America was in a tumultuous state of social upheaval during the 1960s. There was a storm brewing in the 1970s in America about Equal Rights for Women. So much in fact that a political movement was born to ensure that all women were treated as equally as men via the Equal Rights Amendment Act (ERA). It seemed a foregone conclusion that every American woman would naturally support this amendment to ensure they were not discriminated against because of their gender.
Not so. A well-connected lobbyist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) reached out to conservative groups and led the anti-ERA movement across the country, claiming that women would be drafted and their status as homemakers would be diminished. The boxing gloves came off and a political battle ensued between the feminists and the ‘moral majority’ who preferred traditional gender roles to stay that way.
Mrs. America, streaming on FX on Hulu, dramatizes the life of Schlafly and her powerful movement. Creative Screenwriting Magazine spoke with Dahvi Waller, the TV show’s creator and showrunner about getting her beloved project to air. During Waller’s comprehensive research into the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles (her Stop ERA movement), she came across an article entitled Mrs. America. It struck a chord and Dahvi decided it was the most appropriate title for her TV series. “The title is loaded with connotations,” said the showrunner. “It is an ironic twist on Ms. [the go-to feminist magazine of the time].”
Dahvi Waller, an Emmy and WGA Award-winning TV writer and producer is also known for her work on Mad Men, Halt And Catch Fire, and Desperate Housewives.
The term “Moral Majority” was originally coined by Jerry Falwell (President of Liberty University). “They represent the religious right-wing American society. Prior to the 1970s, they were disparate groups because the Christian denominations did not normally collaborate politically. Through the efforts of Jerry Falwell among others, they began to build coalitions and became the formidable block known as the ‘Moral Majority,” added Waller.
A peculiar aspect of the ERA movement in 1972 was that there was so much bipartisan support. It was not overly controversial. “In 2020, there is a pro-women party and one that is anti-women. I wanted to explore this in Mrs. America.”
The female characters in Mrs. America were something Dahvi hadn’t seen on TV before. ‘They’re really complex and fascinating. Their relationships are messy. They’re risk-takers, bold, and ambitious. They also have insecurities and doubts. When you have dynamic characters like that you know you’re going to have a great story.”
The Feminist Debate
Fifty years later, the debate surrounding the Equal Rights Movement has become increasingly polarized and deeply tethered to religious affiliations. Phyllis Schlafly often accused feminists of being godless to energize her base. A vote for the ERA would ensure women would be drafted into the military. Who would look after the home if that happened?
“This debate has become part of our culture wars and pop culture rather than answering the legalistic question of providing women equal rights and opportunities protected by law,” added Waller. “Bringing the media into this conversation has also evolved over the last forty years to further polarize society.”
Every heated debate has two sides, each with their misconceptions and assumptions of each other. Phyllis Schlafly often portrayed feminists as “bitter and miserable.” Dahvi Waller remains baffled by this assessment. “After reading many of their books and writings and watching extensive footage, I found they were mainly a bunch of funny, witty, smart, and vivacious women.”
The Phyllis Schlafly Eagles also accused feminists of having links to Communism. Despite these baseless accusations, Phyllis persisted. After all, Stalin didn’t reveal his grand plans during his campaign. Fear and disinformation appeared to win Phyllis more supporters.
The vicious accusations grew deeper accusing feminists of harboring plans for a gender-neutral society where men and women were the same, despite vocal protests from feminists that they only wanted equal protection under the law.
Researching Phyllis Schlafly
Dahvi Waller was meticulous in balancing historical fact with dramatizing her story for television. She had an abundance of reference materials ranging from books, articles, audio, and video recordings to capture the essences of Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America. Great care was taken not to mislead the audience or misrepresent her.
Some characters such as Alice (Sarah Paulson) who was Schlafly’s close friend in the TV series were fabricated while others were composites based on real-life people. This aided the flow of the story and to populate Phyllis’ world since she was a public figure and needed to fill out the story.
“You have the events that were public and those that happened behind closed doors. There were also private conversations at the Republican Party convention which don’t have a public record,” said Waller.
“Even when I did get a record of these private meetings, some were from multiple points of view and often weren’t in agreement. My job as a writer was to read all these contradictory records and interpret these accounts as best I could,” confessed Dahvi Waller.
The showrunner has a particular perspective in telling the truth of Mrs. America. “I subscribe to the philosophy of the happening truth, the story truth, and the emotional truth.” Immaterial manipulations such as changing timelines or compressing events and conversations were used to create a well-rounded and coherent story.
“One thing we fictionalized was a phone call from Ronald Reagan to Phyllis Schlafly. We know he called her during the campaign, but not a direct call in the finale.”
Phyllis Schlafly was a canny and vastly under-estimated lobbyist and event strategist. Her beliefs were shaped by her Catholic faith. Despite this, she was often not the stay at home mom tending to the house. Her children often stayed with her family during the week while she was campaigning, according to her biography. “Phyllis was a woman of unbelievable privilege with strong political connections she used to her full advantage.”
A TV series about the feminist movement isn’t necessarily only targeted to women. Waller, although inspired by women initiating social and cultural change, sees Mrs. America as a reminder for all of us not to become nonchalant about our freedoms.
“The story of activist women is very inspiring to me. Young men and young women would be galvanized when they realize the importance of grassroots organizing to affect change in this country. You can never be complacent even if you think the battle has been won. You have to keep on fighting because our rights are so tenuous,” declared the showrunner.
Mrs. America certainly did its job of raising awareness of the ERA and stop-ERA movements of the era.
“Audiences experience television differently based on their personal experiences, age, political ideology, and personal points of view. These are projected onto anything they watch.”
Some audiences will be informed, educated, influenced, and entertained after watching Mrs. America. These factors determine what the audience takes away from it and they might be called to action. “I hope it evokes feelings and a strong political discourse,” she added.
Dahvi Waller loves political dramas. Sadly, most are centered on male politicians since there tend to be more of them. “Women are frequently relegated to secondary roles of wives or victims of sexual misconduct. I wanted to create a drama where women have power and agency. I wanted to explore how female power is different than men’s,” said the show’s creator.
TV Writers’ Room
Waller sought to set up a TV writers’ room that was diverse in terms of the types of skills each writer had. Although being a female TV writer was not a pre-requisite, it was useful in terms of tapping the minds of the people most affected by the feminist movement. “Men can still contribute to stories about women and vice versa.” Dahvi Waller showed each prospective TV writer her pilot episode to gauge their reactions to it. Her interview process often lasted as long as two hours to assess their fit. She considered what point of view a TV writer brought to the room.
“The TV writers’ room is a collaborative brain and everyone needs to function harmoniously together. You obviously want some disagreement and conflict as well.”
“I consider setting up a TV writers’ room as matchmaking. You must have a certain kind of chemistry. You get one narcissist in there and the whole room becomes toxic. You want to create a collaborative space that feels safe and filled with respect where everyone is heard.”
Creating a diverse TV writers’ room ensures a well-rounded and balanced discussion of the issues. Some writers were in their twenties and others in their sixties.
“We had arguments that emulated the kinds of arguments leaders were having at the time. How do you portray women of color or what was the political divide at the time? How do you portray working women or objectified women at the time?”
When you allow those arguments to naturally happen in the TV writers’ room, you end up with a great story. The energy in the room allowed writers to constantly pitch story ideas and solve story problems.
Mrs. America has an unconventional dramatic structure. Typically, in serialized TV series, the main character is the main focus of each episode and the secondary characters have minor arcs. Dahvi Weller chose to dedicate each episode to one character – Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). It was told like chapters in a book.
“I wanted to each character have a particular point of view. Rather than try to cover every aspect of Phyllis’ life, we focused on telling one whole story that was personal in each episode. I can’t cover every aspect of the women’s movement. I told a very specific story.”
Chisholm was a unique character in Mrs. America. She was both ally and opponent to the ERA movement. She fought with the feminist movement, but she found out the hard way that black women aspiring to become president will face an uphill battle. This could have been a separate TV series in its own right, but Waller decided to weave Chisholm’s story into the show.
“Although Shirley Chisholm did not intersect directly with Phyllis Schlafly, her story was a big part of the women’s’ movement of the decade. We had to be creative to add this to the main story without becoming tangential. It was all tied to the larger story of women in power and women fighting for equality.”
In conclusion, Dahvi Waller offers her wisdom on how TV writers can attract the attention of television executives. “Have a strong and specific voice. Each character needs a specific voice and that is a tough battle to wage.”
She advisers writers to read film and television scripts, books and plays to stay inspired. “Find and cultivate your voice. Each character should have a strong perspective and style.“