As the inevitable, real-life defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment neared, Mrs. America focused on the made-up defection of a devoted conservative woman. It also used a host of negative characterizations against the same woman (Alice, played by Sarah Paulson).
The next to last episode, “Houston,” was about the Women’s Convention that took place in 1977, but focused almost entirely on how the convention affected fictional characters Alice and Pamela, bringing them a kind of liberal enlightenment.
By focusing mostly on Alice, who was not a real person, show creators were able to invent a story of her coming to Houston as an ERA opponent and leaving with a new willingness to seek common ground with the feminist women.
Alice has been shown throughout the series as a kind, devoted follower of Phyllis Schlafly. She’s even been used as a moral compass of sorts, during moments Mrs. America falsely portrayed Phyllis as conniving, egomaniacal and controlling.
Despite speaking out against racism in earlier episodes, suddenly Alice is weak, uncertain and falling apart. There were several insulting characterizations used in her depiction including:
1: By showing Alice not knowing what to do when the hotel is overbooked and wanting to have her husband straighten it out, it suggests homemakers are lost without their husbands and don’t know how to do anything except cook.
2: Conservative women don’t have confidence in their own abilities. Alice is always talking about how smart and inspiring Phyllis is, but is shown to be unable to articulate those views for herself. When robbed of Phyllis’ words she falters. In other words, conservative women blindly follow leaders without thinking and simply parrot what they are told.
3. Alice freezes when a reporter asks her a challenging question. This suggests conservative women crumble when their ideas or values are challenged or when they meet people with opposing views.
What a bunch of hooey.
But these insulting depictions were woven through the episode before interaction with liberals during a drug and alcohol trip open Alice’s mind.
Alice’s left-ward journey begins when hotel overcrowding forces her to bunk in with feminist activist Audrey Rowe Colom. Then she botches a media interview, freezing when the reporter says public opinion is in favor of the ERA. Rather than try again, Alice gives up. Crushed and unable to find Pamela, she drowns her sorrows in a cocktail alone. A woman she assumes is conservative joins her, prays with her to help calm her nerves, and offers her a “Christian” pill.
Alice takes the drug while drinking and the two become fast friends, until Alice learns her new friend is part of the National Organization for Women. The drug and alcohol combo lead to Alice’s bizarre trip through the hotel searching for food. Vulture aptly compared it to an “Alice in Wonderland” situation that included a real (or hallucinated) moment with a liberal nun who supports the ordination of women.
Eventually, a high and hungry Alice winds up in the gay lounge talking with Flo Kennedy. The women are singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Our Land” and Alice joins in loudly. Flo sees Alice is an ERA opponent from the button on her dress. She tells Alice that Guthrie was a socialist and the song is Marxist, to Alice’s disbelief.
After all of this, Alice returns to her room only to watch in awe as Gloria Steinem and several activists have a discussion. Steinem is shown making sure there is unanimity among the liberal activists.
The next morning, Alice awakes from a nightmare in which Phyllis forcefully pushes her down onto the bed, grabs her face and calls her a “reject” for failing the TV interview. Alice begins asking questions about why and what she’s fighting and suggests to the others they try to find “consensus.”
Seated with the anti-ERA group on the convention floor, Alice begins her defection from the anti-feminist movement. She stands up in agreement with certain resolutions and Pamela joins her, although they don’t reverse positions on all issues. Alice still goes to the counter rally and sees Phyllis, but it’s obvious her heart is no longer in it.
This imaginary defection was conveniently timed by the show creators to take place at the climax of the battle over the ERA. Diminishing the moment when Schlafly’s grassroots movement is about to turn the tide and win the war against the constitutional amendment.
In fact, “Houston” gave almost no time to the pro-family, STOP ERA counter rally attended by roughly 15,000 people (close to the same size as the convention itself). The minimal coverage showed dozens of buses and a brief exchange between Alice and Phyllis where Phyllis suggests “you should fix your face.” However, they had time to portray the counter protesters carrying Confederate flags and one woman holding an anti-Semitic poster.