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Cate Blanchett hopes 'Mrs. America' inspires 'robust public discourse'

Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly in the historical drama Mrs. America. File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI
Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly in the historical drama "Mrs. America." File Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, April 15 (UPI) -- The new FX series, Mrs. America, depicts 1970s political history. But Cate Blanchett, who plays Equal Rights Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly hopes modern audiences take a cue from the climate of the debate.

"We've got haranguing matches and shouting, but we haven't got a sense of robust public discourse," Blanchett said on a recent Television Critics Association panel.

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"These women, they actually talked and debated these things through. They didn't always agree with one another, but the discussion was part of the process, and I feel that has been really lost," she said.

Mrs. America also includes women's movement activists Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margot Martindale), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) and Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash).

"These are the women on whose shoulders we, as current feminists, are standing," Banks said. "We get to go to work and sometimes get equal pay and have some control over our bodies because all of these [women]. These are the women that I owe my debts of gratitude to."

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The Equal Rights Amendment, intended to guarantee equal rights for Americans regardless of gender, was passed by Congress in 1972. Schlafly successfully prevented the ERA from being ratified by the 38 states needed to adopt it into the Constitution.

"It's a very interesting thing to ask," Blanchett said. "What was so terrifying about the notion of equality and how do we view the Constitution? We're so terrified to alter it, to amend it, to change it, and surely democracy has to be an organic base. That's one conversation to be had."

Mrs. America begins when Schlafly decided to oppose the ERA. Her Stop Taking Our Privileges (STOP) campaign posited that the ERA would eliminate gender-specific rights like Social Security benefits for wives and allow women to be drafted for military service.

In her research on Schlafly, Blanchett felt she enjoyed the process of provoking debate as much as the outcome.

"For a lot of people, politics is a game," Blanchett said. "She was a political animal. She said in one interview that if you're a doctor and you can't stand the sight of blood, then you can't be a doctor. If you're frightened of controversy when you work in a political arena, you're in the wrong field."

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Sarah Paulson plays a fictional character, Alice McCray, who represents the sort of woman Schlafly mobilized against the ERA -- a homemaker who didn't want her role in the world to change.

"It was interesting to put my toe in that water and see what it would be like to be a person for whom their entire world was their family life and their home life," Paulson said.

"And to feel that threatened and to feel the sense that somehow she didn't matter because her desire was to be in her home and to support her husband, and to raise her children -- that that was being devalued by this movement was very scary for her."

The depiction of women with different wants -- the women's movement and the STOP movement -- was also important to Blanchett.

"It really does break apart the notion that women are a monolith," Blanchett said. "They're all [of] different political persuasions from all different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. There were actually two women's movements in the '70s. There was the feminist women's movement and the conservative women's movement."

The ERA returned to modern political debate when states like Virginia voted to ratify it as recently as January. That brings the total of states to 38, though the deadline for ratification expired in '80s.

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Blanchett hopes Mrs. America will inspire young viewers to ask questions of their elders who lived through the '70s.

"It's a nonjudgmental series that asks myriad generations, 'What do you think about this? How do you feel about that, that figure or that policy or that movement or how would you describe yourself? What's your relationship?'" Blanchett said. "You might understand your mother more or your grandmother more."

Before making Mrs. America, Blanchett kept political discourse alive with her husband, Andrew Upton, and their kids. She says she encourages political discussions with her older children. Dashiell John Upton is 18 and Roman Robert Upton is 15.

"A family meal is a time for a very robust, challenging discussion, and we welcome that," Blanchett said. "We push back and they push back at us."

Mrs. America premieres Wednesday on Hulu with new episodes every week.

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