Mrs America is a mini-series charting the battles in the 1970s between the rising feminist movement in the United States and its enemies over the Equal Rights Amendment (an amendment to the Constitution which still hasn’t been ratified by enough states to become law).
It shows us well-known figures from the American women’s movement at that time, like Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), but focuses also on the woman who set out to defeat them, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett).
Steinem herself, and others, have criticised the series for overstating this conflict between women (a “cat fight”, as Steinem puts it), and ignoring the wider, corporate interests which set out — successfully — to frustrate the struggle for the ERA. Whether or not that is valid criticism historically, as drama Mrs America is powerful stuff.
Two things in particular make it a drama which addresses contemporary concerns, rather than merely illustrating struggles in the past.
First — a central part of the concept for the show — Phylis Schlafly, a right-wing (ultimately, as the show poignantly demonstrates, would-be Reaganite) Republican, has many echoes in the world now. The movement she led prefigures one important part of the base of Donald Trump — white (especially middle-class) women. The show is a study of that constituency — of the concerns which animate it, and also, in the end, of the fundamental deceit at its heart. The penultimate episode traces the experience of one of the few fictional characters, Alice Macray (played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson), at the big women’s conference in Houston in 1977, where she learns that her enemies are not the terrifying devils she imagined.
Even more important, Mrs America draws out the stories of other women involved in the struggle for the ERA, less well-known than Steinem and Friedan. Indeed, as Episode Three introduces us properly to Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba, nominated for an Emmy) — an important, but lesser known, African American leader of the ERA struggle, the show significantly shifts gear, even tone.
Written by Tanya Barfield (the only member of the writing team to get an Emmy nomination this year), and directed by black British director Amma Asante, this episode takes us into a new place, not what we might have expected from this material, and — of course — with striking contemporary resonance.
Mrs America is a powerful, compelling series which tells us a great deal not only about America in the 1970s, but about America now.
• Mrs America was made by the streaming service Hulu, and broadcast in the UK on BBC2 (watch here)