I reviewed Hulu/FX’s Mrs. America for The American Interest. The show turns on one question: Who gets to claim the mantle of a women’s movement?
In episode four, Schlafly and Friedan square off in a debate. Both women relish the fight—Friedan more obviously, exclaiming “God, I’d like to burn you at the stake,” just as she did in real life. But their attacks on each other reveal a potential for common ground that neither admits to. Both activists acknowledge the limits of law to protect women if the broader norms of the culture are misogynist.
Friedan makes her case by taking on Schlafly’s ideal of the homemaker who would rather keep her special privileges than have equal rights. Schlafly likes to hold up the example of a mother, who is supported by her husband and whose work in the home is treasured and protected. But, as Friedan points out, a widowed woman enjoys no such privilege. And, as the viewers have seen, Schlafly’s mother is one such woman. Neither private charity nor government support came through to support her or her children. The homemaker’s privileges are precarious, ERA or no.
Schlafly fires back, by arguing that the ERA isn’t really important as a matter of law to the Women’s Libbers. It’s more of a cri de coeur, a way to push back against a world that’s hurt them. But, Schlafly says, the law won’t stop your husband from leaving you or a man from being a pig. In the show, it’s clear this is a personal jibe at the divorced Friedan.
In the debate, both sides are focused on using the law to make a claim about who women are. But both of their campaigns are incomplete without a corresponding moral or cultural revival. The push to fix culture through law has only grown more intense in our present day. Congress is gridlocked, and many representatives seem to relish being freed of direct responsibility to legislate. Their authority is devolved onto administrative agencies, the courts, and the increasingly imperial presidency. To get anything done, activists have to look for a constitutional angle to justify taking the fight to the courts.