“I used to think change was this march forward and that it was linear and we kept moving ahead. But learning about the anti-feminists and the stop the ERA movement, I just realized how cyclical change is,” series creator Dahvi Waller said at PaleyFest Los Angeles on Friday.
Waller, Mrs. America stars Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba and Sarah Paulson, spoke with ABC’s Martha Raddatz about the long-enduring legacy of 1960s feminists and the behind-the-scenes work that helped the actresses nail down their characters. Also joining Friday’s panel were Margo Martindale, Ari Gaynor, John Slattery and executive producers Stacy Sher, Ryan Fleck and Coco Francini.
Sher and Waller kicked off the panel sharing how the show got off the ground prior to the 2016 presidential election. Waller explained that centralizing notable anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly would allow her to dive into the world of political dramas, a genre she wanted to explore. The series creator went on to say that Hilary Clinton losing the presidential nomination to Donald Trump was a turning point in the story she was hoping to tell.
“[Mrs. America] was really going to be an answer to, ‘How did we get to where we are?’ and ‘Who are all these white women who voted for Trump?'” Waller explained.
Blanchett, who executive produces the series and stars as the controversial anti-feminist figure, explained that the characters’ complex definitions of freedom for different races, genders and sexual orientations encouraged her to join the project.
“It was the shocking thing that the notion of equality had become so polarized and so politicized and that had me because it felt very timely and relevant,” Blanchett added.
But even though the themes and ideas from the 1970s ERA battle may find modern-day relevance, Francini said that the Hulu show can be a form of “escapist entertainment,” especially as people continue to be stuck at home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive producer said that viewers can take their minds off of external pressures to appreciate the production value of the show, from the costumes to the acting prestige.
Friday’s conversation went on to highlight the actresses’ former knowledge of their characters and how they expanded what they knew by way of historical footage and documents. Aduba shared that old videos allowed her to see Shirley Chisholm’s vulnerable side while Martindale said that learning more about Bella Abzug added nuance to how she felt about the feminist, whose rising popularity she witnessed first-hand.
“[Abzug] was on the paper and on the television and anytime you looked you would go, ‘threre’s that loud woman again.’ I guess I found her slightly off-putting, I’m not certain. But I’ve learned so much from doing this show that it was an education to me on the women’s movement because I was so singularly focused on acting,” Martindale said. “I thought I was liberated, I thought we were all liberated.”
Byrne, who said the show encouraged her to learn more about Gloria Steinem’s tough upbringing, closed off Friday’s panel saying that today’s politics and forms of activism wouldn’t have been possible without the actions of the women featured on Mrs. America.
“A lot of us don’t even know that the ERA wasn’t passed and that alone is extraordinary to have this whole show dedicated to that, to dedicate it to this second wave feminism,” she said. “There would be no #MeToo, there would be not Time’s Up.”
Videos of all PaleyFest panels, including this one, will be available Monday, Aug. 10, on the Paley Center YouTube channel.