Phyllis and Fred Schlafly debate feminist married couple Brenda Feigen & Marc Fasteau on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
The main focus of Mrs. America Episode Five “Phyllis & Fred & Brenda & Marc” is the relationship between the two married couples in 1974. Brenda Feigen calls for Phyllis Schlafly to debate her on-air so the ERA movement can win Illinois. They are three states away from ratifying the ERA, but Schlafly has split Illinois, so the Feminist Movement is hoping to beat her at the debate to bring more support to amendment in the region. Phyllis does not like being on the defensive, so she switches the script inviting Brenda and her husband Marc to debate her and Fred instead. This episode reveals the fragilities of both their marriages.
At first, Brenda Feigen and Marc Fasteau seem like the perfect Feminist couple. Feigen kept her maiden name; they split the household chores; both went to Harvard Law School; Brenda founded and runs The Women’s Action Alliance; Feigen works at Ms. Magazine, and Marc is writing a book about Male Feminism. They seem to have a genuinely equal loving relationship, but we soon see there are significant holes in the story they are selling to the world.
Gloria Steinem and Brenda Feigen travel to Washington D.C. to meet with Stanley Rottinger, a Republican lawyer working at the Nixon Administration, about creating an advisory committee on women’s issues. Rottinger wants Steinem and Feign to be part of the committee, but neither of them wants to make any commitment. After the meeting, Gloria and Brenda bump into a Lesbian photographer named Jules.
Jules is a friend of Steinem, so she invites them both to hang out. Gloria has a date with her Black lawyer boyfriend Frank Thomas, so she declines. Brenda is drawn to Jules, so she meets up with her. The two flirt at a bar, then ends up sneaking into the Watergate Hotel. Jules kisses Feigen in the pool. The two make love.
When Brenda returns to Marc in New York, she tells him about her passionate night with Jules. Fasteau doesn’t mind because he believes all “Radical Feminists experiment with other women” and the sexist point of view that adultery with a woman is not a threat. Marc says, “It would of been another story” if Brenda had slept with a man revealing that he is not as evolved as he thinks. She promises Fasteau that her night with Jules is a one-time deal, but she’s lying.
Feigen and Jules party at a Lesbian Bar in New York, she appears to be, at the very least, sexually attracted to the photographer. They hang out with Margaret Sloan-Hunter and some other Queer women. Sloan-Hunter tells them that she is planning to move to Oakland. She’s tired of all of her activities like the Black National Feminist Organization, Lesbian groups, Ms. Magazine, etc., but what’s left unsaid is she wants to be part of an utterly Black community. Plus, Sloan-Hunter is not comfortable at Ms. Magazine (I will miss the character Margaret Sloan-Hunter since I think her story is so interesting).
Brenda enjoys her time with Jules, but she is shaken when one of the Queer women shares that she is happy living in the closet, spending her days in the suburbs with her conventional family and the nights in Lesbian bars. Fiegen panics realizing she is living a similar double life. Later that evening, Marc and Brenda have amazing sex, since after sleeping with Jules, she now knows what turns her on and tells her husband. Feigen’s affair with Jules has sexually awakened her, implying that she is bisexual. Brenda becomes more and more freaked out since she does not want to be a closeted housewife living a lie.
The night before the debate in a hotel room in Los Angeles, Brenda discovers that she is pregnant. Marc is excited, but she breaks down. She tells her husband that she has been having an affair with Jules. Brenda doesn’t know if she loves Jules but enjoys having sex with women. Marc feels betrayed but says they can fake being a happily married couple for the televised debate. The feminist couple seems to be on the brink of divorce, but Phyllis and Fred have the opposite situation.
Fred agrees to travel to Los Angeles for the debate with Phyllis since she feels insecure debating Brenda with no law degree. One of the sons plans to take the LSAT, but during study sessions, Phyllis shows a lot more aptitude for the test. Schlafly decides to take the test instead of her son. She tells Fred it was for a “lark” (a joke), but Phyllis takes the test because she wants to fill the holes in her knowledge of the law. Phyllis wants to be a lawyer so she can be a better leader and more respected in her field. She is shaken when Brenda, Marc, and Fred bond over attending Harvard Law School before they all go on air.
During the debate, Fred’s actions reveal he is not so comfortable with the idea that his wife wants to be a lawyer. Schlafly makes the argument that the ERA takes away protections from women like gaining sole custody of their children after divorce. She says that there was a case where a divorced couple both got custody of one of their children. Brenda questions what legal case she is citing. Phyllis says she cannot think of the title of the case. Feigen points out she pulled the case out of thin air. She argues that Phyllis should leave debates about the law to lawyers.
Fred does not defend Phyllis when Brenda attacks her over her lack of legal knowledge. He calls Phyllis a submissive wife. This rustles her feathers. Nobody finds his claims believable. Even though Phyllis supports traditional marriage where the man is in charge of the family, she is a force of nature that does not bend to anybody’s will. Fred feels emasculated when he finds out Phyllis wants to go to law school. He feels further diminished when somebody writes an article about him and titles it “Phyllis Schlafly’s Lawyer Husband…” He has become overshadowed by the fame of his wife. Fred steals back some power by embarrassing her on live television.
The most cinematic moment is when Phyllis and Fred march off stage with a considerable distance between them. Brenda and Marc walk off stage with broad on their faces with the knowledge they won. They cuddle after the debate. We get the sense they will stay together and raise their baby.
In the end, Phyllis Schlafly decides she will go to a law school near their home. Fred remains ambivalent about the idea. Phyllis’s eldest son John tells her that Fred doesn’t want her to become a lawyer since he feels that law is that still belongs to him.
Episode five closes with the revelation that John Schlafly is Gay. Phyllis hints John that he can stop being Gay by explaining to him that she quit smoking cold turkey for Fred. Even though Schlafly dislikes the idea that her son is gay, she keeps it from her husband to protect John.