I’m really enjoying this series about the rival campaigns over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment: it’s very well-written and very well-acted. Cate Blanchett is deservedly getting a lot of plaudits for her performance in the lead role of Phyllis Schlafly, and anyone who grew up in Britain in the 1980s will be pleased to see Tracey Ullman as another of the stars, playing Betty Friedan. Having said which, I cannot warm to any of the characters, and it’s quite demoralising to think that the way many people approach controversial issues is no better now than it was fifty years ago, and, if anything, it’s got worse.
As far as both sides were concerned, they were completely right and anyone who disagreed with them was wrong and stupid. It didn’t seem to occur to any of them that other people might have had valid concerns, and that their opinions counted as well. Wildly exaggerated claims were made about each side’s aims and motives, and unpleasant personal insults were flung at each side’s leaders. They all claimed to want what was best for American women, but it ended up as a women versus women war – although I think the programme did underplay the role of men, who, as they formed the vast majority in each state’s legislature, were going to have a pretty big say in things. I just kept feeling like the whole lot of them needed their heads banging together, not to mention needing to learn some manners.
Another thing which struck me was that, of the five main characters on the pre-ERA side, all of them portrayals of real people, one was black, two were Jewish, one had a Jewish father, and only one was from a “WASP” background. On the anti-ERA side, everyone was from a “WASP” background, everyone except Phyllis Schlafly was a housewife (or “homemaker”, which seems to be the term used now), and the DAR was mentioned. I don’t think for a minute that this accurately reflected what was going on. Women’s groups from many different sections of society expressed concern about the ERA, with female trade union leaders being very concerned that it would override protection given specifically to female workers in labour law, and there was certainly some support for the ERA from people with DAR-type backgrounds. But it’s certainly interesting what a high proportion of American women’s rights movements do come from groups which were historically marginalised.
Phyllis Schlafly was a fascinating character. Incidentally, I’m never sure whether or not dramas should be made about someone who’s either still living or only died recently, and I gather that her family have been quite upset about this. She certainly wasn’t someone who spent her time baking apple pie and home-educating her kids on Elsie books and creationism . She was a very well-educated and professionally successful woman, and very politically involved. And, originally, she wasn’t very interested in the ERA: she was more concerned about Cold War issues than social issues.
It wasn’t really clear why she did get so involved with the movement to stop ratification of the ERA, but it was something she seemed very convinced about. I’d expected to find the arguments against it frustrating, but there were some very valid points made. In 1971, many women had given up their jobs on marriage, and, concerned that the ERA would mean doing away with dependent wives’ benefits and alimony, were frightened of what might happen to them if they got divorced or were widowed young. There were also, as I’ve already said, concerns about the removal of specific protections for women in the workplace, and about the prospect of young women being sent to fight in Vietnam. There were also the concerns, which still exist today, that people might try to remove female-only spaces such as ladies’ toilets and girls-only youth groups.
But then there were the “family values” arguments, and, yes, they were frustrating. There is nothing wrong with baking apple pie. There is an awful lot wrong with saying that someone’s only become a feminist because they haven’t managed to bag a husband, and with saying that the only valid role for a woman is that of a wife and mother. The one character for whom I actually did feel some sympathy was Phyllis Schlafly’s single sister-in-law, who was made to feel that everyone in her community looked down on her for not being married.
And so the mud-slinging got going in earnest.
The other side were no better, dismissing an extremely intelligent woman as “a nut job”, and shrugging off the concerns of housewives by saying that, whenever there was change, someone would get left behind. Easy to say if that isn’t you. But they made it clear that they weren’t going to abolish alimony or ban ladies-only toilets, but the anti-ERA group weren’t listening. And we saw all sorts of examples of how unpleasantly women could be treated at the time – pretty much every male character was a sleazeball to some degree or another – and how they’d faced discrimination in the workplace, and how that had influenced their views.
And we heard a lot about Gloria Steinem’s pro-abortion stance and how her personal experiences had influenced that. Given how controversial a subject this still is the US – and I’ve just made myself feel like Methuselah, because I was going to say that, only recently, Dirty Dancing nearly didn’t get made for that reason, and then it struck me that it’s been twice as long between Dirty Dancing and today as it was between Dirty Dancing and Congress passing the ERA, erk – I think it was brave of the series to go into this.
They did a good job of showing that this was non-partisan: there were both Republicans and Democrats in both camps. And I also think it was brave of the series to show the anti-ERA people were not monsters, and that they did have genuine concerns. We’re now getting people being “cancelled” on social media, threatened with violence and sacked from their jobs just for expressing their genuine concerns. This is not a good road to be going down.
Going around claiming that anyone who thinks women should be entitled to equality under the law is “un-American” is not acceptable, but saying that housewives are going to be “left behind” by change and that that’s just hard luck isn’t acceptable either. There’s a lot to think about in this series, and it really has been very well done.