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OPINION | Hulu’s stylish hatchet job on Phyllis Schlafly

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DURING her decade-long fight to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly liked to say that the ERA “would impose a doctrinaire equality” on the sexes, eliminating the rights and privileges women already had.

It’s a good line, one the sublime actress Cate Blanchett repeats in “Mrs. America,” the FX on Hulu miniseries in which she portrays Schlafly. Nearly a half-century later, it’s hard to dispute its essential truth.

During the 1970s and ’80s, when Schlafly led an improbable grassroots campaign of housewives to stop the ratification of an amendment that had sailed through the House of Representatives 354-24 and the Senate 84-8, she warned that the federal ban on sex differentiation could lead to young women being drafted and the elimination of alimony. She warned that the roles of “housewife” and “homemaker” would fall into disrepute. She predicted women would have fewer children. Why, even public restrooms might become coed.

It was the sort of slippery-slope argument that invited ridicule from the second-wave feminists who opposed her — Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale). But Schlafly persevered and won.

A renewed push to ratify the ERA began in 2017. Half the states have amended their constitutions with ERA language, and many of Schlafly’s prophecies have come to pass. In March, a national commission recommended that women be required to register for the draft. The permanent alimony that once served as married women’s insurance has been replaced in most states with a few years of temporary or “rehabilitative” alimony — implying that women exited the workforce to indulge in a frivolous or dangerous habit, rather than to raise children. As for the loss of status of “housewives,” how many women born after World War II apply that label to themselves?

Schlafly didn’t deny that some women would benefit from the ERA. She believed a federally imposed legal egalitarianism would eliminate options for those women who didn’t want to be Hillary Rodham Clinton or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or who lacked their educational advantages. She feared stripping women’s special protections would make it economically infeasible and socially distasteful for most women to stay at home.

“Mrs. America” consistently portrays Schlafly’s supporters as privileged, but it was always housewives without money and fancy degrees who were vulnerable to having their way of life stamped out. Affluent women with graduate degrees can raise kids at home without fear that divorce will result in poverty.

Today, the dangers posed by a resurgent ERA and the proposed Equality Act — which would add “gender identity” to sex discrimination laws, eliminating women’s safe spaces — are more widespread. They endanger all women with their potential to eliminate women’s prisons, battered women’s shelters, bathrooms, locker rooms and the like. One can claim that women will adjust, they’ll find ways to ensure their safety, but one can no longer deny that this is precisely how such laws would be used.

Nor can anyone doubt that women and girls would lose rights they now have. The single-sex sports teams that have afforded so many opportunities to young women would be eliminated as boys of average ability stride forward to pluck scholarships from the ablest girls. It isn’t clear that women’s scholarships could lawfully continue to exclude men.

And whereas the feminists of Schlafly’s era were happy to sacrifice the lifestyle of housewives for the sake of progressivism, today’s left would strip safety and opportunities from all girls and women. In the 1970s, it was easier to dismiss such claims as hysterical. Not today.

For all its rooting for the feminists, “Mrs. America” makes no effort to contain Ms. Blanchett’s natural magnetism; she steals the show in every scene, as Schlafly often did in real life. Nor does it elide one critical aspect of Schlafly’s character: Unlike so many career Republicans who perfected the art of “losing with dignity” — or perhaps conceding up front — Schlafly was a fighter. In this, she set an example for conservatives who rose to prominence after her, from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump. But here, “Mrs. America” leaves truth behind: In the actual debates Schlafly had with Friedan and others, it was her opponents who fumbled for facts or fabricated them. Schlafly’s arguments were as impeccable as her trademark chignon, every strand tucked into place.

A few years after Schlafly’s death in 2016, “Mrs. America” sticks a knife into her back. There is no factual basis for the show’s assertions that Schlafly at any point cultivated racist supporters, that she and her husband shared an envy-plagued or sexually dysfunctional relationship, that she invented case law or deployed ad hominem arguments to win debates. (Many of these debates are available on YouTube; watch them yourself.)

In “The Sweetheart of the Silent Majority” (1981), Schlafly biographer Carol Felsenthal, a self-described liberal, admits to a fruitless combing of her subject’s background for evidence of racism. In light of this factual mischief, which ventures far beyond creative license to paint Schlafly as a liar and bigot, it’s fair to call “Mrs. America” a stylish hatchet job.

But the show also serves as a warning to any young woman who might consider following in Schlafly’s footsteps: Progressives will not only scorn you in the present — they’ll lie about you after you’re gone.

Schlafly might have countered that a far worse fate is to be a “go-along Republican,” accepting the left’s America as inevitable. The progressives are likely to hate you anyway. Get your arguments in order, put on your best dress, flash your brightest smile — and fight on.

 

 

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