We are currently watching Mrs America, the ‘dramatised history’ account of the efforts of second-wave feminists including Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified, and the STOP ERA counter-movement led by Phyllis Schlafly. The production values are high; the cast, stellar. And it is fascinating to see how the culture wars of the 1970s have continued to shape the landscape today, and not only in the USA.
There is much that I would affirm of second-wave feminism. I take on board some of the criticisms levelled against it by later waves; while, on other issues, I’d remain more closely aligned to the second-wave: I do not subscribe to the idea that the values of each generation are inevitably and unquestionably better (or worse) than those of earlier generations. And alongside this, I have sympathy for some of the concerns culturally conservative women had—and have—regarding feminism.
What is striking about the series (which is not unsympathetic towards any character) is how deeply divided the women are, not only across the Right-Left, conservative-liberal, Republican-Democratic divide, but also within the uneasy (and, at times, unholy) alliances on either side of that divide. In this regard, of course, they are no different to—no better than, no worse than—the men who dominated public life. And while this is a drama based on history, shaped for dramatic impact, we can be confident that such personal battles took place, and still take place.
Left and Right, female and male, black and white, as mirrors—in a hall of mirrors seemingly with no way out?
And what is so deeply needed is to be able to see—without our distorting lenses—and appreciate the ‘other’. In its deep and generous empathy as well as its unvarnished honesty, Mrs America is a welcome example of engaging the challenge. Catch it if you can.