From Phyllis Schlafly to Gloria Steinem to Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan, the women depicted in FX on Hulu’s “Mrs. America” are prolific leaders with quite a large footprint in history and the media. Although each episode of the nine-part limited series about the Equal Rights Amendment and those who fought for and against it is named after one such woman, the others still feature prominently throughout, weaving their tales through each piece of the story similarly to how the real-life women’s lives and work intersected over the years.
“I felt to really give a full picture of what happened in this moment in time, we couldn’t just go with one character’s point of view,” showrunner Dahvi Waller tells Variety. “We really had to bring in multiple points of view, and at the same time it was very much an ensemble piece, so we wanted to carry all of the characters’ stories throughout. But I liked the idea of picking the moment in time we were going to focus on and say, ‘Whose story is most interesting to look at this part of the story through?’ It’s almost like that episode is their aria of the series.”
The very first episode is named for Schlafy (Cate Blanchett, who also executive produces), a conservative who campaigned against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. While the show centers on the conflict between the feminist movement and the conservative movement, it doesn’t shy away from friction between those within the feminist movement either. For example, the third episode, entitled “Shirley,” focuses on Chisholm’s run for president in 1972 and features harsh treatment from Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), while the fourth episode, “Betty,” tells the story of the first debate of the women’s movement and puts Steinem at odds with the titular Friedan (Tracey Ullman).
The show is not out to take any particular woman’s side, but rather to present the “messiness” of the relationships and the situation, Waller says. “Some of us will be very angered by Betty’s actions and some of us will be very angered by Phyllis’ actions. I think it’s OK for audiences to leave an episode very angry.”
A former scribe of “Mad Men” and “Halt and Catch Fire,” Waller is certainly no stranger to period dramas. But whenever she sets out to tell a new tale set in the past, she wants to ensure it is relevant to what is going on in the world today — otherwise “why would we tell this story now?” she says.
“The reason I was interested in the equal rights campaign was it felt so resonant to where we are today. You could see where the fault lines had developed in the ’70s to where we are today. So it was very deliberate to bring out moments and conflict that is still resonate, because how else can we relate to them? For instance, in Episode 6, there’s a story in 1976 about a group of congressmen who were expecting sexual favors from their secretaries. It’s a true story, but it did feel very resonant, and I was interested in how the women of that time spoke about ti and dealt with it, and in what ways it was similar or different to today. I was really struck by how far we didn’t come — how we’re still having the same conversations these amazing women had in the ’70s.”
Given how prevalent some of the issues explored in “Mrs. America” still are, Waller acknowledges that some audiences might “judge these women in terms of where we are today. While she thinks that is an “exciting conversation to be having,” the writers had to strip their political alignments and judgments from their writing process.
“When I set out to staff a writers’ room I look to have a very diverse room in where they’re from, gender, sexuality, race, everything,” Waller says. “What’s most important to me is that they have strong empathy because when you have strong empathy you are able to get inside the mind of a character who might be completely opposite, ideologically. We really approached all of the characters, whether we agree with them or not, with compassion and trying to understand where they are coming from and the appeal they had to so many women.”
Waller spent two years in development with “Mrs. America,” during which she wrote the first two scripts for the show (the second episode is entitled “Gloria”), before she even opened a writers’ room. Once she did, changes were made to those two scripts, in part to reflect her writers’ “fresh perspective” on material, people and issues with which she had been living for so long.
“We wanted to paint a picture of this moment in time without the lens of time and distance,” she says. “I had a wonderful team to be the check [and balance].”
They also dove into research to fully flesh out the remaining episodes. While Waller was amazed at the amount of books these women wrote and had written about them, the show itself was not based on any on specific piece of existing property. The research process, therefore, included reading all of those books, as well as “every article and every interview ever done with all of the characters,” she says.
This was to soak up as much knowledge as possible — “There is so much richness and you do feel an obligation to represent them in a responsible way,” Waller says — but also to realize where there might be biases or gaps in the existing storytelling.
“We’re all the heroes of our own stories so in some ways our own autobiographies are not the most objective versions of events. We had a subscription to newspapers.com and the number of hours I spent looking at all of the articles written in the ’70s, what was most helpful to me was reading how they spoke in the ’70s about these moments, as opposed to 20 or 40 years later in a memoir. What were they saying in their speeches? What were people saying about them then?” Waller says. “We wanted to strip away the public persona and what you can watch on YouTube.”
Waller was focused on getting specific on the page about each character’s essence and character traits. Sometimes these traits were plucked from reality — such as Steinem and Schlafly both loving black and white movies or how, “late at night at Ms. magazine [Steinem] would steal snacks from people’s desks and leave them notes that said, ‘Sorry I took your Tootsie Roll,'” says Waller. “That small detail says so much of who she is.”
More often, that level of intimate detail about the women’s private moments had to be invented, though.
“The best you can do is look at all of the primary sources, go very deep, and then you have to trust your interpretation of what happened — and recognize that your interpretation of what they wrote might be different than theirs, and that’s OK,” Waller says. But that level of “detail I put in the script because I thought that really helps get a character from the inside out — not how the public sees the character, but how they truly are in private.”
“Mrs. America” premieres with its first three episodes April 15 on FX on Hulu.