The Hulu series, “Mrs. America” shows the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and is an archetypical battle between Athena and Aphrodite.
My time-marker during the COVID-19 shut-down was that Wednesdays meant a new episode of “Mrs. America” would be released on Hulu. Created by Dahvi Waller, a female writer with many credits, including producer of Mad Men, the nine episode series chronicled Phillis Schlafly’s campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sought to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. When viewed through a mythological lens, it was a classic battle between Athena and Aphrodite.
Jean Shinoda Bolen explained seven female archetypes in Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives. An archetype is a character type that exemplifies universal patterns in human nature. The female archetypes in Bolen’s book were based on Greek goddesses.
First published in 1984, Bolen identified Phyllis Schlafly as the embodiment of the Athena archetype. Watching “Mrs. America” and searching for other female archetypes added a fascinating element to this engaging series.
Phyllis Schlafly was Pure Athena
At first glance, you might assume that a woman who wanted to kill the ERA must be a Hera, the goddess of marriage. Although Schlafly was married, it became clear within the first few episodes that her goal was power.
Even before ERA, Schlafly was a recognized expert on defense policy and arms treaties. Schlafly ran for Congress in the 24th District of Illinois, in 1952, 1960, and 1970, but was soundly defeated by the Democratic contender. When gerrymandering of her district made it look like the Republican Schlafly could win the seat in 1972, her husband told her not to throw her hat in the ring.
Reluctantly accepting his ultimatum, Schlafly then tried to speak to politicians and earn a seat at the table opposing Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT I and II) between President Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. SALT sought to curb the nuclear arms race between the two nations by controlling the number of strategic ballistic missiles. At a strategy meeting, in a well-crafted scene in “Mrs. America,” the senators do not even recognize their misogyny when they direct Schlafly to take notes since she “must have the nicest handwriting.”
Through listening to the concerns of the politicians, and those of her housewife friends, Schlafly realized that organizing a coalition to defeat ERA would give her the power she sought. This was a pure Athena move. It showed the pragmatism and strategic thinking that marks a woman with an Athena archetype.
Athena was the Goddess of Battle Strategy and Domestic Arts.
A warrior goddess, Athena represented the thinking side of war as the Goddess of Battle Strategy. Ares, known as the God of War, actually represented the senseless violence of battle and blood-lust. During peacetime, Athena was the Goddess of Domestic Arts, particularly weaving.
Phyllis Schlafly had a masters degree from Radcliff and had written several articles and books about defense policy and the Republican party. An author, traveling speaker, and political activist, Schlafly was an intellectual and a working woman. Yet, she was also a goddess of domesticity, who raised six children and had dinner on the table every night.
Statues and paintings of Athena often depicted her with a spear in one hand and a spindle in the other. When she was shown with another figure, it typically was a man, either her father Zeus or a hero like Achilles or Odysseus. Throughout Greek mythology, Athena supported the patriarchy and defended conservative social mores.
Schlafly supported the status quo of male power and opposed efforts to give women more rights. She argued that it wasn’t necessary because it was the role of women to be taken care of and to be mothers. Her recurring argument was that the ERA would force women to be drafted, an interesting Athena move. She also said ERA would take away social security for dependent women and eliminate separate restrooms.
Characteristics of the Athena Archetype
A woman who embodies the Athena archetype is ruled by logic and is known for her winning strategies and practical solutions. We saw this in Phyllis Schlafly when she strategized how to stop the momentum of the ERA movement.
When she started Stop ERA group in 1972, the ERA amendment had 30 state ratifications and seemed sure to pass. Once Schlafly organized the opposition, which included housewives and religious conservatives, only five more states ratified and five of the original supporting states voted to rescind their ratification. Despite initial passage with overwhelming support by the House and Senate, and having the support of most Americans, the ERA amendment was not ratified.
Athena women are ruled by their heads and not their hearts, according to Jean Shinoda Bolen. They are not swayed by sympathy or victim stories. Just as Athena was born with a helmet and full-suit of armor, women with her archetype are “armored” and might seem cold.
Athena women are strategic with their appearance and know how to appear beautiful in conventional ways, yet emit an asexual vibe that keeps men at a respectful distance. Cate Blanchett portrayed cold beauty perfectly in her role as Schlafly.
“Mrs. America” did an excellent job showing how Schlafly monitored the battle and thought up counter moves. Even apparent losses were offset through her planning and execution of strategic actions.
Early in the battle, she and her housewives sent jam and bread to the politicians that were considering the ERA. The homemade goodies had tags that said,
“Preserve us from a congressional jam; vote against the ERA sham” and “I’m for mom and apple pie.”
Every woman is taught by her mama that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and Schlafly cleverly exploited this for her gain.
Bella Abzug was an Athena Archetype on the Opposite Team
Another key player in the ERA movement was Bella Abzug, a three-term Congresswoman from New York. A proponent of ERA, Abzug also embodied the Athena archetype. She used her strategic mind to play the game of politics.
“She was such a trailblazer…she was the first woman to get in Congress and lead the way toward creating a feminist presence,” said a former aid after Abzug’s death in 1998.
Abzug was pragmatic and willing to upset members of the feminist coalition if she thought it would gain her long-term goal of ERA ratification. Examples of this included her abandonment of black presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm at the Democratic Convention, in favor of the winner of the nomination, George McGovern.
“Mrs. America” included a scene where she urged Gloria Steinem to take abortion off the platform as a better strategy for winning ERA. For the same reason, she initially refused to include lesbian platforms. As an Athena, she had faith in “the system” and believed ERA could be passed through compromises and a willingness to play by the men’s rules.
Phyllis Schlafly’s Superpower That Abzug Lacked
Although both Athenas, the key difference in the effectiveness of Schlafly over Abzug was that Schlafly had a superpower. Schlafly understood how to navigate the subtext of female culture, while Abzug barged through like a bull in a china shop.
Typically, Athena women are not sensitive enough to pick up on the subtext and unspoken comments that run through interactions between women. In this way, Abzug was true to her archetype.
Abzug said, “There are those who say I’m impatient, impetuous, uppity, rude, profane, brash and overbearing. Whether I’m any of these things or all of them, you can decide for yourself. But whatever I am–and this ought to be made clear from the outset–I am a very serious woman.”
Schlafly, on the other hand, had high emotional intelligence. In scene after scene, Blanchett was able to show Phyllis Schlafly recognizing the second she upset one of her supporters. With a compliment or by delegating a task, Schlafly smoothed ruffled feathers.
Through Blanchett, the female viewer can identify the emotional intelligence Schlafly used to astutely manage her team. With this superpower, Schlafly was able to keep her supporters instead of offending them like Abzug often did.
Gloria Steinem was Aphrodite
The stereotype of feminists as angry lesbians fell flat on its face when applied to Gloria Steinem. A former model, Steinem was beautiful and embodied the Aphrodite archetype. The goddess of love, sex and beauty, an Aphrodite woman radiates a sexual charisma. With her long hair, terrific figure and stylish clothes, Steinem glided through the battle over ERA.
Mary McNamara, a former employee of Ms magazine stated,
“Steinem was the queen of the graceful shrug and one of the most physically graceful women I have ever met. She is also one of the funniest, smartest and nicest.”
Characteristics of the Aphrodite Archetype
McNamara’s quote echoes how Homer described Aphrodite as “a lover of laughter,” filled with an irresistible charm. Poets told of the beauty of her face and form, her flashing eyes, soft skin and beautiful breasts.
The main issue that Steinem fought for was reproductive rights, particularly legalized abortion. This is an Aphrodite fight because it is ultimately a fight for sexual freedom.
Although married to Hephaestus, Aphrodite had many affairs with gods and mortals. Her longest relationship was with Ares, the god of war, and she bore him several children, including Harmonia. In the ERA fight, Steinem often brought harmony between opposing factions within the feminist movement.
Rose Byrne played Gloria Steinem with beauty, grace and humility. Episode 8 included a powerful scene of Steinem’s ability to seduce argumentative groups into working together for the common good.
In the scene, Steinem walked down the hall and appeared to be surrounded by a glowing aura. Alice Macray, played by Sarah Paulson, an anti-ERA delegate, was struck speechless in awe.
Inside the hotel room, she watched as Steinem sat on the floor with the other feminists and sought compromise. This was a true Aphrodite moment. The scene showed Macray awaken to the positive aspects of her opposition and hinted at a possible transformation in her character.
Aphrodite Women Enjoy Sex and Companionship
The archetype of Aphrodite produces transformation. Unlike the virgin goddesses of Athena, Artemis and Hestia, Aphrodite enjoyed sex and male companionship. However, she never fell victim to male power like the married goddesses of Hera, Demeter and Persephone. She negotiated her many love affairs unscathed.
Hermes and Aphrodite had a child named Hermaphroditus, a bisexual god who inherited the beauty and characteristics of both. Throughout the ERA battle, Steinem stood with lesbians and defended their rights, yet was openly heterosexual herself. Steinem never came across as anti-man, rather against unbalanced power.
In her speech at the National Women’s Political Caucus, Steinem said,
“We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Throughout “Mrs. America,” the theme of female relationships was explored. The ways the women supported and undermined each other brought moments of deja vu to any female viewer. Even among women on the same side, their petty jealousies and cattiness sabotaged their efforts.
The women also fought each other with guilt and judgement, the same tools the patriarchy has always used to keep women under their control. Athena, a goddess who identifies with the patriarchy and Hera, the goddess of marriage, are the archetypes of women who also use these tools to disempower women.
Women with Athena and Hera archetypes are often threatened by Aphrodite women. They look down on women who are attractive to men and denigrate them. In the show, Schlafly, and most of her conservative housewives, bear more resentment and anger towards Steinem than towards the other feminist leaders.
Aphrodite women often earn ridicule and judgements from women who are threatened by their beauty, open sexuality and freedom. “Mrs. America” particularly focused on the jealousy middle-aged Betty Friedan, played by Tracy Ullman, felt towards the young Steinem.
Looking at the world through a mythological lens
In “Mrs. America” we saw the ERA fight between Schlafly and Steinem played out as an archetypal battle between Athena and Aphrodite. A defender of the patriarchy, against a lover of sexual freedom and transformation.
In the end, Aphrodite and the ERA amendment lose the battle. This is also reminiscent of Greek mythology. Zeus always had the final say. The goddesses could rail about injustice. His wife, Hera, ranted about his infidelities, and Demeter begged him to get her daughter back from Hades. However, in the end, Zeus made the rules and the goddesses had to obey them. The patriarchy almost always wins.
The advantage of looking through the lens of mythology is that it gives us insight into why women act against their own best interests. Schlafly wanted power and a seat at the table. She seemed like someone who should have been a feminist. However, for her, the only road to power was paved with anti-ERA bricks.
Recognizing that women with Athena and Hera archetypes will often support the patriarchy helps us understand our sisters. In the future, we should work to hear their needs and fears instead of underestimating them or not listening like the ERA feminists did.
Most women want to have equal pay, respectful treatment at work, and safety nets for our children, divorcees and elderly. Those issues could be our starting platform.
Our futures could be brighter if we could learn to listen to each other and seek to meet across the aisle.