In 'Mrs. America,' The Historical Fight To Pass The Equal Rights Amendment
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As everyone is looking for distractions right now, there's a new TV show with an all-star cast that takes us into American history and a pivotal moment in the fight for women's rights.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")
SARAH PAULSON: (As Alice) Although, I have to be honest. I was surprised that you didn't come out strongly against the Equal Rights Amendment.
CATE BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) Oh, I don't know what all the fuss is about. I mean, there's so many more pressing issues like national security.
PAULSON: (As Alice) Well, this is a matter of national security. They're going to ship our daughters off to Vietnam.
BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) Women can be subject to the draft.
PAULSON: (As Alice) And I heard it would get rid of alimony.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Oh, I heard that too.
SHAPIRO: The show is called "Mrs. America." Cate Blanchett plays the crusader against the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly, and she's an executive producer on the program.
Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
BLANCHETT: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: And we're also joined by another of the program's executive producers, Stacey Sher.
Good to have you here as well.
STACEY SHER: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Stacey, you've worked on stories of women's empowerment before. You were a producer of "Erin Brockovich." What made you want to tell this story specifically?
SHER: During the summer of - leading up to the 2016 election, I saw a PBS documentary that "Makers" had made, and there was a segment on Phyllis. And at the same time as watching what Hillary Clinton was going through and, you know, being called unlikable and all of those things, I realized how it was a perennial issue for women. And I thought it would be super-interesting to tell the story of the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment through the point of view of the person and force that was agitating against it.
SHAPIRO: And that is your character, Cate Blanchett. She is a woman with ambition who wants to succeed in politics. Does that seem like a feminist aspiration to you, even though she was fighting against the women's libbers as she called them?
SHER: I think...
BLANCHETT: Well, I think she was a - yeah, you go Stacey.
SHAPIRO: Sorry, go ahead, Stacey.
SHER: No, I think that that was part of the paradox of Phyllis Schlafly that made me so interested in telling her story. Yes, she lived her life in ways that you traditionally define as a feminist but, you know, thought about it differently.
SHAPIRO: And so how do you both reconcile this woman who wanted, at one point, to be in Congress, who wanted to be a household name but also built that all on a platform of keeping women in the home?
BLANCHETT: It's very easy when someone's legacy is so deep and so polarizing as Phyllis' was that we can see that - at the get-go, that that's what her aim was. I think that that's ultimately what happened to her, but, of course, her passion was defense. It wasn't the Equal Rights Amendment. It was only when it was presented to her that it would have an effect on the draft that she began to really - I think really engage with it.
SHAPIRO: It's not totally clear to me that Phyllis Schlafly takes the position she does because she's a true believer. I wonder at some point, watching this program, whether she sees an opportunity to gain power and influence, and it just happens to be through opposing the ERA, even though she sees herself as an expert in national defense.
BLANCHETT: No, it's interesting you say that because I do think that there was a sense that special interest groups saw, in defeating the women's movement, that they could shore up their own platforms, which were non-integration, the lack of denouvement (ph) of government intervention, you know, family and patriarchal values and isolationism on an international level; and also really foundational is pro-life. And so I think that all of those things happened under and were galvanized under Phyllis Schlafly's leadership - grassroots leadership. And she really did change the foundations of the Republican Party platform, I think.
SHAPIRO: There's a great scene between the character Jill Ruckelshaus and Phyllis Schlafly when they're sitting at a bar on a Saturday afternoon having a drink, and you almost get the sense that Schlafly could have gone down a different path.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MRS. AMERICA")
BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) Now, you and I both know that the ERA is not about equality. It's about power, and the left is making a power grab.
ELIZABETH BANKS: (As Jill Ruckelshaus) The Reagan Revolution is going to fail just like the Goldwater Revolution failed.
BLANCHETT: (As Phyllis Schlafly) Oh, Goldwater didn't fail. He laid the groundwork.
BANKS: (As Jill Ruckelshaus) There are more of us than there are of you.
BLANCHETT: There were so many - this is the thing that's hard to understand now - is that the Equal Rights Amendment was supported across party lines. So you had Jill Ruckelshaus and Audrey Colom Rowe (ph) on - you know, really trying to push this thing through because, you know, they truly believed in it. And they were on completely, you know, the other side to Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
SHER: Back to...
SHAPIRO: Yep, go ahead.
SHER: ...What you were saying before, Ari, there was some research that came up that ended up not making its way into the series, which is Phyllis ran for the Republican Women's leader. I can't remember what the date was. And she lost, and that was the beginning of her starting her newsletter. And thousands of women got up and followed her out when she lost. And later, she had learned from someone that the ballot box had been stuffed to elect a sort of more malleable woman because they felt that she was too strident, so it really could have gone a different way.
SHAPIRO: Do you both view the women's movement differently having worked on this program? I mean, it's not a rosy-eyed depiction of it.
BLANCHETT: Something that was revelatory to me was that the - because of the way I grew up with the backlash against feminism - and we're in another backlash now - is that I didn't fully compute that the women's movement and the notion of equality was establishment and that Phyllis and her rhetoric of pro-family, pro-life and pro-American, which is so inside the Republican Party as we understand it today, was outside. And so that was a huge learning curve for me.
SHER: One way that I've looked at it very differently is that I thought that the feminists - because I was, you know, young at the time that all this was happening - were this kind of monolithic, really harmonious group that, you know - that all were just gallantly pressing forward. And you didn't see the conflict or the sweat and - to try and build an intersectional vision. And so that a big learning curve.
SHAPIRO: Do you give Phyllis Schlafly credit for the shape of the Republican Party today?
BLANCHETT: Me - definitely. I mean, it's a...
SHER: A hundred percent.
BLANCHETT: Yeah, positively and negatively.
SHER: I think that she was a brilliant marketer. I mean, Cate was talking about her speaking as a - pro-life, pro-family, pro-America. But when she began, she started out as the anti - anti-ERA, anti-abortion, anti-women's movement. And she understood the power of rebranding herself and her movement. And she was - she unleashed the power of conservative women and the conservative Christian movement by politicizing a group of people that hadn't been politically active and reaching across not just the Catholics but to every conservative religious segment.
SHAPIRO: Cate Blanchett stars as Phyllis Schlafly and Stacey Sher is executive producer of the new FX show "Mrs. America."
It's great to talk to you both. Thank you.
SHER: Thanks for having us.
BLANCHETT: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN ENO'S "THE BIG SHIP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.