Coalitional Potential in 'Mrs. America'
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is a still to be realized policy legally requiring gender-based equality in the United States. This piece of legislation forms the political impetus for the fascinating historical docudrama, ‘Mrs. America.’ I binge watched the show’s first season one 2020 quarantined weekend. I’d love someone to write a comparison of Cate Blanchet’s portrayal of Carol in the movie adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Price of Salt’ and her rendition of the anti-ERA advocate Phyllis Schlafly in ‘Mrs. America.’ After watching this show I’ve gone down several doom spirals to understand the women behind the characters Shirley Chisholm, Jill Ruckelshaus, Bella Abzug, and Flo Kennedy. To focus this post, I’m going to analyze the “Houston” episode and analyze it for coalitional rhetorical potential.
Communication and Latin@ Studies scholar Karma Chavez writes, “a coalitional moment occurs when political issues coincide or merge in the public sphere in ways that create space to reenvision and potentially reconstruct rhetorical imaginaries” (8). Chavez continues, “Analysis of coalitional moments provides opportunity to witness activists’ creative rhetorical crafting, which sometimes points in the directions of inclusion and utopia but also shows how activists inventively draw resources toward building alternative rhetorical imaginaries and possibilities for livable lives” (9). I’m interested in applying Chavez’s description of coalitions creating new rhetorical opportunities to the Mrs. America “Houston” episode for the ways it illustrates one character’s new language of a livable future, one of consensus building, and distributed leadership.
‘Mrs. America’ follows Phyllis Schlafly after she loses a congressional run and ends after Pres. Reagan passes her over for his cabinet. Throughout the show, Schlafly leads supporters of her Eagle Forum. One of those supporters is Alice (Sarah Paulson), the central character in the “Houston” episode. Alice married the first man she kissed. She wears a crucifix and Stop the ERA pins. Her mother solicits her cooking advice multiple times. At the start of the episode, Alice and her friend Pamela set off on a road trip to the 1977 National Women’s Conference. On the road Alice reminds Pamela their purpose is to seek to save homemakers from “women’s libbers” and to show the public not all women support lesbians and communists. Both Alice and Pamela joke in the car about just what they’d say to Gloria Steinem if they meet her.
Pamela and Alice soon become discombobulated at the convention. The hotel is overbooked, which requires both women to share a room with a stranger. Alice finds out her Eagle Forum friend wants to have someone else deliver the speech Phyllis told her she could give. Eventually, Alice ends up alone at the convention hotel bar. After taking a pill with her pink lady cocktail, Alice wanders the convention. She listens to a woman in a consciousness raising group describe her all too short maternity leave. Alice joins in a primal scream session. She takes communion from a nun. Later in the night, Alice visits the convention’s gay lounge to eat food and lead the group in the second verse of “This Land is Your Land.” When the woman sitting next to her tells her Woody Guthrie, a socialist, wrote the song, Alice responds, “It’s patriotic.” “Exactly,” responds the stranger. The song can be two things at once, and Alice is beginning to realize women can be more complicated than their political labels. They just might have a great deal in common.
How does Alice interact with Gloria Steinem? Nonfictional Steinem joined Eleanor Smeal to call ‘Mrs. America’ “the Catfight Theory of History” due to the way it fails to consider the economic influences preventing the ratification of the ERA. In the show, Alice meets Steinem (Rose Byrne) in her iconic aviator glasses as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” plays in the background. Steinem compliments Alice’s dress and later Alice laughs at one of her jokes. In a key departure from Phyllis’ controlling and critiquing style of leadership, Alice overhears Steinem ask women in a meeting if they all agree on the plan for the next day.
These experiences become crucial for Alice as alternatives to the ideas she’s heard from Phyllis and what she’s assumed about ERA supporters. The Latin American and Caribbean Studies professor Maria Lugones is critical of utopian thinking as a move that often divorces theory from practice. But Alice doesn’t have to only imagine a world where her voice matters. She experienced it at the women’s convention as she led a song and talked with other women. Both Chavez and Lugones emphasize coalitions are about new rhetorical possibilities as ways to bring about livable lives. What is a livable life for Alice? A livable future for Alice is one where her friend Phyllis encourages her ideas rather than belittling her appearance, one where Alice’s friend Pamela isn’t afraid of what might happen when her husband finds out she left town for the weekend. These are new rhetorical possibilities Alice acts on. The morning after her night wandering the convention, Alice asks women at a stop the ERA meeting if they might have something in common with the feminists, and Alice wonders out loud who is threatening their lives.
These are the key questions that initially attracted me to feminism and the ones I hope to struggle with as a writer, teacher, and person. Experiences with women quite different from Alice helped her meet her needs for a place to sleep, food, and companionship. Those experiences enabled Alice to call for a different sort of women’s movement than the one she participated in, one of coming together to support each other.
The episode ends not in the utopian vision I would hope for, the sort of rapid change where Alice joins a NOW chapter, tells Phyllis she hurt her feelings, and enrolls in a community college. This episode has a more realistic, and historically accurate, ending. Phyllis shows up to the convention with vans full of anti-ERA supporters and she gives Alice a kiss on the cheek as she tells her to fix her face. Alice and Pamela join the march with their familiar leader. History happens. The ERA fails.
Earlier I wrote the coalitional theorist Maria Lugones is cautious of utopian thinking, especially when language is separated from actions. However, this does not mean considering potential in disappointing circumstances does not have a use. The “Houston” episode illustrates one way women could interact with each other as complex people and not political opponents. There are alternatives to authoritarian leadership styles. We need each other—and yes, this includes republican homemakers--to survive.
Alice Paul Institute. “Equal Rights Amendment.” https://www.equalrightsamendment.org/.
Chavez, Karma R. Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. U. of IL P., 2013.
“Houston.” Mrs. America, season 1, episode 8, Fox, 20 May 2020, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loJxO0pmM1A&ab_channel=Mrs.America.
“Mrs. America.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9244556/.
Lugones, Maria. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Smeal, Eleanor, and Gloria Steinem. “Steinem and Smeal: Why ‘Mrs. America’ is Bad for American Women.” Los Angeles Times, 30 July 2020. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-07-30/steinem-and-smeal-why-mrs-america-is-bad-for-american-women