Mrs America Writer Dahvi Waller On Feminism And Blind Spots

Starring Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne, it's going to be big.


by Jane Mulkerrins |
Updated on

Come for the all-star female cast– including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson and Uzo Aduba – stay for the swift education in 1970s feminism that you didn’t even know you needed, in a drama one might describe as Big Little Lies goes period and political.

Mrs America, a nine-part mini-series coming to UK screens, tells the story of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US constitution that would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. And the opposition to it – led by women. And if you’ve never even heard of the ERA, which, over 40 years later, is still not enshrined in US law, you’re in good company.

‘I knew next to nothing about the ERA, I had to do a lot of research,’ says Dahvi Waller, who created and wrote the show. ‘Had I not taken a women’s studies class and read Susan Faludi’s Backlash [about the media-driven campaign that has undermined US feminism], I probably would never have come across Phyllis Schlafly.’

Schlafly was the deeply conservative housewife, mother-of-six and frustrated would-be Congresswoman who led the Stop the ERA movement – played with simmering, buttoned-up defiance by Cate Blanchett – determined to defeat the feminists and preserve the sacred role of ‘home-maker’. ‘When you talk to women who were part of her organisation, they call her their Joan of Arc and describe her as brilliant, kind and sweet,’ says Dahvi. ‘And when feminists talk about her, they use the words “devil”, “antiChrist”, “calculating”. That split was fascinating to me.’

Dahvi, who cut her teeth on Mad Men, was drawn to the story because, ‘You see a cycle in history – every time there is progress, there is a backlash. But if we understand that, maybe next time we can anticipate it better and not suffer the same damage.’ Because, she says, as a backlash to 1970s feminism and progressiveness, ‘The US ended up with [ultra-conservative President] Reagan.’ And later, after eight years of President Obama, America (including 53% of its white female voters) elected Donald Trump.

The most iconic of the second wave feminists, Gloria Steinem, is played by Rose Byrne, who disappears completely into the role, all aviators and centre-parting. ‘It’s extraordinary, you feel like you’re watching actual Gloria,’ says Dahvi. ‘That was the hardest role to play, someone so well- known.’ Margo Martindale, meanwhile, stars as lawyer and politician Bella Abzug, and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan, author of the seminal The Feminine Mystique.

But the show does not hold back on the missteps made by the women’s movement; Uzo Aduba plays Shirley Chisholm, who ran for President in 1972, but who is warned against appearing ‘too feminist’ to capture Black votes. Intersectionality is not even a term yet, internalised misogyny is all around, and tokenism abounds, even at Steinem’s Ms magazine. ‘You see in the show how many more white women were in the women’s movement than Black women, and I think all second wave feminists would now say that was a serious mistake,’ says Dahvi. ‘We’ve come far, but it is a lesson to me to always be aware of my own blind spots.’

Mrs America’ begins on 8 July on BBC Two

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