The action picks up in April 1977. Jimmy Carter is in the White House, Congress is dominated by the Democrats, and Indiana has just become the 35th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. With two years to do until the final deadline, and only three states from total ratification, it seems like the feminist movement has got this fight on lock. So...we can all go home, right? We’re all equal and everything is great?
Obviously, as we know with the hindsight of this hell year of 2020, that is not the case. Phyllis Schlafly’s (Cate Blanchett) not done yet! Still, karma’s a bitch. Few things have brought me as much joy as watching her get pie’d in the face — by a man, no less! — after she gives a speech at the Republican Women’s Club. It’s the little things.
As it turns out, random waiters aren’t the only dissidents Phyllis has to worry about in this episode. She’s now facing opposition within her own ranks. Her daughter, Phyllis Jr., is back from her freshman semester at Princeton and has realized that her mother’s extreme views aren’t universally embraced on her liberal campus. Ashamed that they share a name, Phyllis Jr. has changed it to Liza, which hurts her mother’s feelings — even more so when she finds out Eleanor (Jeanne Tripplehorn) knew all along. It doesn’t help that Phyllis is going through menopause — though she refuses to admit it — and feels especially vulnerable right now.
She’s not alone there. Bella is back home in New York City after a failed run for Senate, and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Midge Costanza (Anna Douglas) have come to cheer her up with a juicy offer: Running the first National Women’s Convention. Looks like that retirement trip to Italy is going to have to wait.
The plan is to run this whole thing like a political convention. That means, each state will hold meetings to elect representatives from both parties to send down to Houston for the November convention. Of course, Phyllis and her ilk see this as an opportunity to crash: If they can get elected as representatives, they can attempt to sabotage the whole thing from the inside.
In an ironic twist, however, the rest of STOP-ERA isn’t actually that keen on their leader showing her face. “You’re a lightning rod,” Alice (Sarah Paulson) tells Phyllis. They will have more success infiltrating the convention if she stays home. Rosemary (Melanie Lynskey) is appointed president of The Citizen’s Review Committee yet another organization under the aegis of Phyllis’ Eagle Forum, and promises to lead the charge. But can Phyllis actually take a backseat on anything?
The feminists aren’t exactly a united front, either. The fight over LGBTQ inclusion is still raging in the ranks, and sparks fly when Bella suggests appointing Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) as a board member for the convention. Midge, who isn’t officially out to her political colleagues, nonetheless wants to see states pass a resolution supporting gay rights and worries that Betty’s appointment might send the wrong message, given her vocal opposition to lesbians as equal participants in the movement.
Still, the one thing that can bring everyone together is their opposition to Phyllis and Rosemary’s tactics. The Citizen’s Review Committee isn’t fooling anybody. Bella and Gloria immediately guess who’s behind it all, and try to mobilize their resources to stop Rosemary’s progress. And she is making progress. The CRC dominates meetings in Southern states, as Phyllis’ interfaith conservative coalition springs into action to get representatives elected.
Eventually, Bella confronts Rosemary, Alice and Pamela backstage at the Illinois meeting — Phyllis, who was supposed to meet them there, hasn’t shown up.
“Let me tell you something about Phyllis Schlafly,” Bella says. “She’s a liar and fear-monger and a con-artist. But worst of all, she’s a goddamn feminist. She might be one of the most liberated women in America.”
As for her followers? Well, they’ve learned to lobby legislators, draft speeches, speak to reporters, and balance a budget. Their patron saint of stay-at-home moms has turned them into high-powered career women, driven by ambition and a cause.
With that, Bella drops her mic and walks on-stage to thundering applause. Martindale has been bringing her A-game during this whole series, but there’s nothing quite like seeing her in full triumphant glory.
But Phyllis has another trick up her sleeve. Inspired by her discovery of Phyllis Jr.’s illicit mixtape of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” she’s discovering her own talents as a DJ, mixing together snippets of Gloria and Bella’s speeches with passages from the Bible refuting their arguments.
As the tapes spread, support for the Citizen’s Review Committee swells, and they sweep more and more state meetings — with help from the Ku Klux Klan. We already know from episode 3 that Phyllis is willing to associate with racists if it benefits her cause. Her message has emboldened the Klan to come forward in more visible and violent ways. Worried about security, Bella tries to bump the gay rights resolution from the convention agenda, despite it being approved in 30 states.
Devastated, Midge pleads with Bella to reconsider, reminding her of her own career as a young lawyer who went South to defend Willie McGee, a Black man accused of raping a white woman in Mississippi back in 1945. She was brave once — why can’t she be brave again? But as Bella later reveals to Gloria, there’s more to that story. She was eight months pregnant when she took the case, and was so persecuted and terrorized by vigilantes that she lost the baby, along with the case. “They got to me,” she admits. “I left Mississippi before the case was over.”
More than anything, this episode is about the conflict between the old guard and the new. Both Phyllis and Bella have spent their lives fighting for a cause. But as that cause hits the mainstream, they start to feel sidelined — in Phyllis’ case, because she’s too radical, and in Bella’s case, because she’s not radical enough for the younger generation.
In the end, both women decide to fight. Bella endorses the gay rights resolution, including it in the official convention program. Phyllis doesn’t get elected as a representative, but she and Lottie Beth Hobbs decide to plan a counter “pro-family” rally in Houston at the same time. And though she tells Lottie that the gathering can’t officially be aligned with the white supremacist groups, both tacitly agree that if those organizations want to “lend support,” they won’t get in the way. Donald Trump isn’t the only one obsessed with crowd-size.