Betty Friedan debates Phyllis Schlafly at Illinois State University about the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment).
Mrs. America Episode 4, “Betty,” directed by Amma Asante, deals with how marginalized groups were treated in the feminist movement. As the title indicates, this episode focuses on Betty Friedan, who wrote the famous book The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The Feminine Mystique awoke the Second- Wave Feminism movement since it pointed out that middle-class white, educated women were not fulfilled living as housewives. “Betty” reckons with a Friedan who feels silenced in a movement that she helped start.
The miniseries Mrs. America paints the character, Betty, as a middle-aged, divorced, bitter woman. She is passionate about the Feminist movement, stuck in her ways, and feels disrespected by her fellow activists. I like how Friedan is flawed. She does not support Lesbians joining the Feminist movement calling them the lavender menace and has hard feelings toward her husband’s second wife’s relationship with her daughter. During her debate with Phyllis Schlafly, she breaks down after the conservative woman calls her out for being a miserable middle-aged mother who cannot find a new husband. Betty calls Phyllis a witch and says she should burn at the stake, destroying all her reasonable arguments prior to her emotional outburst.
My favorite moment in “Betty” is when Gloria Steinem phones Friedan at the end of the episode to thank her for changing her life. Betty feels miserable after she debates Phyllis. She’s smoking alone in her kitchen. Gloria, the editor of Ms. Magazine, calls Betty from her office. Steinem comforts Friedman by saying she would have called Phyllis something a lot worse than a witch. The publisher then mentions how she was thinking back to when she read The Feminine Mystique. Steinem remembers a phrase from the book about how women should be able to experience all society has to offer, not just a piece of the pie. Gloria tells Betty that the book changed her life and says, “thank you”. Betty sinks to the floor in front of her fridge. Steinem hangs up then leaves her office.
The flaws of the Feminist Movement are revealed in episode four. The White middle-class women ignore the needs of the Black and Lesbian women in their community. The prime example of that behavior is when the editors of Ms. propose articles to Gloria. Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson), a Lesbian Black editor, pitches an article about tokenism at the workplace. Tokenism is when a mostly white company hires one person of color. The White feminists argue there is diversity at Ms. citing that they featured a Black man on one of their magazine covers. A weak argument, since Margaret is the only Black editor at the magazine. Gloria asks if Sloan-Hunter feels like she is the token Black woman at Ms., but the editor does not feel comfortable admitting that she does.
Margaret Sloan-Hunter does not feel comfortable discussing the Ms. workplace until she and her young daughter attend Flo Kennedy’s (a Black lawyer and activist) Black Feminist party. She talks about how Gloria Steinem says she is struggling yet the Ms. magazine’s office has fancy carpets and is in a wealthy part of New York. Sloan-Hunter implies that Steinem does not understand what it means to truly struggle. The Black feminist circle is not innocent of discrimination either.
During the party, two Black feminists say they should not include White women or Lesbians in the Black Feminist movement since the Mainstream Male Civil Rights movement would not support Black Feminists if they included these groups. Kennedy throws them out of her apartment. We realize marginalized groups still oppress people that they see as lower than themselves.
The most awkward scene of “Betty” is when Gloria finds flyers for the National Black Feminist Organization that Kennedy and Sloan-Hunter form. Steinem trying to seem part of the Black Feminist Cause offers Margaret the magazine’s office for their meeting. Sloan-Hunter tells her the NBFC will find their own space to meet. After an awkward silence, Gloria walks away.
Gloria and her staff suffer through a couple of phone calls during which men make some sexually explicit comments to them. One of the Ms. reporters finds out that an article about Steinem in Screw Magazine is the reason why men are sexually harassing her and her staff. The piece features a giant naked Gloria in a sexually graphic pose. Steinem feels exposed by this drawing even though it’s not her body. Gloria’s iconic aviator glasses and hairstyle make the illustration seem real. Steinem sues Screw Magazine, but the owner refuses to recall the publication. Steinem feels like she lost control of her body.
The Feminist movement might be close to passing the ERA and won the Roe Verse Wade legal battle, but STOP ERA and Heteronormative male society refuse to go down without a cultural war.
Phyllis Schlafly wins the debate with Betty Friedan, but she struggles throughout the fourth episode. Friedan finds out STOP ERA has taken money from the racist radical conservative club called the John Birch Society. She rails to the press that STOP ERA may also be taking KKK money. Schlafly swears to the other members that they did not take money from the KKK or the John Birch Society. Her friend Alice Macray points out that some of the Southern chapter leaders may be accepting cash from racist organizations, Phyllis pushes those worries away but promises to check.
The most intense Phyllis Schlafly moment happens when her husband, Fred, coaches her for her debate with Betty. He attacks her emotional vulnerabilities pointing out none of the currents laws protected her mother when her parents got divorced. Phyllis’ father left the family penniless forcing her Mom to work two jobs because law did not require alimony. Perhaps Phyllis fights against the ERA because she saw what life was like without a man of the house, but learned the wrong lesson. Instead of realizing the fact that the legal system needs to be changed to empower and protect women, Phyllis learned that women need men to be secure.
Ironically, Phyllis Schlafly raises her daughters to be tough. When her daughter Anne refuses to take swimming lessons because she is afraid of drowning, Schlafly drags her to the swimming pool, holds her tight, and jumps into the pool with her. It’s ironic to see a woman fighting against women’s liberation and at the same time so intent on empowering her daughters. She wants Anne to be independent, but nobody else? I cannot wait for next week.