Dahvi Waller Interview: ‘Mrs. America’ creator
It might seem odd to tell a story about the fight for social progress through the lens of the people fighting against it, but that’s exactly what drew Dahvi Waller to place legendary conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly at the center of the debuting FX limited series, “Mrs. America.” Waller tells us in our recent webchat (watch the video above) that she found Schlafly (portrayed in the program by double Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) to be an immensely complex person. “When I first started doing research into her, I learned that she was originally very interested in a career in strategic defense and not women’s issues. That was a question I wanted to answer: Why did she pivot? What did she hope to get out of it, pivoting to the Equal Rights Amendment,” Waller says. From there she also started discovering the various leaders of the women’s movement in the ’60s and ’70s and realized that these were characters she wanted to write about and live with for several years.
“Mrs. America” chronicles the years long struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban discrimination based on sex, into the United States Constitution. In addition to having Blanchett portray Schlafly, the opposition to the ERA is played by Sarah Paulson, John Slattery and Melanie Lynskey. The cast playing prominent ERA supporters includes Rose Byrne (Gloria Steinem), Margo Martindale (Bella Abzug), Tracey Ullman (Betty Friedan), Elizabeth Banks (Jill Ruckelshaus) and Uzo Aduba (Shirley Chisholm).
Recreating a story that takes place over almost a decade, Waller found herself having to make very tough decisions about which characters and stories to include over the course of the series. Waller specifically cites feminist author Kate Millett as one she wish she could have included along with taking a deeper dive into Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash). But there was also a scene that was shot but ended up having to be cut that Waller really liked where Chisholm visits fellow Democratic presidential candidate (and avowed segregationist) George Wallace in the hospital following an assassination attempt. Waller says Chisholm “got a lot of criticism and flack for doing so. But she said we’re in the same club. We’re running for president and it could have been me. She just followed her gut and it didn’t matter to her what anyone thought of what she did.”
The series is now premiering at a time when the discussion around the ERA is facing a resurgence. After initially falling three states short of ratification, Illinois, Nevada and Virginia have now ratified the amendment through their state legislatures, though there are still several obstacles for the amendment to overcome. In addition to feeling joy about the ERA once again being on the forefront of American politics, Waller also expressed relief about the ERA becoming prominent again. “We were so thrilled in the writer’s room when the ERA had a resurgence in politics because we spent so much time talking about how are we gonna get audiences to even understand the ratification process,” she explains. “It’s so complicated and so wonky. As writers we were just thrilled that it came through right in time for our show to come out.”