In 1977, on behalf of President Jimmy Carter, Bella Abzug led the National Women’s Conference. Phyllis Schlafly, with the support of the Eagle Forum, does everything she can to take over the conference.
Bella Abzug, played by Margo Martindale (FX’s The Americans), is appointed by Jimmy Carter as leader of the National Women’s Conference. She receives the appointment because her ex-assistant Margaret “Midge” Costanza (Annie Parisse), now works for Carter. Her fearless nature makes her the perfect woman to push for a more progressive agenda. Bella hosts conventions in all fifty states where women nominate delegates to attend the National Women’s Conference. Bella’s conferences will vote on various platforms like equal pay for equal work and LGBTQ rights. Midge and her girlfriend, Jean O’Leary (Anna Douglas), prominent gay rights activist, want Abzug to push to put “sexual preference” as part of the agenda and not involve homophobic Betty Friedan in the conference. The only problem is Phyllis Schlafly, and the Eagle Forum infiltrates the state conferences. These Christian women receive enough votes to become delegates.
Margo Martindale steps up in a big way as the star of Mrs. America Episode Eight “Bella.” At the start, Bella feels down because she was not elected to the Senate after her successful tenure as a US Representative. But Abzug peps right up after Gloria Steinem, and Midge Constanza tells her about her appointment as leader of the National Women’s Conference. We get to see a window into Bella’s personal life. She feeds the skinny Gloria and Midge, a spread of Jewish and Italian Deli meats, cheeses, and bread. Abzug kisses her Italian American husband, Martin, who chats about how he is taking Bella back to Italy. We see Abzug’s sweet side before her brash nature takes over as she sets her sights on her new primary goal for the movement.
My favorite part of this episode is Bella’s struggle with being considered part of the mainstream after being radical for so long. Abzug used to be able to fight dirty when she was on the margins of society. Now that she is so established that the United States president even supports her, Bella has to follow all the rules. Now it’s Phyllis who is on the fridge using Bella’s own tactics against her.
After Abzug realizes the Eagle Forum has infiltrated her conventions, she becomes more cautious. She pressures the younger leaders of the ERA Movement to be less radical and compromise their goals. Gloria Steinem is furious at Bella for allowing conservative women to win seats at the national conference. For Abzug, the act of rebellion is speaking to those who do not agree with you, but Gloria is tired of speaking in front of “bloodied baby dolls.”
Bella wants to remove the “sexual preference” agenda from the National Women’s Conference because it would be controversial amongst the conservative women and would make it harder for them to pass everything else on their platform. Jean and Midge feel betrayed and storm off the committee.
The most engaging scene of “Bella” is when Abzug comes to speak at the Illinois State Women’s Convention. Phyllis Schlafly, who is supposed to present at the convention, doesn’t go because she has a breakdown after her daughter changes her name from Phyllis Jr to Eliza. Eliza says her mother is an embarrassment for her at Princeton University since it’s a Liberal college. Rosemary Thompson (Melanie Lynskey) is left on her own without a plan.
Rosemary, Pamela, and Alice sneak backstage to record Bella’s speech and protest. Abzug pops up right behind them. She recognizes them as Phyllis’s minions, and lectures them on the fact that Schlafly is the biggest hypocrite ever, is taking advantage of the Eagle Forum, and is, in fact, a Feminist. They stand up for Phyllis, stating smugly that she is their savior. They do not want to be “working girls.” Bella explains that by virtue of all the skills Schlafly has taught them and the work they now do, they have become “working women.” They will even be paid for being elected leaders of the National Women’s Convention. The women are left speechless, forgetting to record Bella’s lecture.
Bella has Schlafly’s number. She understands how Phyllis is the “most liberated woman ever.” All Phyllis cares about is gaining more power and respect in the public eye. She won’t take on anything that she can’t win, which means that she will do anything to save face. Rosemary and Alice inform Phyllis that Lottie Beth Hobbs has brought the KKK into their fight against the “Libbers.” They tell her that the Eagle Forum fronted by Lottie should release a press conference disavowing the KKK and the John Birch Society. Alice agrees that the perception that they are racist will tarnish their cause.
Instead, Schlafly allies with Lottie Beth Hobbs, saying that they need to do whatever it takes to beat the ERA movement. Phyllis suggests that to stop any rumors about the KKK groups who come to help they should not have any buses or shirts labeled with any particular “organization.” Phyllis will get in bed with any evil, immoral, or hateful groups in order to win.
Abzug ends the episode by allowing everybody to come to the National Women’s Conference, including Jill Ruckelshaus, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Phyllis Schlafly, Rosemary Thompson, etc. Next episode, we will see where all the pieces land.