“I gotta know...how does a housewife with six children from Alton, Ill., become so interested in national defense and nuclear warfare?” opens the evening on the “Conservative Viewpoint,” a television show hosted by Phil Crane (played by James Marsden) in the new FX miniseries “Mrs. America.”
In the show, the evening’s program features a beautiful Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) as the fierce, iron-jawed opponent to communism and nuclear disarmament. Schlafly is no iron-jawed angel though, and the miniseries focuses on her efforts to halt the progress of women’s rights in 1960s America.
I wondered: How does a woman with the convictions of Henry Kissinger and the features of Elizabeth Taylor figure into the history of the atomic era? Who is the real Mrs. America?
Within the first few minutes of the series, Schlafly is already talking about national defense. On the topic of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), the treaty that paved the way for its successors SALT II, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the now endangered New START, Schlafly is blunt, “The only country who will comply with the pact is the United States!”
This rhetoric is one we’ve heard repeated again, and again and again, through the decades. “Peace is wonderful. Try it. You’ll like it.” she mocks. Despite FX’s glamorization of Schlafly’s obvious wit and intelligence, the Ayn Rand-esque obliviousness to her own privilege is a clear parallel to the bootstrap mentality Republicans cling to fifty years later.
The eerie correlations between episode one of “Mrs. America” and the talking points of today’s Phyllis Schlaflys — KellyAnne Conway, Candace Owens and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLooking to the past to secure America's clean energy future Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike MORE, to name a few — make this romanticizing even more unsettling. In the same scene that she argued in favor of new nuclear weapons — once calling them “a marvelous gift given to our country by a wise God” — she argues against equal rights amendments.
While Schlafly was able to get a Master’s degree by the age of 20, attend law school and run for office twice, she was content to preach that a woman's place is firmly in the home. Women who choose to work outside of it are, in reality, working two jobs. That sentiment may be true, and surely feels true for most working parents, yet it doesn’t seem to stop Schlafly’s evangelical crusade to keep other women from going out and doing the work she was so clearly fueled by.
“It may surprise you that today I am not going to talk about the Soviet nuclear threat, but rather another threat that...is even more insidious. The Women’s Liberation Movement,” Schlafly inveighed to a group of women in episode one, claiming the east coast elite are swindling women out of the comfortable and god-intended right of being a homemaker.
Ending women’s liberation, and everything that comes with it, from abortions to homosexuality, was the second great passion of Schlafly’s life. The first was preaching a hawkish view of national defense that would put John BoltonJohn BoltonOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right Ex-Trump adviser Bolton defends Milley: 'His patriotism is unquestioned' MORE to shame. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and abortion access might have triumphed over Mrs. America — Phyllis Schlafly — but what about nuclear weapons?
“Mrs. America” touches on Schlafly’s involvement with the nuclear weapons industry and her ultimate slight by President Ronald Reagan, who refused to appoint her to a position in government. She was too “controversial,” he claimed and that decision may well have saved the United States — and the planet — from an entirely different scenario than we live in now.
In the early days, Reagan’s views lined up with Schlafly’s and he viewed SALT II, signed by President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterMeghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Afghanistan and the lessons that history does not offer MORE, a successor of the same SALT treaty Schlafly decries in the first few minutes of episode one, as an “act of appeasement.” When elected, Reagan was a fan of the nuclear bomb, drastically increasing the military’s budget and weapon production. Had Mrs. America gotten her way, she would have been appointed to a position in Reagan’s administration, potentially as Undersecretary of Defense.
Reagan, however, snubbed Schlafly for any positions in the administration, including her bid for the Supreme Court (that honor went to Sandra Day O’Connor). The role of grassroots activism, and undoubtedly the lack of Schlafly’s influence, ultimately caused a 180 in Reagan. As president, he signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and held the groundbreaking summit with former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev that kicked off talks for Carter’s SALT successor, START. Without a crystal ball we can’t be sure Reagan wouldn’t have made these choices anyway, even with Schlafly as the Kissinger on his shoulder, but it’s fairly evident history hasn’t sided with Schlafly.
While “Mrs. America” might put a syrup sweet lens on Phyllis Schlafly, viewers can’t help but question all of her views on feminism and they should be questioning her thoughts on national security as well. We don’t live in the arms race Schalfly longed for, but as the Trump administration jettisons treaties left and right, we’re getting dangerously close.
The legacy of denuclearization started by Reagan is already being undone by Trump, who is rebuilding the nuclear sponge and has green-lit another ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapon that could fit in even his hands.
New START, the latest iteration of arms control between the U.S. and Russia, expires in February 2021. Despite offers from Russia to extend the treaty for five years, no strings attached, Trump can’t withstand the allure of potential new toys.
Surely we can all agree, if Phyllis Schlafly thought something was a bad idea it’s probably actually in all of our best interest, and the extension of New START is in the best interest of the planet.
Tristan Guyette is the national field manager of Beyond the Bomb, where they lead volunteers across the country to mobilize and advocate for sane nuclear policy through No First Use.