En español | Anti-feminist leader Phyllis Schlafly, National Organization for Women cofounder Betty Friedan and National Women's Political Caucus cofounder Congresswoman Bella Abzug are no longer alive, but the issues they fought over in the 1970s — including abortion rights, equal opportunity and women's roles — remain headline news.
Now these and other women's movement pioneers are the subject of Mrs. America (FX/Hulu, April 15), a nine-part miniseries about the controversies over the rise of feminism.
Cate Blanchett, 50, stars as Schlafly, with Tracey Ullman, 60, as Friedan; Margo Martindale, 68, as Abzug; Uzo Aduba as feminist presidential candidate Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; Elizabeth Banks as activist Jill Ruckelshaus; and Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem.
"Phyllis Schlafly was a force of nature — like me!” Blanchett says. “I identified with her as a working parent. In researching, I started to really understand the power of her Rolodex, and really, that Rolodex is what helped get Reagan elected. I was gobsmacked by her ability to inspire people who felt their voices were not being heard.”
"Friedan was very egotistical. She drove people crazy,” Ullman notes. “She felt like she was the mother of the women's movement. She was very hard on Steinem, with her beautiful jeans and aviator sunglasses. Looks with women count for a lot, and I think Betty sensed that and was angry.”
Ullman, who is famous for changing her appearance dramatically in her many roles, was disappointed not to get to transform her looks to play Friedan. “We were not allowed to wear prosthetics or anything, which I like to do.” What she did capture was Friedan's personality. “She had that chutzpah and intelligence, that irascibility, the way she kept going. I think she loved being the star. She reminded me of [Australian-born writer] Germaine Greer."
"In her debate with Schlafly, which she lost spectacularly,” Ullman continues, “Betty just snapped. She couldn't control her temper. She said, ‘I'd like to burn you at the stake,’ but Schlafly kept her cool."
Blanchett compares Schlafly's composure to conservative political activist Anita Bryant's discomfiture when, in separate incidents, each got a pie smooshed in her face by a protestor.
"When Bryant got pied in the face, she started weeping,” Blanchett says. “When Phyllis got pied in the face, without missing a beat, she says, ‘Well, I'm glad that pie wasn't cherry because it would've stained my dress.’ She said, ‘If you're a doctor and you can't stand the sight of blood, then you can't be a doctor — and if you are frightened to controversy when you work in the political arena, you're in the wrong field.’ She definitely relished the cut and thrust."
An executive producer, Blanchett steered clear of favoring either side: “We wanted neither a liberal nor a conservative bias. We wanted those characters to be living and breathing. She thinks things are different today. “We've got haranguing matches and shouting, but then there was a strong culture of robust public debate. They didn't agree, but these women actually talked and debated these things through."