Two-time Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett has taken on many roles playing real-life, historical figures. She even won one of her Oscars that way. Although Blanchett has done a few guest spots on US television (Family Guy and her pitch perfect version of Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present on Documentary Now!) but commands the small screen in her first series outside of her native Australia. In Mrs. America, for FX on Hulu, Blanchett, who also serves as an executive producer, tackles one of her most complex and controversial characters – the arch-conservative Phyllis Schlafly, who fought tooth and nail against the women’s movement of the 1970s and the ratification of the Equal Rights Movement (ERA).
Mrs. America is told through the eyes of the women of the era, from Schlafly as well as second wave feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Jill Ruckelshaus. The series explores how one of the toughest battlegrounds in the culture wars of the 70s helped give rise to the Moral Majority and forever shifted the political landscape. It is executive produced by Emmy Award-winner Dahvi Waller (Mad Men), who serves as creator and showrunner, Academy Award nominated Stacey Sher (Django Unchained, Erin Brockovich), Coco Francini (Hateful Eight), Cate Blanchett and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel, Billions), who directed four of the nine episodes, including the first two.
Blanchett sat down for a virtual press conference where she broke down the complicated and contradictory nature of Phyllis Schlafly, the impact of Schlafly’s lasting legacy how working on the show helped define Blanchett’s own feminism.
Phyllis Schlafly was seen as the architect of the modern day American GOP and her work really set in motion their organizational skills. How did that inform how you played her?
Well, she’s such a polarizing figure and quite contradictory. But it’s undeniable that I think she is a contemporary woman who’s really changed the course, as you suggested, of the American political landscape. And I think she did that by shifting the language. She really did move the notion of anti-abortion, which then became her life as 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 course of 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 people would react to it differently to the series than they might have if it had come out a year ago and how relevant do it to the very unprecedented time the US is currently going through?
Well, I certainly feel that what’s being revealed to us in the current global crisis is how the systems that we labor under are not serving us well. And the interesting thing for me about the series is it ostensibly, yes, the main thrust of the plot is about the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, which was an incredibly fierce battle. But it also deals with the fact that the change that was hoped to come about from the Civil Rights Act of – was it 1964? The change hadn’t happened profoundly enough and that the system hadn’t shifted profoundly enough to serve all of the American citizens. And so, I think that what we’re dealing with now in 2020 is still a very unequal system. I wonder what America would have been like if the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified. What laws would have been put into place to shore up equality, not only between sexes but between the races, between the 1% and the 99%? And I hazard a guess that we would be in quite a different place. And it is very telling, I think, that it’s still not enshrined in the document, in the Constitution, which is an inspirational document from which laws get made that the sexes are equal. That all American citizens are equal. I think that is what that is. That has huge ideological but practical kind of ramifications on the position we find ourselves in right now.
What did you use as source materials in discovering who Schlafly was? Did you find more in memoirs and biographies or archival material?
“The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” was certainly the place that I started from. That was something that [executive producer] Stacey [Sher] set up for me very, very early in the piece because I was interested in the copious amounts of books, probably far more than anyone who’s represented in the series, that Schlafly herself penned. Basically, one a week, I think, in her lifetime. You can read all of those. “Phyllis Schlafly Speaks” is perhaps one of my favorites which is a very thick tome. But I wanted to go back to her authorized biography because she was obviously content with what had been written there. And it wasn’t an embellished book. It was a fairly balanced book. So, I thought that was a really great place to start. But I knew it is also telling that if you go back and look at two of the major figures in the second wave feminism, this is Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Obviously in Gloria’s latter part of her career as a public intellectual, there’s much more footage. But there’s not a huge archive for either of those women. But the Phyllis Schlafly archive is enormous, and it was almost…I almost sank under the weight of it, actually. So, I think I had to at a certain point say to myself that I’ve absorbed enough and now I have to attend myself to the story that that we’re telling. Because of course when you go behind the scenes of any of these characters, whether it’s Jill Ruckelshaus or Phyllis or Betty Friedan or Bella Abzug or Shirley Chisholm, there is invention involved. And so, you know, with any figures who actually lived, whether it’s Abraham Lincoln or Phyllis Schlafly, you have to invent. So, in the end, we have to sort of give ourselves over to the characters as written in the series.
But also, I think for me, what’s interesting about the way, now having enough time between the making of and then having gone through the postproduction process and looking at all the episodes stacked up. There’s a really strong feeling that I don’t think I was fully aware, because I was bogged down in the minutiae of actually making it, that there’s so much connective tissue between the longings, the ambitions, the hopes and the dreams even though they are so far separated on the political spectrum. But that there’s such a sense of connectedness between the women even though their rhetoric would seem to say otherwise. You know, there’s not a lot of self-actualization or realization in the political structure as it stands. There’s not a lot of winners in the series. Does that make sense?
Phyllis Schlafly’s original passion was for defense rather than the Equal Rights Amendment. Do you see her as someone who was kind of constrained by sexism and not able to pursue her actual passion? Or do you think that as she 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. I mean 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 I think 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.
So, I think that all of those things she saw could be brought into the public discourse in a politicized way through the conversation of the Equal Rights Amendment. And it also opened the door for her into Washington. I think that there’s something I find interesting. 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 all of 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, she wasn’t able to…there was something about the system or something about her as a person that wasn’t able to break through.
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 think that she would say that that was the priority in her life. I mean, some people would say differently, but I mean, 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.
There’s a moment in Mrs. America where Phyllis says “thank you, daddy” to her husband and you can see her spine move and her face looks as if she just had to swallow something distasteful. She battles micro-aggressions like these throughout yet she doesn’t see it tied to the liberation movement. How did you understand it?
Well, I mean, no matter what, you have to treat this person like their character. Yes, of course they lived, but it’s not a documentary. And also, it’s not a biopic or a bio series on Phyllis Schlafly. It’s about the various sections of the women’s movement. And there was an equal and opposite traditional women’s movement as there was the feminist women’s movement. But I think you have to look, you have to always, no matter who you’re playing, you have to put them on the couch and ask them the hard questions. And so, I found her role models as a child absolutely fascinating. Particularly when you look at you know, her marriage, her long-term one – say successful marriage – and the fact she had six children and she had a very, very public career and to seemed to be able to – or she would say – that she balanced both.
Now, look, I don’t think anyone balances anything. But you know, I think her mother was a very strong influence in her upbringing. Her mother worked 24/7 to put her and her sisters through a very exclusive Catholic girls’ school. And her father was unemployed for a number of years, but yet remains the patriarch within the family structure. And I think therein lies the rub. She grew up in a very contradictory, unusual household. Something that [creator] Dahvi [Waller] put into the series, which I think is quite a line that always sticks in my head is that Fred, her husband, saved her from the life of a working girl. It’s very interesting that she gravitated always towards the notion of defense. I think that she had a foundational understanding that she needed to be able to take care of herself. That she needed to be incredibly capable and able to learn a living, should she be abandoned. Should she be left alone. So, she was always the most overqualified person in the room.
Something that you mentioned earlier was talking about the contradictory aspects of what Phyllis was doing and also the way she was really able to change the rhetoric. Specifically, can you talk about how she worked anti-gay rhetoric and anti-feminist rhetoric into a kind of seamless, poisonous whole and what that might have been like having a gay son? How did she bridge that contradiction?
One of my favorite scenes in the series from Phyllis’s perspective is when Fred teaches her how to debate. There’s something that sort of did to the conversation, which is the first-person negative trick where you frame the terms of the argument. And I had always thought of the constant American Constitution as being an inspirational document from which legislation flows. And what she did is she laid the terms of the conversation that were incredibly literal and that each word was to be taken as read. Rather than it being an aspirational notion of equality embedded into the Constitution and then the literal laws would spring out of that. And I think that ambushed the feminists, but it also meant that she kept the conversation small.
She never allowed it when she was debating feminists or talking on various talk shows, and she did that quite a lot. She always kept it down to the literal. Therefore, she was able to, I think, terrify the women with whom she identified and galvanized, the homemakers and the self-described traditional women, who felt alienated and marginalized and terrified, as Dahvi was saying before, of the notion of change. And by the growing power and groundswell of the liberation movement. And because she kept the conversation about the fact that they were going to be thrust out into the workforce. They were going to be drafted and all of these things, 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, I guess.
And yeah, because I think that’s the thing. I mean 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. And if you were asking women to think about expanding on that possibility or identification, then American society as we knew it would fall apart. Rather than entering into the conversation in an open-hearted way saying there are many, many women out there 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 would have, and it would mean a disaster for women who felt that they were 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.
There’s one interview where [Phyllis’s sister] Eleanor Schlafly was…she was being interviewed with her and that did come up that she [Phyllis] hated homosexuals. And she said, ‘I don’t hate anybody.’ And she said, ‘my son lives a very private life and she found it abhorrent that people would drag him in for what she perceived to be political gain and use his perversion’ – to use her words – ‘his perversion against him. And I think she thought that it was a perversion. It was like a sickness. That her son had a sickness or a disability and that he was vulnerable in that way. She found that revolting, that people would use that…bring him into, because she was a public person, use him against her. Because she saw it as a…she used the word that homosexuals were perverts.
I think that she also said that they have all the rights and they should have all the rights of every other citizen, but they should not have the right to marry. Because God has said that marriage takes place between a man and a woman. And this is the unassailable argument. As soon as people bring the notion of faith or belief into it, because that is enshrined in the American Constitution, it is unarguable. We are looking down the barrel of these changes happening where I can fire you or I can refuse to give you medical care because I believe that you are a perversion. You know, these things, when you enshrine religious belief into the American Constitution, but you don’t enshrine equality, you then have these very complicated sets of relationships between people and the ability for people to say things, which are incredibly contradictory lies, as Phyllis did. I mean it’s still…I still don’t understand it except that it existed. And she loved her son very much and he continues to be an incredible supporter of her. So, it’s a very, very complicated dynamic.
How did working on Mrs. America affect the way you view your own feminism and how do you feel this show portrays that intersectional feminism?
Because there’s so many stories to tell we could’ve gone on and on and on. In the end you always feel the sin of omission. I applaud Dahvi and all of the writers for speaking to as many different narratives and perspectives as they did. But it really did feel every day was like Groundhog Day because all of these things that we think, is that particular line of questioning or narrative investigation important right now? And then all of a sudden, the fetal heartbeat ruling would come in. Or Tracey and I were having a text exchange because afterwards we’re talking the toilet bathroom. The bathroom issue was coming up with people who were transitioning using the women’s bathrooms.
This was just like a year ago and you think, well, I’m back in 1974. You wonder how much has actually changed. And you know, 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 were identifying someone who had equal possibilities in the world in which you were emerging. 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.
She identified that that ain’t never gonna happen. And so, 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. And she was also, I think, and this is where I think the world in which Dahvi and the writers have created is so true, is that the feminists by trying to be intersectional and genuinely intersectional meant that 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 channelled through her. And she was also – unlike a lot of the feminists – she was 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. Which I think is quite, quite different than you talking about the Women’s March. The energy around the Women’s March was about the many, not about the few.
The Equal Rights Amendment coalition finally reached the 38th state in 2020. This series couldn’t be more prevalent now considering that they’re so close to making it happen? I mean, just look at the latest cover of Ms. Magazine.
Well, yes. Finally, the 38th state ratified, Virginia, as we were still shooting. As Phyllis would say, she already thought the extension for ratification was crooked in her opinion.
I do think on everyone’s mind is the notion of equality. You know, the viruses are a great leveler and they do reveal 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 you know, it’s a terribly painful moment in human history for so many. The only opportunity here is to reimagine our way into a more inclusive future where governments are working for their citizens and they are working for all their citizens. And I think the Equal Rights Amendment does speak to that possibility.
FX on Hulu will premiere the first three episodes of the nine-part Mrs. America limited series today and then future episodes every Wednesday night. Keep your eye out for interviews with show creator and writer Dahvi Waller with executive producer Stacey Sher, star Rose Byrne and star Uzo Aduba later this week.