Watching the past in 'Mrs. America' makes me afraid for the future

Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan in 'Mrs. America'

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and cultural critic. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)What has struck me and filled me with dread while watching the FX/Hulu show "Mrs. America" is realizing how little progress we've made since the 1970s in achieving gender equality. The show, starring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the influential conservative activist and founder of the Eagle Forum, chronicles the fight over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have enshrined gender equality in the Constitution. This dread feels eerily similar to the night Donald Trump won the presidency, a sentiment that only grew as I learned that 53% of white women had voted for him, prioritizing their white privilege in supporting a man who fostered xenophobia and casual misogyny over their gender solidarity.

Rebecca Bodenheimer
It turns out there are actual connections between Schlafly and Trump. As Doreen St. Félix pointed out in her review for The New Yorker, Trump spoke at Schlafly's funeral in 2016, "apparently aware of his debt to her strategy," and the finale of "Mrs. America" will see her meeting two disgraced Trump allies, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
There are several other ways that "Mrs. America," set decades ago, feels even like a harbinger of doom for women's rights even today because of the many parallels between these two historical moments.
    The most important win of the women's liberation movement was the legalization of abortion in 1973, which was one of the pro-ERA camp's top priorities. And yet, women's reproductive rights are now under serious threat from an increasingly reactionary Supreme Court shaped by Trump, who could yet have the chance to seat another one or two justices. It feels like we've moved backwards in time, as many states have chipped away at women's reproductive rights, both systemically over time and opportunistically in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
    It feels like, in some crucially important ways, the fight for women's equality is in an even worse position than it was in the 1970s. This is largely because of the mainstreaming of radical right-wing ideologies within the Republican Party (those embodied then in Schlafly and now in Trump, and their respective acolytes), and the near impossibility of bipartisan compromise since Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
    "Mrs. America" highlights how moderate Republicans have virtually disappeared from party ranks in the past few decades. A recent episode focuses on Jill Ruckelshaus, one of the founders of the National Women's Political Caucus and a Republican, pro-choice feminist. While that combination seems almost unthinkable now, then-First Lady Betty Ford, also a Republican, was also a vocal feminist who supported abortion rights and campaigned for the ERA.
    I can't imagine high-profile GOP women uniting with liberal feminists to achieve gender equality today. During the fight over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, when Christine Blasey Ford accused him of attempted rape (an accusation he denied), Republican Senator Susan Collins had the chance to do just this, and she chose to side with her party. Of course, those confirmation hearings raised feelings of dread for so many women, as it became painfully clear again that women's suffering matters less than a powerful white man's career.
    This episode, titled "Jill," features a conversation between Schlafly and Ruckelshaus that lays bare the differences in how these two Republican women think about motherhood and sexual assault. When the conversation turns to sexual harassment and coercion of congressional secretaries by male lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Ruckelshaus pushes back on Schlafly when she says that "virtuous women" are never accosted, a classic victim-blaming strategy. While this conversation appears to have been invented, the ideology behind it wasn't: As Moira Donegan notes in an essay in The Guardian, Schlafly "wrote and testified passionately that women who experienced sexual harassment brought men's aggression on themselves."
    Another way this episode illustrates the shift in ideology within the Republican Party is Ruckelshaus' characterization of Ronald Reagan— who challenged Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination— as a right-wing radical; she assumed the GOP leadership would never go for his anti-choice platform.
    Ruckelshaus, unlike Schlafly, is still alive, and I can't help but wonder what she thinks about our current state of affairs, given that Reagan has since become the gold standard for mainstream GOP politics. Schlafly was an important force in pushing the GOP to the right, and almost 50 years later, we're seeing the culmination of her efforts and their disastrous effects on gender equality.
    The dramatized conversation between Ruckelshaus and Schlafly about sexual harassment is paralleled by a debate between congresswomen (and feminist allies) Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug in the same episode. The two Democrats argue over what to do about congressmen who prey on their secretaries (some of whom have come to Chisholm for support). Abzug maintains that they can't afford to call out Democratic harassers (whose votes are needed on women's issues), while Chisholm points out the hypocrisy in ignoring sexual harassment when it's politically expedient to do so.
    The showrunners of "Mrs. America" might have had certain recent parallels in mind — such as the split within the Democratic ranks regarding whether liberal senator Al Franken should resign following accusations of sexual harassment in late 2017 (he apologized, while also saying he wasn't sure he'd done the things he was accused of). However, they could never have imagined that a similar debate would be playing out among liberals and progressives with respect to Tara Reade's accusation of sexual assault by the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden (which he has denied).
    Visible in today's debate are those who I'll call the Chisholm feminists, those who support victims of sexual assault no matter who the accused are and maintain that women's pain and suffering aren't an acceptable trade-off for getting Biden elected. We can also see the Abzug pragmatists, who believe Biden is a necessary evil for getting a disastrous president out of office. This second group also asserts out that Trump, too, has been accused of sexual assault, so why should only Democrats be expected to do the right thing?
    US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach in July 1972
    The 1970s fault lines that Abzug and Chisholm represent among feminists and other leftists are still visible, if not more pronounced, today, as Biden and Trump (who has also denied the allegations against him) are set to square off in November 2020. I believe the Democrats still have time and should replace Biden as their nominee for November's election, especially because just a few months ago, there were several women who seemed to have strong prospects for the nomination. Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren.
    The fact that Warren wasn't able to get more traction among Democratic voters despite her many detailed plans and energetic, witty, compassionate and fierce stage presence, was an incredibly bitter pill for many to swallow. Despite the fact that many people swore Warren would have gotten their vote had she been running in 2016 rather than Hillary Clinton, she didn't come close to the Democratic nomination. The only reasonable conclusion is that a large swath of this country still doesn't consider women equally fit as men to serve as president.
    I'll admit that I was very disappointed when Warren recently proclaimed that she believes Biden's denial of Reade's accusation. And yet, I can't completely blame her. Doing that does better her chances to be picked as Biden's running mate. It's maddening to think that might be the only way she could become president herself.
    But, similar to when the Women's Caucus largely abandoned Chisholm for the more politically viable George McGovern (dramatized in episode three of "Mrs. America"), it still feels awful to see a woman throwing another woman under the bus to support a man. It raises the question: are female presidential candidates any better off now than when Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972?
    While it's tempting to dismiss this question as hyperbole, the show —its writers apparently aware of how important intersectionality has become in recent years — hones in on how Chisholm's dual marginalization as a black woman worked against her, especially among her own allies. This was essentially the 1970s version of the "black women will save us" refrain that has become popular among Democrats since 2016. As with Chisholm, black women are still being asked to serve as the Democratic Party's moral compass, yet apparently never allowed to be the beneficiaries of its full support.
    So, just imagine, if two white women, Clinton and Warren, haven't been able to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling, how long might it be before we see a black woman elected president?
    Every so often I think about Obama's frequent use of a refrain from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I'm not sure I believe that anymore, if I ever really did.
      It's demoralizing to realize how many things remain relatively unchanged after 50 years — particularly for those of us with young daughters who may not have the same reproductive choices I have enjoyed. I can't honestly tell my daughter that her chances of being elected president are the same as they are for my son. I may have believed it was possible five years ago, but now I don't know that I'll ever see a female American president.
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      "Mrs. America" is a well-made, brilliantly acted period show. It's also a stark reminder of the shaky ground on which the victories of the women's liberation movement currently stand.