Mrs. America showrunner Dahvi Waller speaks with Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan about what Phyllis Schlafly represents about modern America, writing American history from a Canadian lens, and why she’s interested in TV projects set in the past.
Ann Coulter. Tomi Lahren. Ivanka Trump. Modern-day conservative women have a particular look about them—they’re blonde, opinionated, and influence their base with manipulative rhetoric. Before these women, the mother of all conservative blondes was Phyllis Schlafly, who up until her death in 2016, was still throwing her support behind the GOP base, including publishing a book on Trump.
Mrs. America on FX on Hulu analyzes the rise of “the conservative blonde” by following Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) as she aims to dismantle the push for the Equal Rights Amendment. As showrunner Dahvi Waller points out in my interview with her below, on the conservative side of this debate, you have one woman who serves as the face of the movement, whereas on the other revolutionary side, you have many faces. However, today, there are many faces on both sides.
I loved getting the opportunity to chat with Waller about her captivating series, why she chose to center the action on Schlafly, the freedom of writing Sarah Paulson’s composite character, and what Gloria Steinem’s (Rose Byrne) late-night fridge notes say about being a woman.
Awards Daily: The show spends a lot of time with Cate Blanchett’s Phyllis Schlafly. How did you decide how much time should be spent with each character? And why the focus on her, who’s essentially the antagonist of the story?
Dahvi Waller: I was excited about centering the series on Phyllis Schlafly for a couple of reasons. One, I was really interested in telling the story of how our country took a sharp turn to the right in the ’70s, that really set the stage for understanding where we arrive at today. And that’s really a story that can only be told through Phyllis Schlafly. I think one of her greatest achievements was ironically to build up a grassroots army of politically right-wing women who became the soldiers in the Reagan revolution. That was the larger story of the series beyond the Equal Rights Amendment battle. It felt that to tell that story, we really needed to spend quite a bit of time with Phyllis Schlafly. But also, I think you keyed in to an asymmetry about these two worlds. In one world, you have one woman who was the one singular leader of the counter revolution, and on the other side of the revolutionaries, you have so many leaders. So we had to figure out how to structure the series so that we’re not making it seem like it was a Phyllis Schlafly versus Gloria Steinem. It wasn’t at all. The two never met. But really finding a way to structure the series so that we do give many of the women who are leaders in the women’s movement in the ’70s their due, while still contrasting these two worlds.
AD: There’s really so much care with that, too. While I was watching, I appreciated how you balanced all aspects of the movement. You include black rights, gay rights, and really run the spectrum. Was that something you gave extra attention to?
DW: Absolutely. In telling the stories about the Equal Rights Amendment battle, I was really, really interested in telling the story not only of the birth of intersectional feminism, which really began in the 1970s, but really the struggle for the leaders of the women’s movement to understand how important it is to embrace gay rights and issues of racism within the Women’s Rights Movement. (Laughs) I was really shocked to discover that the women’s movement had not embraced intersectional feminism from the get-go from the late ’60s, but still in the early ’70s, they considered women’s rights something different from gay rights, which was so shocking to me. I really wanted the series and all the writers on the staff to really focus on that struggle and not shy away from it.
AD: Sarah Paulson’s character is one of the few that’s not based on an actual person, and she gets her own episode in Houston. What was it like to write that character who wasn’t restricted to a specific history?
DW: (Laughs) In many ways, it was so liberating! It didn’t involve research, like 200 pages of research documents! We really wanted to represent the homemakers. Phyllis Schlafly was not a homemaker. She was a working woman who ran a massive organization, but there were homemakers who formed her grassroots group, and we really wanted them represented and dramatized, what it was like to be a homemaker at this time fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment with real characters. That was the genesis for Alice Macray and Pamela Whalen (Kayli Carter). But because there weren’t that many public figures who came out of Phyllis Schlafly’s movement, we created composite characters based on real women who we either had spoken to, or read an oral history, or read a newspaper article. Alice Macray is a loose composition of some members I talked to as well as a neighbor of Phyllis’s I came across in a newspaper article from the ’70s. But because she is a composite character, we had the luxury of having her change over the course of the series. With Alice, we were able to show a character move through this decade and have an actual change in her worldview and that was really exciting. I think she also represented the “every woman.” We had all of these larger-than-life historical figures who were so iconic, but we wanted an “every woman” who’s very relatable, who could be the audience’s way in to this historical time period.
AD: You’re Canadian, and while this story is a part of women’s history, it’s also a part of American history. Did being Canadian allow you to see it from a different lens, and if so, where does that come through?
DW: That is such a great question. Most people are like, “Who are you to write about American history?” But you phrased it in a really interesting way. I do have some street cred. My parents are American expats who emigrated to Canada. Although I was born and raised in Canada, I do hold dual citizenship. But I really didn’t learn any American history until I went away to college. Since my dad is a political scientist, who focuses on American government, I did grow up in a home watching political conventions on TV, and election nights were like the World Series in my house. I really did grow up learning about American political history from my father, that’s probably a great influence. You can definitely see his influences in the show. And he was my unofficial political consultant who I would call whenever I needed, to find out information about the Democratic Convention in ’72 and the ’76 convention. He would give free consultation, which was very sweet of him.
But I do wonder if, because you asked this and no one has asked me before, I do wonder because I was born and raised in Canada, and in a way even though I have American citizenship, I always have felt like a bit of an outsider in this country, maybe it did allow me to see events that I didn’t live through here in the states with a different lens, view Phyllis Schlafly without the same kind of loaded way because it’s not part of my own history. Growing up in Canada, we didn’t have Phyllis Schlaflys! (Laughs) And Cate Blanchett is Australian, and I think she also has this outsider perspective. We can view things maybe in a different way than if we had grown up with these stories.
AD: How much research did you do about these real people? I love Gloria Steinem’s little dances she does. Was that something she actually does? How did you throw things like that in?
DW: We did a ton of research. I had a researcher working with me as far back as development. Once I got the writing staff, all of us were doing research. We must have read as a group between 25 to 30 books. I think I clipped a thousand articles in newspapers. Magazines. We read oral histories. We watched footage. We went pretty deep. And one of the reasons I wanted to go deep is to get at that specificity in character that you just alluded to. Gloria Steinem tap dancing is a great example. We were reading and watching a documentary about her on HBO that she took tap dancing lessons as a girl, and that she thought she would dance her way out of Toledo. That’s how she was going to make it out of her working-class background. And for a feminist icon to also be great at tap dancing and also that be a part of her childhood and be performative when she really didn’t like the limelight and to get joy from dancing even as an adult, it was such a great character detail that I wanted to bring in to the “Gloria” episode.
Another small character detail which came out of the research, we read a lot about oral histories of Ms. Magazine and Gloria’s memoirs about running the magazine. In one of her biographies or articles about her mentioned that late at night when she was the only one at the office, she would sneak food from her co-workers. What really struck me that was so enchanting is that she would leave them little notes. I thought, one, that’s so relatable. Two, there’s something so enchanting about that. It made me love her, so I put it into the script. The specificity of that really says a lot about her, that she would leave a note behind.
AD: Yeah, a dude boss would just take food.
DW: He’s not gonna leave a note!
AD: Women would leave notes to each other.
DW: It really spoke to what a female-centric work environment it was. Same with the Tot Lot. When I learned that there was a Tot Lot in the corner of the office, where women would just leave their children there. We don’t even have that today. We had an amazing art department that built the entire Tot Lot where Margaret Sloan brings her daughter Kathleen the first day. Another detail, one of my favorites, was that it was such a startup and everything was being thrown together so fast, that some of them were working on dishwashing machine boxes instead of desks. So we actually had that in Episode 2, and by Episode 4, they had desks. Those little details, the art department was as great at research as the writing staff was. They would bring those little details into production design.
AD: Phyllis Schlafly’s daughter believes your characterization of her mother villainizes her. But I think Phyllis comes off pretty good. We all manage to care for Phyllis in some capacity. What were your thoughts on that?
DW: (Laughs) What I find most interesting about a show like this, especially when you have so many versions of women all across the spectrum, from saintly and angelic to villainness, all of those types of women are represented in the show. I think it’s an interesting Rorschach test for our own beliefs about ourselves as women and about women in power and about our political history. It’s natural to project your own belief systems onto whatever you’re watching. You cared about her, [but] some women watching have seen the show and said, “She’s the anti-Christ. I hate her.” And then other women are like, “You really villainize her!” We’ve heard the whole gamut. For me, it’s rewarding that a show can have such extreme emotional responses from viewers. To me as a writer, it’s quite rewarding. How you view her says as much about you as it does about how she’s portrayed.
AD: You’ve worked on a string of period shows, starting with Mad Men, then Halt and Catch Fire, and now Mrs. America. Is there something that intrigues you about shows set in the past?
DW: Another great question that no one’s asked me. I think that sometimes it’s easier for us to understand or to reflect where we are today by looking at a period of time in history where we have a little bit of distance and we’re able to see things more clearly, than if we were to write about relevant issues in a contemporary way. In the same way that Mad Men shone a light on gender dynamics in the workplace, even today, even though it was set in the ’60s. [With Mrs. America], I wanted to look at it from a post-2016 lens. I think that’s one of the appeals, getting to explore this world that way. That’s fun for me as a writer.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.