Phyllis Schlafly and Jill Ruckelshaus fight for the soul of the Republican party in a disjointed episode of Mrs. America.
This recap of Mrs. America Episode 6, “Jill”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
We’re two-thirds of the way into Mrs. America, and the series’ formula is beginning to show. Each episode: we catch up with STOP-ERA, see what year and month it is; then are introduced to our titular character. Several soundbite-esque lines are used in their first scene to give us a rough idea before their specific role in the movement is elaborated. We see their home life, and then catch up with both sides of the movement. Phyllis and our protagonist each make a gamble, which sometimes pays off, and the two women’s ideologies are pitched head to head in each episode’s centerpiece. Meanwhile, a b-story concerns a theme or social issue. At the end of the episode, both campaigns have made some achievements, but have lost something.
As repeated structures go, its not a bad one. These are the staples of network tv, but it’s rare (in my experience) for a miniseries to follow the same rules. (It seems the writers are aware of this, as a character briefly suggested that Jill debate Phyllis, which was immediately dismissed, to my relief.)
Part of it comes from the show’s foregrounding of Phyllis, a decision that’s been met with some backlash. And it’s not a bad way of introducing us to each character. I hope the final third of episodes does something interesting structure-wise, but for now, let’s go over what happens on Mrs. America Episode 6, “Jill”.
34 States Ratified
It’s 1975, and Reagan is on the rise. America’s Bicentennial approaches. The ERA has been ratified in 34 states — close to the necessary 38, but only one in the past year has ratified, as everyone makes sure to note.
Jill Ruckelshaus, everyone agrees, is charming. She’s appointed chair of a White House Commission relating to Women’s Rights — a position she begins to feel is mostly symbolic given her lack of funds.
She’s exactly the kind of woman the Ford administration wants to put in charge. As the first lady says, Jill’s a “midwestern married mom of five, as American as Apple pie.”
When she appears on TV, even the Schlafly’s are enrapt, shushing Phyllis and complimenting her “nice smile”. Her home life seems trouble-free, while she and her husband trade-off periods of government employment for child-raising.
Expanding the Base
Meanwhile in Mrs. America Episode 6, Phyllis feels that Stop-ERA is losing. While the movement for the ERA is also stalling, Phyllis wants to expand their movement. She reaches out to religious groups, and chances upon a catholic group who plagiarized her newsletter (“Women Who Want to be Women, or WWWW, for short”). They agree to join forces after Phyllis shoots a CGI deer in front of their leader. “Don’t you want to see these perverts and abortionists burned at the stake,” she tells Phyllis, who promises to champion those issues.
Later, she goes into a confession booth and breaks down, thinking about her son. “Help me father, I don’t know what to do” she utters. It’s unclear what the creators of the show are trying to do. They draw a distinction between Phyllis’s casual, more political, intolerance, and the extremism of the catholic activists, but the subplot doesn’t seem to add much but give Phyllis an extra turmoil.
A Private Debate
A far better analysis of Phyllis’s inner turmoil is presented in the centerpiece scene of Mrs. America Episode 6. Jill invites Phyllis to have a drink with her, and the two pleasantly discuss disagreements over Kissinger, before they bond over their families. Upon hearing Phyllis’s youngest is 11, Jill jokes “Seven more years until you’re free.” Phyllis’s attitude changes, and she sharply retorts “Motherhood is freedom”
Jill eschews niceties and gets to the heart of Phyllis’s drive; she is a foreign policy expert but knows she’ll be listened to for women’s issues. Jill accuses her of building up a mailing list to be deployed when Reagan runs for president. She’s not wrong, although her foresight runs short when she proclaims that Reagan will never win.
Finally, the conversation turns to the issue of workplace harassment — the epidemic of men only wanting women in the office that they find attractive, and they can sexually proposition. Phyllis slams “those kinds of women” as asking for it, but Jill will not tolerate it. “They could be me, they could be you.” She explains. But Phyllis can only respond by reiterating the classic misogynistic put down: “You’re so angry.”
Jill responds with a final putdown: “You want to get ahead riding on the shoulders of men. Just know, they’re looking right up your skirt.” No matter how far Phyllis gets in the campaign, she’s still a woman in a man’s world.
By the end of the episode, Jill is unfortunately proved right. Crane invites Phyllis to socialize with the men for drinks. While she tries to express her thoughts on Kissinger, the men only have crude things to say about women. Worst of all, she’s asked to pull back her campaign efforts.
A Man’s World
The theme of male politicians and their secretaries comprises the episodes c-story (if you count Phyllis and Jill’s stories as separate). Members of NOW meet with Senator Wayne Hayes (and his attractive secretary). Hayes scoffs when they say their goal is to earn 100% of what men make.
Unlike Bella, Jill humors Hayes, responding to his jokes. “You see Bella, it helps to have a sense of humor,” says the man, whose vote NOW is dependent on.
When Hayes’ relation with his secretary becomes public, NOW is thrown into a disagreement. There are at least twenty other senators taking advantage of their secretaries. Shirley believes there must be a “public reckoning,” but Bella thinks they should ignore it. They need every vote they can get.
The compromise clearly pains her. When she’s shown a misogynistic cartoon, Bella rolls her eyes and mutters, “we’re all secretaries to them.”
Finding a Middle Ground.
Jill, likewise, is forced to make compromises. One day she comes home to find Dick Cheney and other “men in suits.” They have been vetting her husband for a potential vice presidential nomination. The only condition is that Jill must lay low. Think of how much good you could do as the Second lady, he comforts her. The question rings clear; is it worth being silent in the face of injustice for the promise of later power?
At the RNC, Phyllis shows up with Reagan’s backing. Audrey calls Jill to announce that they can pass the ERA, but with significant concessions, most notably on abortion.
Despite some measure of success, Jill is defeated. She ends the episode crying to her husband, having found her speech from the 1972 RNC. “It’s a beautiful day to be a woman and a republican,” she reads, knowing that the era of “nice,” “moderate,” republicanism is coming to a close.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia