Dahvi Waller is no stranger to writing strong women at the top of their game. She is an Emmy and WGA Award-winning TV writer and producer who served as a writer and producer for AMC’s critically acclaimed Mad Men and most recently was a writer and co-executive producer on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. She is the creator and executive producer of the new limited series Mrs. America, about the fight for and against the Equal Rights Amendment, for FX on Hulu, and wrote four of the episodes.
Stacey Sher is a two-time Academy Award nominee for Best Picture as a producer on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington, and Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, with Julia Roberts and Albert Finney. Sher also served as an executive producer on the Academy Award-winning documentary short, Period, End of Sentence, which was co-produced by her daughter Maggie Brown. Sher Sher is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, BAFTA, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Producers Guild of America and is an executive producer on Mrs. America.
Waller and Sher sat down for a virtual press conference to discuss the importance and impact of the stories of Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and more and how the women’s movement fight of the 1970s is still one being fought today.
Can you talk a bit how Phyllis was the architect of the strength of the GOP today and how her work really set in motion their organizational skills.
Dahvi Waller: Prior to the 1970s, politically conservative women were not organized in any way. And what Phyllis did was she organized not only Catholic women like herself, but she reached out to all other religious denominations who were socially conservative. And she organized all of them into a very strong block. And they really became some of the foot soldiers in the Reagan revolution.
Stacey Sher: You really see the shift from socially liberal Republicans like the Fords into that Reagan revolution, which was a direct link to the time that she got engaged.
Do you see anything new in the series that is really relevant to the very unprecedented time that we’re going through? Do you think people will react to it differently than they might have if it had come out a year ago?
Dahvi Waller: It’s a really interesting question. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, as I sit in my house all day. At its very core, the series is about how people respond to change and very disruptive change and fear of change. And I think what we’re living in right now is a very sudden disruptive force, even more than any social revolution could possibly be. And all the uncertainty and fear that that’s bringing up in us. I think you’ll find elements of that in the series. That’s not something I ever imagined developing the series. But in those connections today, I think that real fear of what’s next. When things start to shift very suddenly in a society, how everyone responds. Some people really rise to the occasion and it becomes their calling and others cower in fear, or just try to hide or bury themselves or stop it in some way.
Stacey Sher: From a public policy standpoint, I think the way it relates directly to things that we show in the show is that the continuation of kind of smaller government and smaller government oversight can leave you in a situation where you’re exposed in a global pandemic or any kind of situation where you need a truly coordinated effort. So, I do think that that is the beginning of the push for less government, centralized government, and it leads you here.
I wanted to ask about the source materials that you all used in the process of making the show. I want to know what sort of mix of memoirs and biographies and archival material you were using both as writers and as actors?
Dahvi Waller: Cate was very steeped in all the materials. I would love her to talk about that. In terms of developing and writing the show, we really availed ourselves to multiple sources, both archival video of all the women who are in the series. They were very prolific bunch. They all wrote more than one book. And so, we read all their memoirs and books. Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm and Flo Kennedy and all the books that Phyllis herself wrote. We also used The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority, which was written by Carol Felsenthal as one of our sources. And then I became an avid reader of newspapers.com, which has all local newspapers from the last 200 years. And read just about every article ever written about all our characters in the 1970s. All the interviews that were done with them to see how they spoke about the movement and about themselves at that time.
Stacey Sher: I saw a documentary that was on PBS over the summer of 2016 before the 2016 election. And Dahvi and I had worked together several times, and she is truly one of the best writers I’ve ever worked with. I feel really lucky that we got to collaborate on this together. But it was a maker’s doc, I think on PBS, and you know, at the same time that we were watching all the coverage of the presidential campaign and some of it was pretty misogynistic in the way that it was pointed towards Hillary Clinton. We really at the time thought that we were going to have our first historic female president. So, I thought it would be interesting to re-explore that misogyny or how difficult it was in light of this potentially historic event and how we got here from there. And I felt that telling the story from the point of view of its opposition would be fresher. And Dahvi and I had a conversation about it because I was just dying to work with her again. And lucky for me, she sparked to it.
Dahvi Waller: Yeah, it was so lucky that we had that meeting and I been looking to do a series set in the world of politics and I really wanted to work on something that centered on women. Because most political dramas are centered on men and women are either the wives or the victims. So, when Stacey said, what about Phyllis Schlafly and her campaign against the ERA, I thought that was just a great jumping off point for creating this series. Then going in to look at the rest of the women’s movement and all the different…there’s so many leaders in the feminist movement and I thought that was such a clever way into looking at these women that are really iconic in a different way.
Stacey Sher: I think it gave Dahvi the freedom to really humanize them…it becomes so daunting to look at these icons of second wave feminism and this just became a way to humanize them.
Dahvi Waller: I think, if it’s what you’re saying, I think that what really excited me in trying to deal with, was the series has these two worlds and they sometimes intersect, but very rarely. So, it’s about finding what is that connective tissue between these women who are on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. And what they all really have in common is they’re all seeking power. They all have agency. They’re all unabashedly and unapologetically asking or demanding a piece of the pie. A piece of the power of the political structure in the state.
You’ve mentioned the contradictory aspects of what Phyllis was doing and also the way she was really able to change the rhetoric. Can you talk about how she worked anti-feminist rhetoric into a kind of seamless, poisonous whole?
Dahvi Waller: I will say that it’s always easier to defend the mountain than to take it. And we can’t forget the 10,000 years of misogyny wind in her sails. So, a lot of the rhetoric she used, you know, “radical lesbian commie libbers” was stuff that was in the media, the male dominated media, what they were already using to describe the women’s movement. This idea that all feminists are radical lesbians was something that was sort of in the ether and something that men would use to denigrate the women’s movement and take away their power. And I think Phyllis was very good at jumping on that language and using it to fearmonger among traditional housewives who didn’t want to be seen as masculine or male or really had a lot at stake in maintaining this one singular idea of womanhood.
Did the Schlafly family weigh in in any way on the development of the series?
Dahvi Waller: We did not reach out to them. No, nor did they reach out to us. And really, I didn’t reach out to anyone who’s in the series. Just more broadly, since this is not a biopic, the series is told from multiple perspectives. We really wanted to be free to imagine these private conversations and not be beholden to one person’s memory of what happened 40 years ago. So, we decided not to reach out to anyone.
In envisioning Gloria Steinem, how much did you adhere to historical realism vs creative license in the representation of her love life? It’s a very vivid portrayal.
Dahvi Waller: The reason we portrayed Gloria’s romantic life with her boyfriends, unlike most of the other characters who are married, she was the only character in the series, the only person in the series who wasn’t married. So, there is a more rich romantic life to be mined there. We also decided, because of the fact that Gloria Steinem never married during this time – she was a 40-year-old who never married – it was such a subject of media fascination in the 1970s that it felt like it was begging to be told. What were the reasons or maybe there weren’t any reasons at all why Gloria didn’t marry during the time at a time when it was still very unusual for a woman to stay single in her 40s? Some of the materials we read, I forget which source it was, Gloria had said that her three favorite things were community organizing, dancing and sex. So, I think it’s fair to say that’s something she enjoyed. And we wanted to portray women enjoying having sex and being sex positive.
I thought it was just something that I was really impressed by, that so many years ago, before the word “sex positive” was even in the lexicon, Gloria really embodied a woman who was sex positive and never apologized for enjoying the company of men. And never made them central to her life. I thought it was so revolutionary. And if we’re telling a story about revolutionary women, this is one of the many ways in which Gloria was revolutionary in her personal life as well as politically.
Did Steinem have any input into her character’s portrayal?
Dahvi Waller: I didn’t want to be beholden to any one person’s recollection or memory of a story, especially since we’re telling the story from multiple points of view. And especially on the feminist side, there are different recollections and different points of view of what went down and why it went down. So, if you reach out to any one of them, then you are bound to tell their story. So, since this was not a Gloria biopic, I did not want to be beholden to Gloria’s point of view on this period.
I was just going to say I think they become so protective because they’ve been so widely attacked repeatedly through the decades. And I think that there’s a super sexist way of describing it where anytime any women have conflict, it’s instantly referred to as a catfight. When men have conflict, it’s called conflict, or a debate. So, I think that’s something that’s made them more protective.
The series touches on some important issues within the feminist movement that still persist today, including the intersections of race, power, privilege, who gets to be the voice, like who is the person that gets to be at the forefront. When you consider the recent Women’s March and the issues that came up, how does that come into play in making the series and how did it effect on the way you view your own personal feminism vs the way it was portrayed on onscreen?
Dahvi Waller: Well, when we started writing the show and writing each episode of the series, we knew there were two stories that feel untold from the 1970s that we wanted to include in the series. One was the birth of intersectional feminism. I think women of color as a term was actually coined in 1977 at the Women’s Convention, which is in episode eight. And also, of the death of Republican feminism, which we portrayed through [inaudible]. We knew that we couldn’t do a series without Shirley Chisholm as part of it. And we felt that that really was the beginning of women and the women’s movement talking about the intersection of race and power. And so, we decided to make episode three to really center it on those four days at the convention when Shirley is under a lot of pressure from many sides to drop out of the presidential race. And really look at women and power and race. At the same time, weave in a story on Phyllis’s side about women and power and race so that the two stories could thematically speak to each other.
And you’re right, these are issues that we’re still dealing with today. I remember reading about the conflict among the leaders of the Women’s March while we were in production and it just felt so resonant to the discussions we were having in the writers’ rooms back in the 1970s. I think the women’s movement did come a long way within a decade of recognizing their limitations. And some of the mistakes they had made early on in the late 1960s, early 1970s, but we still have so far to go in terms of, I think Gloria Steinem said you can’t talk about sexism without talking about racism. The two are intertwined. And similarly, you can’t talk about sexism without talking about poverty and working-class women. So, my hope is the series inspires more conversations in this arena because you’re right, we still have so far to go.
Some of this has been covered already, but I had questions specifically about the media piece. One theme that seemed to resonate is how Phyllis was able to sort of manipulate the media and how the media sort of played into her trap, for lack of a better word, by kind of parroting her rhetoric. And I have a two-part question. I was just curious how you think we as journalists could do a better job of being more responsible in what we print and write about issues of inequality in general? And then I have a follow-up.
Stacey Sher: I think also she really understood the biases of the mainstream media in the way that they wanted to see women represented. And she presented herself in a way that was very comforting to the male-controlled mainstream media in a very put together positive, polished way.
Dahvi Waller: In terms of what journalists today – this is Dahvi – in terms of what journalists today can glean from that time. Certainly, I am not wanting to tell you how to do your job, but since you asked, one of the things that happened in the 1970s with this debate was journalists were drawing this moral equivalence. Like there were good arguments on both sides. And I see that happening a lot today and I think there are some issues in which there is no moral equivalence. There is right and wrong. And sexism is wrong, and it needs to be eradicated, period. And any argument for why we should maintain discriminatory laws on the books, I don’t think there is a moral equivalent.
Great. And my quick follow-up is another thing that’s come up in this conversation, that’s fairly obvious, is basically what goes around comes around. We’re seeing the resurgence of nasty politics and gaslighting and racism and antisemitism. In the context of that, having the sort of whiplash as you all emerged from this experience, did it leave you hopeful? Or did it leave you sad about the state of affairs in the world? Or any emotion that you would describe, I’m just curious if it left you reeling about the things that have resurfaced or hopeful?
Dahvi Waller: This is Dahvi talking. One of the things that I came away with a better understanding of today from working on the series is I used to think progress was linear and we just marched forward. And after working on the series, I realize the cyclical nature of progress and every time there’s a step forward, there’s always a backlash. And so that, well, I came away a little bit reeling from where we are at now as a nation. I also came to understand that this too shall pass and we will move back to a period of progress. It’s just that it happens slower than we may have hoped. And at its core, this series is about activists, women activists all across the spectrum. And so, I do feel galvanized and hopeful that there are so many young generations of activists who are ready to fight for what’s important to us. And I think that’s where these women are all role models for me.
I’ve been enjoying this conversation tremendously. So big picture, like I think a lot of people will be coming into this show with preconceived notions about Phyllis. She is such a public notable figure. Earlier, I think it was Dahvi or Stacey talked about bringing empathy to all of these…like approaching all of these real-life figures with empathy. I’m curious about if you want audiences to walk away with a different understanding of Phyllis than the one that they may have come in with? And if that should be like a more empathetic one?
Dahvi Waller: I certainly never want to tell audiences what they should come away with. I’m more curious to hear what they do come away with from a series. But, as a storyteller, I always hope that audiences will come out of a series with a different notion about the characters or the events that they had going in. That in some way they’re made to think or reflect or even maybe change their minds about something. To me that is always my hope for a series. Whether that’s empathy or criticism or compassion, I don’t know. But I do hope that there is some change in how audiences look at all these characters.
Stacey Sher: Yeah. For me, this is Stacey. I was really looking at sort of consciousness and shedding a light on how we got here from there and really opening people’s eyes to the way that progress moves forward, back, sideways, and what you need to do to keep it moving forward.
There’s been a lot of talk about the idea of second wave feminism during this time and a lot of people have criticized second wave feminism today. I wanted know if you think that’s fair. Like you see a lot of like 20-somethings saying second wave feminism is an insult.
Dahvi Waller: Well, I think younger generations always know better, right? They always criticize previous generations for not having the same enlightenment as they do. And I certainly have done that myself to my parents many times. I would say about all the women in the show and I think second wavers, everyone’s just doing the best they can with the information they have and the experiences that they’ve had to date. Did they make mistakes? Absolutely. Was it wrong to not include gay rights in the feminist movement and race in the feminist movement from the get-go? 100%. They were fighting a really uphill battle. There was so much entrenched transmisogyny. Revolutions are really messy and no one gets it right. So while I think there’s a lot to criticize about second wavers and I completely understand why it’s considered an insult today, I’m sure the next generation of feminists will look back at the Women’s March and the feminists of today and find things they did that were misguided and find reasons to criticize them. That’s my guess.
The Equal Rights Amendment coalition reached the 38th state, which was Virginia. Could this conversation be more prevalent now considering that they’re so close to making it happen, just look at the latest cover of Ms. Magazine.
Dahvi Waller: We were in post when Virginia ratified. There are a couple of hurdles that the ERA would have to get through. One, as Cate mentioned, there was a deadline, 1982 was extended from 1979 and the deadline would have to be removed, which it was in the House. A measure passed in the House a few weeks ago to remove that deadline. And now it would have to be also passed in the Senate. The Speaker of the House has indicated that they would not take it up in the Senate.
The first three episodes of the nine-part limited series Mrs. America are currently streaming exclusively at FX on Hulu with subsequent episodes airing every Wednesday.