The end has come for the FX on Hulu series Mrs. America, the period drama depicting an ideological battle between 1970s feminist (and anti-feminist) historical figures portrayed by Hollywood heavyweights like Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne.
The series—which focused on the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment for the United States Constitution that would guarantee legal equality regardless of gender or sex—mainly focused on the struggle between the anti-feminist conservative coalition led by Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett) and the leaders of the 1970s women’s liberation movement: Gloria Steinem (Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman).
In the show’s final moments, we see Schlafly back in the kitchen making dinner for her husband after losing her chance at securing a spot in Ronald Reagan’s White House cabinet. But history shows that not everything ended in favor of the libbers. The ERA has still not been ratified by enough states to pass, and Schlafly remained politically active until her death in 2016—she encouraged her followers to vote for Donald Trump in the presidential election beforehand, and her conservative Eagle Forum group still regularly updates their website and SoundCloud account.
Blanchett has received much (well-deserved) praise for her portrayal as the staunchly anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, but for the entirety of the limited series, Byrne also holds her own as Steinem, an imperfect icon of the feminist movement. On a phone call from home in New York, where she is quarantined “taking it day by day,” the actress reflects on the “bittersweet” end for the women’s liberation movement as depicted in the series as well as the complexities of matching Steinem’s mannerisms, and shares the tenets of the activist’s teachings that she has kept with her to this day.
A lot of people learned about the Equal Rights Amendment for the first time because they watched this show. What do you feel about the educational power that Mrs. America might have? How well-versed were you on that period of history before joining the cast as Gloria Steinem?
I wasn’t. I mean, I knew broad strokes about the second wave feminist movement, but nothing like the details of the experience. When I started to research Gloria and the movement, it was educational for me. Most people think that the ERA has been ratified, which is… [Laughs.] The show does have the added bonus of educating you, but you never want a show or film or something you do to feel like homework, either. So, for me, the show was also always very entertaining, very funny, very dramatic. It’s emotional. It’s an emotional experience, not just an educational one. It’s attractive, it’s sexy, it’s entertaining.
What sort of materials did you look at as part of your homework when researching the role?
Well, Dahvi Waller sent me a great package to begin with. You know, with Gloria, she obviously is still so active and has such a great presence and legacy today. So we try to honor that, but there is so much of her writing, and so much archival information and footage of her, so we tried to sift through everything to start at the beginning. At a certain point, we had to let everything go as well. You’ve got to dive off eventually and go, “I’m not Gloria Steinem, I’m never going to be Gloria Steinem, I’m playing a part.”
Did you find anything in that research that was particularly helpful when matching her speech pattern, mannerisms, and posture? They’re all such recognizable traits for her, and so specific.
So recognizable! That’s very intimidating, trying to do that and trying to find freedom within it as well. It was great collaborating with Bina [Daigler], who was our costume designer. She did such a brilliant job. And Martial [Corneville], who did my hair. Trying to figure out ways to honor her look and silhouette which is very iconic and immediately recognizable, that was really fun to collaborate with those two on that. Because it is, as you say, very specific. And with Kate Wilson, my vocal coach, trying to find all of the complexities of her voice because it’s very specific how she sounds and obviously very different from me.
Before you came on board, had anyone ever told you that you looked like Gloria?
No! [Laughs.] And I actually don’t really look like her. I think we sort of look enough alike, that you go, ‘Oh, okay…’ but we actually don’t look alike. It’s the combination of everything put together and I think it’s possible, but I’m actually pretty different. She’s got such an iconic look and there are so many copycats of Gloria, too, because she’s so famous with her look. We were trying to navigate that fine line of not wanting it to be a caricature.
In real life, she was very chic, and as it is discussed on the show, the media made her the “face” of feminism in the ‘70s. Out of all of the costumes you did wear in the show—or maybe even some looks you found during the archival research phase—which one was your favorite?
She had so many iconic looks. She’s also one of those people who can wear anything and make it look chic, you know? She has that innate grace and chicness about her, so she could be in something like a simple navy blue t-shirt and a pair of jeans and she looks impossibly cool. She has that effortlessness that every great fashion icon has. But I remember seeing footage of her in a long coat with embroidery. I’m not describing it well, but she had amazing hair and she was quite stunning at some event in the early ‘70s.
Have you met the real Gloria Steinem? Or any of the other figures featured on the show who are still alive? Did anyone consult on the show?
I have not. That’s a question for Dahvi Waller, the showrunner and creator, but I think it was pretty much all from research. Obviously a lot of the women have passed away, so the research she did and the detail she went into for every single shot was mind-blowing. The historical accuracy is quite remarkable.
Rather than solely painting Gloria as a feminist superhero, Mrs. America does present some of her flaws as well. The movement wasn’t as intersectional as it should have been—for example Betty Friedan was not totally accepting of lesbian women, and even at Ms. magazine headquarters, some black feminists were either tokenized or talked over, as we see in the show. How did you approach straddling that line between portraying the iconic “face” of feminism who is often depicted as a superhero, and actually humanizing her and giving a voice to some of her flaws as well?
Dahvi and I were always on the same page in that she never wanted to do a puff piece. It was not standing on a soap box, she tried to represent arguments from both sides, and complexity and flaws. Like you say, the movement was far from perfect. It was chaotic, it was messy, people made mistakes and had successes and failures. There was a lack of intersectionality or a lack of dialogue about it, and people couldn’t really articulate it at that point. Trying to tap into that with characters, you want to honor her incredible work and activism, but as an actor you want to try to highlight all of the complexities of just being a person. The decisions you make, what the cost is on your life when you’re dedicated to a movement like this, and the price that you sometimes will pay. Whether it’s Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, whoever it might be, I think you see all of the characters grapple with the price it has on certain parts of their lives.
During this process, did it ever lead you to want to learn more about the global feminist movement outside of the U.S. as well?
Yeah, every reference point has been broadened in every sense, whether it’s historical global references of feminism, current feminism. There’s no #MeToo without Betty Friedan, there’s no Time’s Up without Gloria Steinem. All these things are historically relevant. And you see how much now, whether it be [because of] a right wing personality like Phyllis Schlafly, we have so many of those types of characters in the right wing media. It was a really educational experience for me to fully see the scope beyond the broad strokes, which was my understanding, to the much finer details.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about this period of history throughout the entire process of creating Mrs. America?
Phyllis Schalfly was such a fascinating character. You can’t dispute the woman’s intelligence or her ability to multitask. [Laughs.] She’s such a fascinating figure for so many strange reasons, not necessarily things I agree with or like. Everything from the history of how Gloria came to activism—I wasn’t as familiar with the story of her childhood and how unusual it was.
The series ends on a hopeful note for Gloria, and a-not-so hopeful one for Phyllis who has been relegated back to the kitchen. What was your read on that finale—do you see it as giving a sense of hope for the feminist movement, or even taking a side with the women’s liberation movement?
It sends Gloria off to her life of continuing to devote herself to activism and use her voice to educate and be on the road. Where she began on the road as a child, you see her sort of set off again on the road as an adult to begin her life as the icon she’s become today. I felt moved by her ending, I thought it was a really emotional send-off. It was like when Trump got in and the Women’s March took place—one event really igniting another. I felt like they showed that with the ending for Gloria. And obviously Phyllis’s ending, she had hopes to work for Reagan and not getting into the cabinet was shattering for her. She probably recovers from that in a kind of way. I think it was a truthful look at what happened at that point, the successes and failures of both sides. I think it’s sort of bittersweet. It’s the tragedy of the Reagan administration coming in and the ERA ratification being stalled, but also this incredible legacy that begins for Gloria and how her fight continues. I feel like it has sorrow and hope on both sides.
After you finished filming the show, was there one piece of “Gloria” that you kept with you and have perhaps incorporated into your real life?
Yeah, just the framework of being in a patriarchal society. Raising two boys, I’m always trying to let them get in touch with things that maybe little girls are “supposed” to be in touch with rather than little boys. Honoring those things, instead of shying away from feminine sides in boys—living in a patriarchal society and seeing how we can reframe that. There are so many ways Gloria has reframed things for me since I’ve read her writing, and seen her activism. It’s broadened the scope of what I can see now.