiness founder and president Elaine Donnelly, one of hundreds of women Phyllis inspired to found their own organizations, explains, “Phyllis inspired women to succeed in their own right. Without micromanaging, Phyllis informed and motivated scores of key leaders nationwide, and they took it from there.”
Donnelly goes on to note, “The effect was dynamic, decentralized and ‘viral’ before that word acquired a new meaning on the Internet.”
So far, the series shows that one of the worst remaining bastions of sexism is Hollywood’s, as the producers could not seem to imagine strong female characters on either side of the ERA debate that are not plagued by jealousy and prone to “girl drama.” This is yet another angle that MRS. AMERICA gets wrong, at least as it relates to Stop ERA.
Phyllis’ ability to lead an organization comprised predominantly of women — strong, smart women at that, from diverse faith backgrounds without bickering and power struggles is as remarkable as her overall defeat of ERA.
“She could not have had the success or admiration she did had she sought to control our message and monopolize the press attention in the way the series depicts,” said Eagle Forum President Eunie Smith, who worked alongside Phyllis for 46 years. “We were all busy raising families, but Phyllis inspired us and brought us all together to be as effective as possible in lobbying to protect our families and our country. We have always been a loving, supportive and very united group.”
Schlafly’s liberal opponents have baselessly insisted for years that she was racist. Although the series does not make the direct accusation of Schlafly, MRS. AMERICA glosses over the overwhelming success of Stop ERA’s launch in St. Louis in 1972 by showing the event only in the context of Phyllis placating a racist woman from Louisiana in order to maintain her coalition. Nothing about the scene is true, not the connection to racist fringe elements, and certainly not the depiction of Stop ERA as anything other than a cohesive group united around their beloved leader.
Staunch liberal feminist and ERA supporter, Carol Felsenthal, author of the Schlafly biography Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, was a paid consultant to MRS. AMERICA; however, it seems that producers ignored much of her extensively researched work and insight into Schlafly’s life and character. In an admirable example of bias disclosure, Felsenthal admits in the forward to her book that she desperately tried to find some scandal to tarnish Schlafly’s reputation, and hoped but searched in vain to find evidence of Schlafly’s rumored racism.
Felsenthal described her excitement when Betty Friedan called a press conference accusing Stop ERA of accepting contributions from the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan.
Quoting Schlafly’s response to this news, Felsenthal reported: “I hope Ms. Friedan spends her time investigating me. She won’t find anything, and it might keep her out of other mischief,” Schlafly commented, as usual getting the last word. I had high hopes for Friedan’s investigation, but like mine and many others, it fizzled.”
Felsenthal also describes diligently investigating a rumor that Schlafly had tried to prevent integration of her local YWCA when she served as a board member in the 1950s. However, Felsenthal tracked down three of Phyllis’ fellow board members, all of whom she described as “ardent workers for ERA,” who had to admit that Schlafly “had never shown herself to be a racist; had never tried to block or even stall integration.”
Mrs. America indulges demonstrable inaccuracies and the same old discredited false accusations about Phyllis and the remarkable members of the Stop ERA coalition that were disproved decades ago. So many of the interactions are so far off base, it makes me wonder how accurate the series’ portrayal of rifts and warts on the other side really is.
While telling ugly truths is an unfortunate but important part of chronicling history, telling ugly lies just to denigrate philosophical opponents diminishes the producers’ credibility and discredits the series overall.
**Editor’s Note by Dr. Ted Baehr: I knew Phyllis Schlafly for over 20 years. She was one of my favorite people, and we met several times a year. She was always friendly and gracious and brilliant. She loved MOVIEGUIDE®, and I commended her whenever she spoke – because she was so clear and insightful.
MRS. AMERICA is a dramatic mess, to address the production. The direction is bad. There is no jeopardy. The characters were flat and stereotypical. The conflict was static too often.
MRS. AMERICA is bad TV and drama. not to mention it replaced plot development with sarcasm. The filmmakers have no clue about Christians or real life outside their bubble.
By the way, I was a card carrying member of the communist National Lawyers Guild in 1970 and 1972 (Jesus rescued me in 1975), and attending NYU Law – the most left wing law school and one of the top three law schools in the USA. I knew Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, etc. and went to their lectures and meetings at NYU. They had much more depth and gravitas than the flat characters in the program MRS. AMERICA.
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