It turns out there are actual connections between Schlafly and Trump. As Doreen St. Félix pointed out in her review
for The New Yorker, Trump spoke at Schlafly's funeral in 2016, "apparently aware of his debt to her strategy," and the finale of "Mrs. America" will see her meeting two disgraced Trump allies, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
There are several other ways that "Mrs. America," set decades ago, feels even like a harbinger of doom for women's rights even today because of the many parallels between these two historical moments.
The most important win of the women's liberation movement was the legalization of abortion in 1973, which was one of the pro-ERA camp's top priorities. And yet, women's reproductive rights are now under serious threat from an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court shaped by Trump, who could yet have the chance to seat another one or two justices. It feels like we've moved backwards in time, as many states have chipped away at
women's reproductive rights, both systemically over time and opportunistically in response to
the Covid-19 pandemic.
It feels like, in some crucially important ways, the fight for women's equality is in an even worse position than it was in the 1970s. This is largely because of the mainstreaming of radical right-wing ideologies within the Republican Party (those embodied then in Schlafly and now in Trump, and their respective acolytes), and the near impossibility of bipartisan compromise since Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
"Mrs. America" highlights how moderate Republicans have virtually disappeared from party ranks in the past few decades. A recent episode focuses on Jill Ruckelshaus, one of the founders of the National Women's Political Caucus and a Republican, pro-choice feminist. While that combination seems almost unthinkable now, then-First Lady Betty Ford
, also a Republican, was also a vocal feminist who supported abortion rights and campaigned for the ERA.
I can't imagine high-profile GOP women uniting with liberal feminists to achieve gender equality today. During the fight over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, when Christine Blasey Ford accused him of attempted rape (an accusation he denied), Republican Senator Susan Collins had the chance to do just this, and she chose to side with her party. Of course, those confirmation hearings raised feelings of dread for so many women, as it became painfully clear again that women's suffering matters less than a powerful white man's career.
This episode, titled "Jill," features a conversation between Schlafly and Ruckelshaus that lays bare the differences in how these two Republican women think about motherhood and sexual assault. When the conversation turns to sexual harassment and coercion of congressional secretaries by male lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Ruckelshaus pushes back on Schlafly when she says that "virtuous women" are never accosted, a classic victim-blaming strategy. While this conversation appears to have been invented
, the ideology behind it wasn't: As Moira Donegan notes in
an essay in The Guardian, Schlafly "wrote and testified passionately that women who experienced sexual harassment brought men's aggression on themselves."
Another way this episode illustrates the shift in ideology within the Republican Party is Ruckelshaus' characterization of Ronald Reagan— who challenged Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination— as a right-wing radical; she assumed the GOP leadership would never go for his anti-choice platform.
Ruckelshaus, unlike Schlafly, is still alive, and I can't help but wonder what she thinks about our current state of affairs, given that Reagan has since become the gold standard for mainstream GOP politics. Schlafly was an important force in pushing the GOP to the right, and almost 50 years later, we're seeing the culmination of her efforts and their disastrous effects on gender equality.
The dramatized conversation between Ruckelshaus and Schlafly about sexual harassment is paralleled by a debate between congresswomen (and feminist allies) Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug in the same episode. The two Democrats argue over what to do about congressmen who prey on their secretaries (some of whom have come to Chisholm for support). Abzug maintains that they can't afford to call out Democratic harassers (whose votes are needed on women's issues), while Chisholm points out the hypocrisy in ignoring sexual harassment when it's politically expedient to do so.
The showrunners of "Mrs. America" might have had certain recent parallels in mind — such as the split within the Democratic ranks regarding whether liberal senator Al Franken
should resign following accusations of sexual harassment in late 2017 (he apologized, while also saying he wasn't sure he'd done the things he was accused of). However, they could never have imagined that a similar debate would be playing out among liberals and progressives with respect to Tara Reade's accusation
of sexual assault by the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden (which he has denied).
Visible in today's debate are those who I'll call the Chisholm feminists, those who support victims of sexual assault no matter who the accused are and maintain that women's pain and suffering aren't an acceptable trade-off for getting Biden elected. We can also see the Abzug pragmatists, who believe Biden is a necessary evil for getting a disastrous president out of office. This second group also asserts out that Trump, too, has been accused of sexual assault, so why should only Democrats be expected to do the right thing?
The 1970s fault lines that Abzug and Chisholm represent amon