Mrs America Episode 4 Recap: What Really Happened During That Phyllis Schlafly, Betty Friedan Debate

Photo: Courtesy of FX.
The fourth episode of Mrs America hinges around a debate. In May 1973, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) faced off against Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) in Bloomington, IL. It was a controversial event, best remembered for Friedan’s outburst, in which she called for Schlafly to be “burned at the stake” after calling her an “Aunt Tom,” and a traitor to her sex. Mrs America doesn’t sugarcoat any of it, but it does offer perspective into what this debate meant for each of these women on a more personal level, as well as for their respective movements. 
“Betty,” written by Boo Killibrew and directed by Amma Asante, opens on a landmark moment. It’s January 1973 and the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on Roe v. Wade, enshrining a woman’s right to choose into law. It’s a victory for the feminist movement, but a devastating blow to Phyllis, who tells Fred (John Slattery): “They’re winning.” 
And for a while, it seems like they are. Thirty of the required 38 states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, and throngs of women are celebrating their newfound freedom. For Betty however, that victory is tainted with the knowledge that her place in the movement is more precarious than ever. 
We already know from episode 2 that there’s friction within the leadership. Betty feels like she’s being left behind in favor of the younger, more charismatic Gloria Steinem, who represents the future, rather than the past. (The parallel between how young women in the street talk about Gloria, and how Betty’s teenage daughter talks about her ex-husband’s new, younger wife, is striking — feminists can be petty too!)
As Betty points out to her friend and neighbor Natalie (Miriam Shor), all this infighting within the movement is obscuring who the real villain is: Phyllis, whose STOP ERA movement is starting to gain traction. Gloria and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) refuse to give her any attention, fearing that might elevate her profile. But Betty sees confronting Phyllis both as a necessary step for the ERA’s survival, and also as a way to regain her footing as its leader and spokeswoman. 
Betty’s brash attitude could easily have come off as grating, but Ullman does a wonderful job of delivering her salty one-liners in a way that hints at the heavy emotion underneath. Betty’s not perfect — she’s full of contradictions, she’s jealous, and she’s insecure — but her achievements stand on their own. 
It’s important to understand why Betty views Phyllis as such a danger — of the leaders in the movement, she above all understands where Phyllis is coming from. Friedan started out as a housewife herself, after she was fired from her journalism job because she was pregnant. Frustrated at her lack of options, and chafing under the expectation that she should be fulfilled and satisfied solely as a homemaker and mother, Friedan took to her pen. In 1963, she wrote The Feminine Mystique, a seminal book that interrogated the place of women in society, and called out for freedom from the oppression of housework and servitude that seemed to come hand-in-hand with married life. The book lit the spark for what would become second-wave feminism, with Friedan as its mother. 
We see the impact of The Feminine Mystique throughout the episode, as woman after woman mentions it as a turning point in their lives. Even Gloria, who finds Betty insufferable and difficult to work with, is forced to recognize her as an immovable force for change. But the success of her book also makes Betty the perfect target for Phyllis — if she can take her down in public, she’ll have dealt the feminist movement a painful blow. 
Through the Betty/Phyllis debate, “Betty” hits home a hard truth about our own political situation: Facts don’t matter when there’s emotion. Phyllis learns that during her prep with Fred, who uses what he knows about her personal life to get under her skin and destabilize her. During the debate, Phyllis — who gets off to an admittedly rocky start as Betty, a confident and experienced debater, refuses to let her spout her usual nonsense facts — strikes a nerve when she hits her stride talking about how the ERA will not solve all problems for women. It won’t keep their beds warm, and won’t prevent their partners from leaving them for a younger woman.
“I do occasionally leave my home and I travel all over the country and meet women from all walks of life,” she says. “And you Miss Friedan, are the unhappiest woman I have ever met.”
This isn’t a convincing anti-ERA argument, but it does manage to enrage Betty, who lashes out at Phyllis. “You’re a witch,” she yells as the crowd gasps. “I’d love to burn you at the stake.”
In that moment, Phyllis has accomplished her goal: She’s shown the mother of the feminist movement as an “angry libber” who is bitter about her own life, and seeking to rob others of their domestic happiness as revenge. 
The most interesting thread within the episode, however, has nothing — but also everything — to do with Betty and Phyllis’ ideological struggles. Episode 3 of Mrs America already exposed a sharp crack within the shiny veneer of second-wave feminism, as Gloria and Bella betray Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) to further their own agenda. But “Betty” goes even further in depicting how white feminists repeatedly let down and exclude Black women. When Gloria’s only Black employee at Ms Magazine, Margaret Sloane (Bria Henderson), pitches a story about tokenism in the workplace, she’s met with outrage by her white colleagues. 
“You don’t feel like that here, do you?” one of them asks, pointing to their most recent cover that happens to depict a Black woman. Gloria, who means well, is oblivious, telling Margaret that she should speak up if she ever feels excluded, essentially offloading the responsibility of inclusion onto her. 
Even Shirley, who was so embraced by her white colleagues when she was in the national spotlight, is now a sort of pariah, as she struggles with an FBI investigation into her campaign funds for potential violations. Regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, white women enjoy privileges their Black counterparts do not. 
In response, Black women, led by Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash, who steals every scene she’s in), found the National Black Feminist Organization. But even there, divisions emerge as some members take issue with the inclusion of lesbians. (For the record, Betty was also against LGBTQ+ inclusion in the feminist movement, referring to the threat of a “lavender menace.”) The fight for LGBTQ+ rights hasn’t quite hit its stride yet — that will come soon, towards the latter half of the decade. But Mrs America sets the stage as it depicts liberal movements’ narrow view of which communities should enjoy the protections they’re fighting for. 
At the end of the episode, Betty and Gloria mend their relationship, and the former approves a story in Ms Magazine about Phyllis and STOP ERA. But the damage is done — Phyllis is now a national force to be reckoned with.

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