Historical miniseries Mrs. America is based on true events. It’s centred around radical Republican, advocate and anti-hero Phyllis Schlafly’s (Cate Blanchett) war against the ’70s-era women’s movement when it airs Mondays from 28 September on M-Net (DStv 101) at 21:30.

While feminists across the United States are tirelessly working together to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) – a legislation designed to protect women from prejudice and give them a fair shot at opportunities alongside men in the workplace – Phyllis is rallying to overthrow the law at any cost. According to Phyllis, she’s trying to protect women from threats like being drafted into the military. But her opposition to the ERA seems to be founded in personal gain. Phyllis has run for Congress twice and failed, and the only time that she garners any political attention is when she convinces a group of upper-middleclass housewives to march with her and hold up boards with the words: STOP ERA splashed across them.

“Phyllis was such a polarising figure and quite contradictory. But it’s undeniable that she’s a contemporary woman who has really changed the course of the American political landscape,” says Cate of the real-life Phyllis who passed away in 2016. “The feminists were trying to speak to the aspirational nature in women as human beings. Phyllis, on the other hand, spoke to the homemakers’ fears and women who felt marginalised by the feminist movement or were confused by it. Change isn’t always exciting. I believe that she appealed to the unsettling end [of the ERA and feminism],” adds the Oscar -winning actress.

Throughout the 9-part miniseries, Phyllis will be butting heads with distinguished feminists who are determined to bring her down.

A fully flawed and complex character

The first episode introduces viewers to Phyllis’s opposing worlds. She’s highly ambitious and considers getting a law degree in her 50s, despite her husband Fred’s (John Slattery) disapproval. Then again, she advocates for women to stay home and submit to their husbands. “Phyllis personified a love of tradition, hierarchy and order. But also, the abhorrence of being told what to do – so for her, the ERA crystallised those feelings and uncertainties,” says Cate.

Phyllis is constantly facing an inward battle: a part of her tells her to continue being a soccer mom and devoted housewife, while another wants to break free and climb the political ladder. Viewers don’t have to like, agree or empathise with her. They just have to understand her way of thinking. “Phyllis represents another way of thinking in America that should be acknowledged,” says Cate.

“While preparing for the role, I found Phyllis’s role models as a child fascinating. Her mother was a strong influence in her upbringing and worked 24/7 to put Phyllis and her sisters through an exclusive Catholic girls’ school. Her father was unemployed for a number of years but remained the patriarch of the family. Therein lies the rub. Phyllis grew up in a very contradictory, unusual household. She understood from an early age that she needed to care of herself, but Fred saved her from being a working girl [further complicating Phyllis’s worldview],” adds Cate.

A man’s world

Phyllis is the type to turn the other cheek, and awkwardly smile when her male associates pass a sexist joke. Later, she’ll try to have an earnest conversation with them about the constitution, or nuclear energy. In the first episode, during an interview on a talkshow, she defends her anti-feminist remarks by confidently stating, “I’ve never been discriminated against. I think some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting that they didn’t try hard enough.”

She’s insulted when moments later, she’s ordered to shut her mouth and take notes during a meeting with the lads. “The one thing that Phyllis acknowledged, perhaps more roundly and realistically than feminists, is that in order to reach equality, certain white men in power must share their privileges. And she realised that it’s never going to happen. She understood that patriarchy [then] was a much stronger structure than feminism. So she knew which side to stand on,” explains Cate.

The battle lines are drawn

Following the pilot episode, the miniseries follows a star-studded cast playing diverse feminists fighting to get ERA approved, like Rose Byrne as pro-choice feminist Gloria Steinem. There’s also Uzo Aduba as the first black woman to run for the US presidency Shirley Chisholm, and Tracey Ullman as author and activist Betty Friedan, whose tense debate with Phyllis in 1973 led to more women supporting Phyllis.

Mrs. America also highlights the drawbacks, or rather shortcomings – as Uzo puts it – in the feminist movement as some of the feminists are anti-lesbian (along with having their own class and race prejudices), and some didn’t completely understand what the movement was about and what it meant for the collective. “That doesn’t make what they did within the movement less important. It just recognises where their blind spots were, and encourages us to know and do better,” says Uzo.

Watch Mrs. America S1 from Monday, 28 September on M-Net (DStv 101) at 21:30 or on Catch Up

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