Producers of streaming series on Phyllis Schlafly freeze out social conservative icon's daughter

Cate Blanchett as anti-ERA crusader in Hulu's nine-part 'Mrs. America': Balanced, warts-and-all portrayal — or all-warts demonization?

Updated: April 14, 2020 - 1:40pm

Come Wednesday, Anne Schlafly Cori will likely be watching FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” the 9-part series starring Cate Blanchett as her late, larger-than-life mother, social conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly.

Schlafly Cori says she reached out to the production team behind the series, based on her mother's long battle against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), to “offer insights” into her mother and her legacy.

“They declined to talk,” Schlafly Cori says.

Still, Schlafly Cori had hoped at least to get a sneak peek at the series. Hulu refused to give her an advance look. 

“Why are they afraid to give me a screener?” Schlafly Cori asks.

Early "Mrs. America" reviews suggest why.

The Hollywood Reporter says in Blanchett’s portrayal the pro-life stalwart becomes “a Walter White-like villain whose cunning, ambition and even troll-ish wit we can't help admiring even as her egomania leads her to wreak mass havoc.”

Vanity Fair’s review declares Blanchett’s character “is absolutely the villain of this story; it becomes more clear with every episode.”

The first three episodes of the Hulu series debut April 15 on the streaming platform, with subsequent episodes airing each Wednesday. The limited series covers a wide swath of the feminist movement. Included among those in the spotlight are Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Emmy winner Margo Martindale), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba).

“Mad Men” creator Dahvi Waller’s show tracks the women who fought for, and against, passage of the ERA. No one fought harder against it than Schlafly. 

Loathed by feminists and idolized by social conservatives, Schlafly was a warrior on the front lines of the culture wars for decades through her syndicated column, books, and spirited debates. She created the pro-life Eagle Forum, an unyielding voice for “individual liberty, with respect for the nuclear family, public and private virtue, and private enterprise.”

The Ladies Home Journal included her in its list of the “100 most important women of the 20th century.”

Schlafly’s campaign against the ERA proved pivotal to its downfall. She argued the measure would lead to women serving in the U.S. military, the ascent of gay marriage, and government funding for abortions.

Waller told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the she hoped to offer a balanced look at a roiling chapter in American history. The goal was not to heroicize one side and demonize the other, but rather to “create a series with shades of gray,” Waller said. “What really struck me about all the women from this period was how messy they were.”

Schlafly’s daughter hasn’t seen “Mrs. America,” but she’s read about the series and seen the two-plus minute trailer. Based on those snapshots, she is appalled by the depiction of her dad, the late Fred Schlafly.

“I’m shocked they portrayed my father as a rapist,” she says.

Vanity Fair’s review describes the scene in question: “We watch as her husband Fred (John Slattery) insists upon having sex with her, over her protestations.”

A very brief image from the trailer shows Blanchett on a bed, a man’s hand covering her face as she attempts to scream.

Schlafly Cori objects to another insinuation in the film, as characterized by TV Guide: “She is also inclined to seek ‘permission’ from her husband, Fred on everything from pursuing a law degree to speaking at events, even when her political lobbying reaches peak success.”

That doesn’t capture the bond between the two, the daughter says.

“My mother always said she had one person in her life to please, and that was her husband,” Schlafly Cori says. “He was her closest confidante and advisor … she would discuss everything with him. She enjoyed the teamwork and collaboration that came with her marriage.”

TV Guide’s review suggests the real-life Schlafly quietly condoned the worst elements of her flock: “Mrs. America doesn't shy away from pointing out Schlafly's antithetical principles. They include turning a blind eye to female domestic abuse victims and the KKK's support of the Eagle Forum, as well as hiding the fact that her eldest son is gay.”

Schlafly Cori recoils at the production’s suggestion her mother tacitly endorsed racial bigotry. “It’s clear that they wanted to portray her as a racist, sexist, homophobe ... every slur they can come up with,” she says. “They even use the word ‘monster.’”

“When did you become so mean?” the fictionalized character Alice, who begins on Schlafly's side, asks her in the trailer.

“When you paint someone as a monster you try to dehumanize them .. make them seem like not a real person … some kind of caricature,” the daughter says. “My mother was human … her mission in life was never anything to do with the slurs they have attacked her with. Painting her as with the KKK is patently ridiculous. That was part of the Democratic Party. My mother was a Republican.”

The trailer suggests Blanchett’s Schlafly as a power broker as much as an anti-feminist.

“That’s not who she was ... she was warm and likable and women adored her,” she says. “You don’t get that reaction from thousands of women, if you’re perceived as power-mad.”

The Oscar-winning Blanchett, who serves as an executive producer on the project, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch what her research into Schlafly revealed to her. “I was gobsmacked by her ability to inspire and galvanize and mobilize people through various different tactics,” she said. “She was a true alpha and absolutely a force of nature, much like myself.”

Still, Blanchett is clearly in favor of the ERA all these years later. “The Equal Rights Amendment, it really is about justice,” she said, “so I think it’s a very interesting thing to ask: What was so terrifying about the notion of equality, and how do we view the Constitution?”

Blanchett told Variety she attempted to distance herself from her personal views on Schlafly in building her portrayal. “Whether I like or dislike a character, whether it’s Phyllis or Elisabeth is utterly irrelevant, it’s not my place,” she said. “My place is to present a character warts and all.”

And it will be the viewer's place to judge whether her characterization is, as advertised, warts-and-all — or simply all warts.