August 5, 2020   4 mins

Why hasn’t feminism done better? It’s a movement that represents approximately half the world, and yet – as is driven home by the miniseries Mrs America, currently on iPlayer — its cultural force and legislative success arguably peaked well before the end of the twentieth century. Mrs America dramatises the battle by US feminists to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and at the end of the first episode everything is going great. It’s 1972, the Senate has just voted in favour of the ERA by a landslide, and the women’s movement gathers in an office to toast their incipient success. They have the numbers.

We know they will fail. We know, furthermore, that half a century later, the country they believe they are remaking will still have no paid maternity leave. Women’s earnings will still lag behind men’s. Men will still be raping and killing women. Pornography will be more pervasive than ever, and more misogynistic too. The abortion rights established by Roe vs. Wade will have been rolled back, state by state. The USA will still not have had a female vice-president, never mind president. It will, however, have put its first self-confessed groper to the White House.

But back in 1972, Republican activist Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) clinks a mug of bourbon with Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the Democrat congresswoman who was both the first black and the first female candidate to seek the presidential nomination. “Mother of the movement” Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) smiles at rising feminist celebrity Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne). The ERA seems assured. Legalised abortion is within reach. Sisterhood is powerful. One joyful moment of bipartisan, intersectional unity, before the long slide begins.

There are other frustrations besides that of the ERA. We see Chisholm’s run end in expected defeat, compounded by betrayals and recrimination. The black caucus refuses to back a woman, while the women’s movement peels away to press its demands on the successful (and uninterested) McGovern campaign. Across the aisle, Ruckelshaus watches her party leave her behind and give itself over to the culture wars. In fact, of all the details in Mrs America that feel quaintly historical, from the incessant smoking to the idea of magazines having popular currency, nothing seems so strange as the fact that there was ever such a thing as a pro-choice, feminist, mainstream Republican.

What’s coming to eat Ruckelhaus’s lunch? Anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, portrayed with powerhouse iciness by Cate Blanchett. It’s fair to say that without Schlafly’s efforts, the ERA would be law by now. It’s arguable that without her, American politics would never have taken the savagely partisan turn it did over gender and sexuality. And it’s fascinating to see that, as portrayed in Mrs America, the great homemaker’s first interest was never women.

Schlafly’s subject is defence, on which she’s ultra-hawkish. Her problem is getting men to listen to her when their default assumption is that any woman in the room must be there to fetch coffee and make notes. When Schlafly reinvents herself as the leader of the STOP ERA lobby group, though, she immediately becomes someone men pay attention to and other women obey. Her campaign might rest heavily on scaremongering about the ERA forcing women into the draft against their natures, but Schlafly is, you can sense, a born general.

Yet the women’s movement underestimates her. Informed that there’s a cohort of housewives out to frustrate reform, the feminists’ first impulse is dismissive. “Revolutions are messy,” says the Steinem character. “People get left behind.” It’s a moment that lays out one of feminism’s most intractable contradictions — a movement for all women that, ultimately, has to tell some women they’re doing it wrong. And who has ever been converted to a political cause by the news that their life is a mistake?

Committing yourself to what Schlafly called the “privileges” of life as a housewife means committing yourself to dependency on a man. He might be a good man, or he might be the sort of man to stymie your ambitions and cut you off from friends and rape you when he feels like it: the trouble is, without a safety net, you won’t know which until it’s too late to get out. The women of the Schlafly persuasion get the message that feminism isn’t for women like them, when women like them have as much need of it as anybody.

The same is true now as it was then, although today feminism finds itself at odds with the women of porn culture as much as it does with the women of the moral majority. What answer is feminism able to give to the woman who avers that she loves her “kink” of being choked and beaten and it’s her right to pursue it, just as much as Schlafly’s army swore down that they loved being the breadmakers to their breadwinners and it was their right to stay that way? Truly, there isn’t much you can say, beyond: we’ll try to be here when you need us.

And this is why feminism hasn’t done better. When a group is as large as 50% of the population, there will always be more conflicting interests than one movement can reconcile, and greater individual rewards for breaking rank. In Mrs America, the black feminists hear that their racial struggles can come later; Black Panther women talk about ditching the lesbians, because the Black Panther men won’t have it; and Friedan’s commitment to the cause never can quite reconcile her to Steinem’s precedence.

Easier for Schlafly: her movement exists in the service of a particular kind of woman only. With its demographic clearly defined, and its leadership unambiguous, STOP ERA could push on without the strain of sustaining a fractious coalition. Feminism in the twenty-first century has been recast as a kind of all-purpose social justice movement, the correct demand that it be for all women twisted into a requirement that it barely be about women at all. It has become too big to succeed, and if there’s any lesson in the failure of the ERA, it’s that politics is more than a numbers game.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.