'Mrs America' Episode 6 highlights workplace sexual harassment on Capitol Hill and Wayne Hays' case
‘Mrs. America’ portrays this not as a one-off incident, rather as an epidemic that was normal on the Hill. If it was, it’s not surprising that people do not know more about it
Spoilers for ‘Mrs. America’ Episode 6: 'Jill'
Two separate exchanges in episode 6 of FX’s biographical miniseries ‘Mrs. America’ are extremely vital to the theme of the episode. The first one is between Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks) and Phylis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett). The second is between Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale).
In the first one Ruckelshaus explains to Schlafly what women have to go through at a workplace dominated by men -- what she had to go through to get her committee funded. She talks about inappropriate touches and the expectation of women to smile all the time. When Schlafly makes a snide remark that the only women who faced these inappropriate gestures were the ones who were asking for it, Ruckelshaus reminded her that she too could be one of those women.
In the second, Chisholm tries to make the case for the outing of men who sexually harassed congressional secretaries. Abzug shrugs it off saying that while her heart went out to the secretaries on the Hill, there was a need to see the bigger picture and for their long-term goal of women’s rights, they needed some of the congressmen who had been accused of workplace inappropriateness.
The episode centers around the idea that men in the White House and on the Hill did not just disrespect women (even the public figures and politicians), but they also often indulged in workplace sexual harassment. It is a theme that ‘Mrs. America’ had not yet touched upon, while so far examining the role of gender, race, and sexuality in the ‘70s second-wave feminist movement.
In that regard, this episode also touches on the case of Ohio Democratic representative Wayne L. Hays. In 1976, the Washington Post broke the story of workplace sexual harassment involving the congressman. In a report that bore the spectacularly tone-deaf headline ‘Closed Session Romance on the Hill’ on May 23, 1976, it was found that for nearly two years, Hays, the powerful chairman of the House Administration Committee, had kept a woman on his staff who claimed that she was paid $14,000 a year in public money to serve as his “mistress”.
27-year-old Elizabeth Ray told the newspaper, “I can't type, I can't file, I can't even answer the phone,” having worked for Hays since April 1974 as a clerk. According to Ray, the 64-year-old congressman usually would visit her for sex once or twice a week. Hays denied the whole affair but he resigned a few months later.
‘Mrs. America’ portrays this not as a one-off incident, rather as an epidemic that was normal on the Hill. If it was, it’s not surprising that people do not know more about it. This was, after all, the mid-‘70s. Feminism as a concept was not fully understood by many. Many, as the show demonstrates, opposed it under the constant blitzkrieg of right-wing propaganda and lies courtesy of Schlafly. Even the way Hays’ sexual harassment case was reported in the Washington Post is demonstrative that this was seen more as a personal scandal than a systemic problem. And above all, were those who supposedly let it happen in the name of keeping necessary allies.
The episode ends on a very hard-hitting note. As Schlafly meets the staff of Ronald Reagan (all men), she is not only forced to bear with the hands of different men on her shoulders and her back, but also with inappropriate jokes about Hays’ secretary, shutting her up, and oral sex. Her pained laughter at all of this is once again the show demonstrating what it does best: Schlafly was a hypocrite who doesn’t deserve to be sympathized with; only to be pitied.
'Mrs. America' drops new episodes on Wednesdays at midnight only on Hulu.