This essay started out as a Facebook post.
When I learn things, when I obtain information I am excited about or surprised by that moves me, my first instinct is to share it, to say to someone or everyone, “Hey, I found this thing that is meaningful to me, maybe you will find it interesting too. Maybe it will make you think and turn on those brain drugs that make you feel good when your wheels start turning in new and exciting ways.”
For anyone who has been loving and learning from Mrs. America as much as I have, you’ll know what a rush, how satisfying, those brain drugs can be. The immense pleasure that comes from identifying a significant gap in your own knowledge, and at the same time, having it filled. Not completely, as a miniseries does not an expert make on feminism, politics, or American history, but it’s progress. A foundation of understanding laid where before there was ignorance. A foundation that we can continue to build upon.
If, like me, your investment in the story leaves you too impatient to wait for next week’s episode, you’ve been Googling. A lot. I have had obvious questions that should be answered by the end of the series, like “Was the ERA ratified?” and others that probably won’t get addressed, like “What happened to Phyllis Schlafly’s gay son?”
This impatience is mostly an uncomfortable suspense. Uncomfortable because the answers feel important because as this knowledge gap is being identified, I have to ask myself why it exists in the first place. Why didn’t I know about the ERA or the National Women’s Conference? The answers seem both obvious and disappointing…
I went through public school in Illinois (the state Schlafly calls home during Mrs. America) during the 90s and 00s, and when it came to American history, I remember being taught the same topics over and over again: The American Revolution, The Civil War, World Wars I & II, and the Civil Rights Movement. Rinse and repeat, year after year.
Not to say these aren’t important topics worthy of study, but I remember wondering about all the other events like Korea or Vietnam that we barely covered, entire sections of our textbooks untouched. On Veteran’s Day, I remember saluting the school janitor who had served in the Gulf War but never getting to learn about it. Studying presidents like Washington and Lincoln time and again, but knowing next to nothing about Reagan or Carter or Ford.
It’s been over a decade since I graduated from high school, and I hope the system has changed. This too is a knowledge gap, I have no idea what schools are like today, but I do know that the things I am learning now are things I wish I had known sooner, things I wish I had been taught in an official setting.
Mrs. America covers complex topics, that’s no secret, but I wish we weren’t so quick to slap a “controversial” label on anything that has depth and nuance and requires critical thinking, because “controversial” means problematic, means it may be “too difficult” to cover in a school setting in a way that won’t upset parents with different viewpoints. My question is, if topics like this are “too difficult” to teach in school, when are we supposed to learn them?
I was fortunate enough to go to college and was so enthralled by these kinds of topics that I was being introduced to for the first time. I learned about the United States’ interference in Latin American countries. I got my first dose of feminism. I learned about hysteria and colonialism and subalterns, philosophy full of critical thinking, truth and contradiction. While my friends in STEM fields learned formulas of a different kind, my liberal arts essays were built around the formula “it may appear that X, but really Y and/or Z”. There was never one right answer.
My college education taught me how to analyze, how to pick things apart, to notice the significance of detail, while also being able to visualize the larger whole it forms a part of. It gave me perspective.
Mrs. America has perspective. Its approach at highlighting the complexities and contradictions that exist within groups and individuals is amazing food for thought: Phyllis’ drive, ambition, and independence give her more in common with feminism than she’ll ever readily admit. The feminists fight for civil rights, but still struggle to accept and acknowledge all the diversity (race/sexual orientation/bipartisanship/etc.) that exists within the gigantic umbrella of womanhood. The show breaks the boundaries of stereotypes and labels. Conservatives can be feminists. Men can be feminists. Feminists can be Christians. Liberals can be homophobic. No one is perfect, and everyone is complex. The characters are fully fleshed out human beings with their own thoughts and feelings, ambitions and fears.
In the latest episode (at this time) “Houston”, fictional housewives Alice and Pamela have a heart to heart in a bathroom stall at the National Women’s Convention, where they are advocating conservative pro-life values, as Pamela confesses she is defying her husband’s wishes to attend the convention and shares her own anxieties about motherhood and becoming pregnant again.
It’s these nuances that bring the show to life. Characters may behave, say or exhibit “X”, and a few scenes later we are shown that “Y and/or Z” also applies.
The same is true for me. I don’t consider myself to be an ignorant person. I don’t live under a rock – well, not usually, there is a global pandemic going on and I’ve been mostly confined to my one-bedroom apartment, but still, not a rock. I LOVE to read. I consider myself to be a well-read person. I love feminism and literary theory and philosophy. I have literally been getting through quarantine slowly making my way through The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, a foundational (but extremely long) text on feminist literary theory (also written in the 70s, the preface acknowledges the progress made by feminism since then).
All that withstanding, I knew nothing about the events of Mrs. America until I started watching the show.
My point is, that even as someone who has an active interest in learning about feminism, I still have huge knowledge gaps. I’m not afraid to admit them, and I’m not afraid to take the steps needed to fill them in. However, art like Mrs. America makes me upset that some of these gaps are there in the first place. This is a show about American women, and I am an American woman. It feels like this history should have belonged to me all along, that it is my right to know. At a time in my life where I have felt anything but patriotic (no explanation needed), Mrs. America may be the closest thing I have ever felt to patrimony. I want to feminize the word to express a collective heritage passed down through generations of women, but ‘matrimony’ already has an ironically different use in our dictionaries.
Luckily there is another amazing word for what I’m trying to express, and ‘feminism’ is just as relevant as it was during the 70s at the time Schlafly and Steinem, Abzug and Chisholm, Friedan and Ruckelshaus.
My knowledge gaps didn’t just extend to that time period, I have been ignorant to the recent events surrounding the ERA as well. But thanks to Mrs. America, and the amount of Googling it’s prompted, I was able to place recent events in relation to the context of the show. Facts that excited and surprised me, and moved me to share them.
This started as a Facebook post to share an NPR article titled “House Votes To Revive Equal Rights Amendment, Removing Ratification Deadline” because I wanted to share the news with friends who were fans of the show who may also not have been aware that Illinois ratified the ERA in 2018, that Virginia became the 38th state to ratify in January of this year (the number originally needed to pass), or that the House voted to remove the deadline to ratify the amendment in February of this year. For everyone else who was learning along with the show, along with me, about these issues to see how relevant they are today, not theoretically, but in a specific, concrete way.
The Senate has not voted to extend the deadline for ratification, and it is unlikely they will, or that it would pass if a vote was taken. Along with the states that ratified long after the original deadline had passed, there are five states who now want to rescind their ratification. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has expressed a desire to see America start over from scratch on the amendment, while also stating, “Every constitution in the world written since the year 1950 … has the equivalent of an equal rights amendment, and we don’t.”
Maybe we should. I have more reading to do on the subject, but that is the point. I now have a foundation to build on. I have a place to start. I have a newfound pride and patriotism that is my own, and more context to better understand the events taking place in 2020.
It’s my hope, as I will assume it was of the creators, that viewers of Mrs. America will apply the same nuance and depth seen in the show to their understanding of current events and feel more comfortable starting a dialogue about topics that may be deemed “controversial”. That someone my age won’t be learning about the Me Too Movement from a miniseries or a hologram or whatever other futuristic media they’ll have fifty years from now. Just because something is complex, doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking the time required to discuss it in a meaningful way. The gratitude I feel for the perspective Mrs. America has given me just wouldn’t fit in a Facebook post.
Some things take more time.