A devastating finale heralds the arrival of the new political order.
This recap of Mrs. America season 1, episode 9, “Reagan”, contains spoilers. You can check out or thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Mrs. America’s final episode drops us on the tail end of the seventies: floppy disks are in; the women’s movement is out. That’s made clear (the latter, I mean) in an anti-ERA gala that makes the episode’s centerpiece, where guests are entertained by a mockery of Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, singing “Two Little Feminists.”
All but Alice, I should say, are entertained, for the last episode’s events have had a dramatic impact on her. She’s lost faith with the STOP-ERA, which has expanded its once single-issue fight. At the gala, she responds to Phyllis’s assertion that women are better off with their husbands; “Unless your husband’s a jerk and then you’re on your own,” she snaps. Apparently, Phyllis’s response to Pamela’s situation was telling her to “manage it better.” Alice starts to realize that heartlessness is integral to their organization, which is itself a way for Phyllis to build political power.
“When did you get so mean?” Alice asks. “Do you even care about me at all?” Phyllis deflects the question, fearing the crowd beginning to take notice. “I did all of this for you,” she announces.
But it’s never been more clear that Phyllis has always had her interests front and center. When Phil Crane, running for president, asks for her mailing list, she pushes for a role in his cabinet in return. Later, men from the Reagan campaign ask for her support, saying “Ron rewards those who support early on.” She jumps at the chance despite having agreed with Fred that they would wait until after the first few primaries to announce their endorsement.
Phyllis relishes her opportunity to be the one who brings the conservatives victory, even if Fred feels sidelined in the process. At the gala, Phyllis anoints the evening as the day “the era dies: morally, and constitutionally.” “We stand on a precipice,” she says, “together we can take our country back.” Back from the “libbers” and the women’s movement, who she claims have been in power too long (but, as we’ve seen, their power is tenuous at best).
Yet NOW need no help from Phyllis to be kicked out of the decision making process. The Carter administration has to be strong-armed into meeting with them, and Ms. Magazine is being sold. Bella cheers Gloria up: “Ms gave us a voice when no-one was listening. Now, look at us! We have the ear of the president.”
Unfortunately, that ear is being slowly amputated. Bella is pushed out of her position on the National Advisory Commission for Women. In a show of solidarity, every other woman asked to lead it in her stead resigns. In response, Gloria pressures the government to do something to earn the women’s vote; “We’re no longer a captive audience.” But the battle has already been lost. The right will soon be ascendant, and the era of the women’s right’s movement is coming to an end.
The episode makes it clear that the modern ultra-conservative state we currently live in is a direct descendent of Phyllis’ movement. Her impact was, unfortunately, enormous, and the connections to the Trump administrate are evident. Phyllis wears a regain pin saying “Let’s Make America Great Again,” and is introduced to some up-and-coming conservatives by the names of Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
It’s November 1980, and Phyllis watches in awe as the news announces a Reagan Landslide. “The modern liberal era is over.” Bella thinks of retiring somewhere nice, like Amalfi. Betty tries to host an ERA fundraiser, but Gloria is unenthused. Reagan represents the death of progressive politics. “The tide is turning against us in Washington.” She makes a rousing speech, that nevertheless heralds the death of second-wave feminism.
At least Alice gets something to feel good about. She tells Phyllis her new job is “empowering”. “You used to feel empowered by me,” Phyllis responds. “I used to be scared,” Alice says and she drives off, without looking back.
Phyllis herself, despite having her agenda and mailing list pull through, is herself ignored. Reagan calls the Schlafly household himself to tell Phyllis that she will not receive a cabinet position: “You’ve fought an important battle, but sometimes the battle stays at home.” “You were robbed”, Fred remarks. All her power, all her actions, never amount to a position. She passes the bar but does not plan to practice.
Dinner is “at six. It’s always at six.” she tells Fred, as she is now forever resigned to housework. A lengthy shot of Phyllis in the kitchen emphasizes that despite all her work, she’s still resigned to a ‘woman’s role,’ which she herself fought for. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so brutal and reflective of the place women are forced to hold in a patriarchal society.
Throughout its run, Mrs. America has excellently shown how what once seemed like an unstoppable movement petered out. The episode’s final scene contains archive footage of the real-life movement (and the real-life Schlafly). But as of this January, the ERA has been ratified by the required 38 states. Unfortunately, a move to rescind the ratification deadline, the show informs us, will be rejected by the Republican senate. Phyllis’s impact still lasts.
The show has done a remarkable job depicting an under-told period of all too relevant history, one we have many lessons to learn from. And the acting has been consistently superb. Every week Cate Blanchett has turned in what for many other actors would be a career-best performance. She’s a clear Emmy shoo-in (if the Emmys ever happen of course), but the rest of the cast has been wonderful as well. I hope you’ve enjoyed the show and enjoyed reading as I learn about these important recent events. Let’s hope the ERA gets passed soon (and of course, that we end every type of inequality!)
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia