However, though Cate Blanchett remains charismatic, the character is hard to bring alive. Phyllis Schlafly is drawn a little flatly. The problem is, I suspect, that the writer can’t understand what the hell the woman was thinking.
I may be wrong; it’s possible that a 21st-century Canadian screenwriter, who came from an arts degree at Princeton and fringe theatre in California, is herself an anti-feminist, anti-liberal, anti-abortion, Republican right-winger. But I wouldn’t bet my house on it.
We miss a leap of empathy. Blanchett’s Schlafly is an intelligent woman trapped into misguided conservatism by the patriarchy, and her peers in the housewives’ movement are idiots and racists. (I’ve been watching it with an anonymous media source, who observed: “I’d rather see a programme about Ted Heath.”)
The series even implies that Mrs Schlafly didn’t truly believe in her cause – because, I suspect, the programme-makers think she can’t have done. Meanwhile the feminists (especially Tracey Ullmann’s magnificent turn as Betty Friedan) are nuanced, challenging and, particularly in the final episodes, inspiring.
I understand. I too admire the pioneers of 1970s liberation, but I reckon there’s a stronger argument for “traditional family values” than is made here, and drama is more compelling when it pulls you in various directions. I’ve just finished reading Ben Elton’s novel Identity Crisis, about the thorny world of transgender politics, in which the author inhabits all points of view to an almost Shakespearean degree; it’s absolutely terrific.
Of course, this series was written and made at what must have felt like a great time for women, if you were in Hollywood: Harvey Weinstein freshly jailed, MeToo in the ascendant, social media using its power for good.
Post-Covid, the internet erupting with aggression and vitriol, we find ourselves in a world of compulsory face masks, where we can’t give opinions for fear of being “cancelled” and can’t gather in groups for fear of a second spike.
So where did political and social emancipation get us? Never mind 1974 or 2020, I say: bring on 1810! If we have to cover up, pipe down and stay at home, we might as well live in a world with no nuclear weapons either.