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Why ‘Mrs. America’ and the 1970s fight over the Equal Rights Amendment are more relevant than ever

April 17, 2020, 11:45 AM UTC

Dahvi Waller couldn’t have had better timing. The former Mad Men writer was working on a new TV show that she thought would dramatize a half-century-old political fight. But before the show premiered this week, that fight came roaring back.

Waller’s new show, Mrs. America, follows the 1970s battle between feminists and anti-feminists over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. (Spoiler: The anti-feminists won.) But the ERA, a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equality between the sexes, found a surprising second wind last year, with several states that had been holdouts during the period depicted in the show now voting to approve the measure. In January, the newly Democratic state legislature in Virginia made the state the 38th to vote for the ERA—the milestone required to ratify such an amendment.

But despite the new support, the original deadline for ratification expired in 1982, so another fight looms over whether those 38 state votes will be enough to get the ERA over the finish line. Waller, whose show premiered Wednesday, talked to Fortune about writing and filming Mrs. America—which stars Cate Blanchett as anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly—at a moment when similar themes are still playing themselves out in modern politics.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: Why did you want to make this show? Why was the battle over the ERA the story you wanted to tell?

Waller: I really wanted to do a show centered on women and politics. I’ve watched so many political dramas centered on men. Our producer pitched this idea about Phyllis Schlafly and her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment; it seemed like a great idea for exploring the roles for women in the ’70s. The fact that the amendment didn’t pass seemed emblematic of what happened to the feminist movement by the end of the decade. It seemed like a great backbone to a series about the broader issues of our culture wars and different definitions of womanhood.

What reaction did you get from gatekeepers in the entertainment industry when pitching this idea—and how did that reception change in the five years you’ve been working on the show?

The studio bought the show in the room. They seemed to get it and why this was such an interesting story. It helped that the world seemed to catch up with the themes we were exploring. When a story resonates today, it seems like a better bet as far as historical dramas go. It wasn’t until [Cate Blanchett] signed on as our lead that it became inevitable.

What was different about the experience of writing or filming the scenes featuring the feminists and the anti-feminist activists?

I knew from the beginning I wanted to dramatize these two worlds and the contrast in how they feel visually and how they sound. We talked a lot about how to differentiate these worlds—the color palette, their clothing, hairstyles, sets. Even though it all takes place in the ’70s, you feel like you’re in a very different kind of ’70s when you’re with the feminists than when you’re with Phyllis in her hometown.

When you have two very different worlds, for a scene in Phyllis Schlafly’s home, in Gloria Steinem’s apartment or Bella Abzug’s office, you just get a different vibe on set. It does end up seeping through everyone’s psyche. There’s just a different tone on set.

What were the pressures of building the world of these feminist icons, whose work and style is closer to what viewers associate with the 1970s, compared with the pressures of building Phyllis Schlafly’s world?

The trick for portraying the feminists—the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they design their apartments feels more like the ’70s we know—so the pressures there were to make sure it never veered into caricature or clichés. In Phyllis’s world, the pressures and challenges were to capture the ways that world felt stuck in the past, while still feeling like it was the ’70s. One example was that I wrote in the script that Phyllis’s beehive is straight out of the ’50s, but I was corrected by our hair design team, who said her hairstyle is actually accurate to the late ’60s or early ’70s, but the fact that it’s an updo feels conservative.

As you were filming, how did that timeline overlap with the 2020 presidential race? The episode featuring Shirley Chisholm and her 1972 run for President—and the pressure on her from fellow Democrats to drop out—shared many themes with our current politics.

We opened the writers’ room in June 2018, before the primaries began in earnest. We wondered, how will we get this complicated terminology of presidential politics across to the audience? Is anyone going to know what a delegate is? Once we got into the edit room, these conversations were happening in our own politics this year. Everyone knew the pressures on Elizabeth Warren to drop out. Everyone’s going to relate to that.

By 2017, the ERA had come back to life. It was ratified in Nevada, in Phyllis’s home state of Illinois, and just a few months ago in Virginia. It was wild to have this ERA, which had been dormant for 40 years, suddenly spring to life in the middle of production.

You always hope people will watch the show you’re putting out there. It gives people one more reason to watch and one more reason why it’s a relevant piece of history to reexamine.

Is it frustrating, in a way, to be confronted with how long these issues have been debated with little progress? Elizabeth Warren started her presidential campaign with a plan for universal childcare, and you show how that issue was a central part of feminist activists’ platforms in the early 1970s.

It was frustrating for us. We would joke that our tagline should be, “Mrs. America: Women can’t win.” Issues that were being fought for back in the ’70s, we’re still fighting for them, and we haven’t gotten very far. Gloria Steinem had a “tot lot” where you could bring your children to work at Ms. magazine in 1970, but that’s still not a feature of offices today. It’s frustrating to wonder—how long is it going to take for us to have a female President? The feminist leaders back then argued that 1972 may be too soon, but certainly by ’76 or ’80 we’ll have our first female President. They really believed that, and it’s kind of depressing to be here in 2020 and we still don’t have hopes for a female President before 2024.

In the episode about Shirley Chisholm’s run for President, many other feminist leaders, like Bella Abzug, argue that she should drop out of the race, saying that her campaign is symbolic, and that the movement should be more concerned about getting policy through than electing a woman. Then, when Chisholm appears onstage at the Democratic National Convention, those same activists are moved to tears. What were you hoping to say about representation?

Representation is essential in every industry and certainly in Hollywood. What came through in making the show is that women, women of color, and men of color need to be able to tell their stories. There are so many more untold stories. We’ve only scratched the surface of this era—there are so many more women who were involved in the women’s movement. When Shirley Chisholm was running for President, some women dismissed her campaign as symbolic. It can be said about her campaign—and about the Equal Rights Amendment—that symbols are important. Symbols matter, and representation matters. It’s an essential part of making progress in this country.

Another episode follows Jill Ruckelshaus, a former White House aide who advocated for the ERA. Her story focuses a lot on her marriage and the compromises she may have had to make for her husband’s career, also in Republican politics. What were you hoping to say with her story?

Before I worked on this project, I did not know there were Republican feminist leaders back then. I was really fascinated by Jill Ruckelshaus and her role in the women’s movement in the ’70s. What resonated was that she was married to a very prominent politician; her husband was head of the EPA under Nixon and then was deputy attorney general who resigned during the Saturday Night Massacre. It felt like a two-career marriage where you’re both in the same industry—who’s going to get to shine, and who’s going to stay home with the kids? It felt like such a modern story. What do you do if your career could stand in the way of your partner’s career?

What do you hope viewers will take away from this series? Both for younger viewers who don’t know this history and for those who watched it unfold?

What I took away from making the series is that this is a story about grass-roots activism. It’s a story about change, disruption, and the uncertainty and anxiety that triggers within us. I learned that it’s important to keep fighting for what you believe in and never get complacent. You can never rest—you have to keep fighting. All these rights that were so hard won, all these opportunities that women fought for—they are tenuous. They have to continue to be shored up.

The grass-roots activism you mentioned—is that something viewers will see from the feminist side of the show or the anti-ERA activists working with Phyllis Schlafly?

It’s a combination. One of the reasons I wanted to tell this story with Phyllis Schlafly’s story incorporated is that I don’t think you can understand what happened to the women’s movement at the end of decade without the context of this backlash. Every time we take a step forward as a society, there invariably is some backlash or some counterrevolution. With the ERA, there were many factors fueling the backlash, from special interest groups, to insurance lobbies, to homemakers who were anxious about sudden changes.

When the feminist leaders of the 1970s were fighting to pass the ERA, it was already 50 years old. Now, it’s been almost another 50 years. How does it feel to be so immersed in this fight a century later?

Alice Paul introduced the ERA in 1923, and it took 50 years just to get it to the House floor for a vote. It’s frustrating how slow progress is. You have to hope, in 50 years, we’re fighting for new things.

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
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