The first episode of Mrs. America was devoted to Phyllis Schlafly’s (Cate Blanchett) burgeoning involvement in the anti-ERA movement. In Mrs. America’s second episode, we’re on the other side of the issue, diving into the inner-politics of the Women’s Political Caucus, led by Congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), activist Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman, who steals every scene she’s in), Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Adubo), and of course, Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne).
As the title suggests, Gloria is the main focus of episode, written by creator Dahvi Waller and directed once more by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck — more specifically, her role in shaping the more radical faction of the feminist movement, and her struggle to embrace her role as a political leader.
We catch up with Gloria at the party she’s throwing for the launch of Ms. Magazine, which she co-founded in 1972. Glamorously clad in a black fur jacket and patterned mini-dress, her signature aviator glasses framing her face, and her boyfriend (Jay Ellis) on her arm, she’s the personification of everything the Phyllis Schlaflys of the world fear: A liberated, unmarried, and childless woman living her best life.
Byrne captures the feminist leader in all her fierce, caustic glory. She’s seductive and brash, calculating and impulsive, radiating genuine celebrity power as she sways on the dancefloor, faces off with her misogynistic publisher, or confronts recalcitrant politicians. And yet, she’s not quite sure what role she wants to embrace in this fight.
It doesn’t help that the movement itself is splitting into warring ideological camps. Betty, who essentially launched mainstream second-wave feminism with her seminal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, resents Gloria being pushed to the fore as the right candidate to speak for the movement, accusing her of using this cause to add to her own glamorous image. The best scene in the episode has them sitting next to each other on a flight to D.C., after the flight attendant recognizes Gloria and insists on upgrading her so she can sit with her esteemed colleague, oblivious to the custard-thick tension between them.
For her part, Gloria resents how much old-school political players like Bella are willing to sacrifice on issues like abortion, which they don’t consider to be an immediate necessity, in order to cozy up to Democratic primary frontrunner George McGovern for more long-term gains. She’s tired of compromising to appease men’s fragile sensibilities.
This fight is personal to her, as it is for so many women. In the episode’s most moving scene, Gloria is stopped in the street by a woman passerby and asked to sign the first issue of Ms — specifically the real full-page spread called “We Have Had Abortions,” signed by 53 prominent women, including Gloria herself. Without a word, the two women understand each other.
“Have you ever told anyone?” Gloria asks. “Only my husband,” the woman replies, her voice shaking with emotion. “We already had three, money was tight. It was in a hotel, a whole bunch of us in one room.”
Later, in a flashback, Gloria reflects on her own experience seeking an abortion as a young woman in England. “You must promise me two things,” the doctor tells her before the procedure. “You must never tell anyone my name, and you must do what you want to do with your life.”
Those two scenes are crucial — it’s easy to spout rhetoric about why women’s issues matter. It’s another to show the real-life stakes at play. This is a fight for women’s lives. That is what Phyllis — no matter how chillingly charming Blanchett makes her — is against.
Meanwhile in Illinois, Phyllis is garnering support for her newfound cause. After receiving a call from a woman in Oklahoma requesting her mailing list so that she can spread the anti-ERA message across the country, she realizes that if she wants to lead this fight, she needs to get a move on. The first step? Stopping the Illinois legislature from ratifying the amendment. In typical Phyllis fashion, she hijacks her poor sister-in-law’s (Jean Tripplehorn) Bible study group to spread the anti-ERA gospel to the women in her community. Among them, Melanie Lynsky’s Rosemary Thomson, who provides a hilarious foil to Phyllis as they compete for Type A personality of the year. Eventually, Phyllis gets booked on the Phil Donahue Show, which finally gives her the platform she needs to launch herself as a national player in this debate.
What’s striking about “Gloria” is how it frames the role of men in all of this. As Fred so jokingly puts it in the beginning of the episode: “Nobody likes feminists. Not even liberals.” That turns out to be eerily accurate as we watch someone like George McGovern, widely remembered as a progressive force in American politics, chafe under the scrutiny of the women’s movement. To him, they are a niche issue. Likewise, the men of the Illinois legislature, who were ready to vote for the ERA for the sake of appearances, almost immediately flip once they realize they won’t be penalized for doing so.
Schlafly and her supporters gave men an excuse to continue doing what felt comfortable — they even doled out baked goods as a reward for doing so. (“From the breadwinners to the breadwinners” is a catchy slogan, no matter how irritating it is.) Steinem, on the other hand, was putting them on the spot. What’s easier to stomach? A loaf of fresh bread, or the complete upheaval of the societal food chain you control?
The episode ends with Gloria accepting Bella’s request to represent the movement, but only if they force a vote on the floor of the Democratic convention to adopt abortion as part of the official party platform. Miami, here we come!