What 'Queen's Gambit,' 'The Crown' and 'Mrs. America' are whispering to us

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)In this season's final episode of "The Crown," Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth have one last meeting, perhaps the most touching of their 11 years sparring over the direction of the United Kingdom.

"I was shocked by the way in which you were forced to leave office," the Queen said. "And I wanted to offer my sympathy, not just as Queen to prime minister, but woman to woman." Though a fictional depiction, words underscored a very real shared experience that united the two leaders, even though that similarity did little to strengthen their relationship to one another.
Nicole Hemmer
"The Crown" is not the only scripted drama this year to delve into ways women navigate arenas of power once closed off to them. Three major period dramas of 2020 -- Netflix's "The Crown" and "The Queen's Gambit" (a story about Beth Harmon, a young woman chess prodigy) and FX's "Mrs. America" (a reinterpreted history of 1970s political activism by Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and others) -- have centered on the lives of women in a world dominated by men.
    From the Queen and the first woman prime minister dueling over the direction of Britain to feminists and anti-feminists scrapping over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), these shows have blown past the days of the Bechdel test (do at least two women in a show talk to one another about something other than a man?) to a much deeper reflection on how women navigate the possibilities of power.
    Set in a not-too-distant past, these shows feel both relevant and safe: centering ambitious women in an era where the sexism is both obvious and easy to condemn. The moral clarity that structures these shows -- the buffoonish men who demean or dismiss these women are easy to ridicule and condemn -- provides a comfortable backdrop against which richer conversations ranging from racism and sexuality to emotion and ambition play out.
    And as historical dramas, they offer an extra bit of comfort to make them easily bingeable in a year when we crave certainty: we know how the world will change after these women's stories end, because it's the world we're living in.
    It's especially telling that the year's most thorough explorations of women's power come in the form of period pieces, ranging from the 1950s through the 1980s. By slipping back several decades, the shows unfold in a time when the very idea of women wielding power in the US or UK struck many as unusual if not unwelcome, and where the framework of being "first" still dominates.
    The image of a woman alone in room full of men repeats again and again in both "The Crown" and "The Queen's Gambit," a stark visualization of the novelty and isolation that often frames the experience of being the first, and a reminder that "first" usually also means "only."
    Situating these experiences in the past makes the sexism, when it appears, instantly recognizable for the viewer. Take a scene from the first episode of "Mrs. America," when conservative activist Schlafly meets with Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater knows Schlafly -- she was a committed activist who supported his 1964 presidential bid -- and greets her warmly. She is, in many ways, already an insider: known for her writing on foreign policy and her electoral energy. But when the meeting begins, one of the men in the room calls on Schlafly to take notes while the men talk.
    You don't have to be particularly evolved on gender politics to get the snub, nor to cringe in the next episode when one of Steinem's male colleagues carries on about her nice legs.