This Gloria Steinem–focused episode of Mrs. America opens with a sequence that is hilarious, thrilling, and, perhaps unintentionally, a meta-commentary on this series as a whole.
While beginning to consider how to counter the wave of state ratifications of the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly, a woman so uptight that she does sit-ups while wearing a skirt and her Wilma Flintstone updo, tells her husband Fred that feminists are not expecting any organized opposition. “The other thing you’ve got going for you is that no one likes feminists,” cracks Fred. “Not even liberals.”
Phyllis has a chuckle then responds, via a great, ironic Cate Blanchett line delivery: “Oh, that’s so true. They’re no fun.”
The episode, directed, like the first, by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, immediately cuts to imagery of Steinem (Rose Byrne) looking all ’70s beautiful as she heads to an event at the Guggenheim. She is with her handsome boyfriend (Insecure’s Jay Ellis). Photographers are snapping her picture. The energizing funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher” plays on the soundtrack. Yeah. Feminists. They sure don’t know how to have a good time!
In addition to showing the contrast between Schlafly and Steinem, this neck snap of a transition also addresses the notion that a show like this — about the events that transpired during a significant period in women’s history — could be perceived as something dry, dull, or didactic. But Mrs. America is not any of those things. It’s an extremely entertaining drama that also has depth and a brilliantly conceived sense of structure.
That structure comes into sharper focus in this second episode, which confirms that creator Dahvi Waller will zero in on a different figure in the feminist movement in each installment while still addressing broader themes and characters. The broader theme in this episode is the paradoxical landscape that many women must navigate, between being valued for stereotypically female reasons versus being taken seriously for their substance.
That’s certainly an issue for Steinem, a rising star in the media world who is viewed as the “pretty face” of the feminist movement but, despite her clout, isn’t always afforded respect. We see that in the feud between her and Betty Friedan, who kickstarts that conflict by saying about Steinem in a speech: “The media tried to make her a celebrity, but no one should mistake her for a leader.” When Steinem is later seated next to her on an airplane, Friedan tries to apologize. “I was misquoted,” she says. As played with massive bravado by the fantastic Tracey Ullman, Friedan is a woman who can’t keep her mouth shut, ever, which means it’s inevitable that a foot will wind up in there. She definitely wasn’t misquoted. Steinem doesn’t necessarily believe her, but she accepts the apology. She has learned, like so many women before and after her, that moving forward means making compromises.
For example, she’s the editor of Ms. magazine, but she still has to deal with pushback from a misogynist publisher when she wants to put presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm on the cover of the first official issue. It becomes apparent later in the episode that Gloria caved; the cover, rather famously, winds up with Wonder Woman on it, although the real story behind that has more of a female-power bent to it. During conversations with Senator George McGovern about voicing support for abortion rights, Gloria tries a softer touch than the blunt instrument that is Betty Friedan. She suggests he voice support at the democratic convention for “reproductive freedom,” which sounds nicer and more inclusive. As Bella Abzug, who sees the advantages of Gloria’s influence and also of not asking for too much, adds, that includes “men as well as women.” It still doesn’t get them anywhere.
Contrast that with Phyllis Schlafly, who doesn’t have the fame or connections that Gloria has, but refuses to water down her message. When she makes an outspoken anti-Equal Rights Amendment appearance on The Phil Donahue Show, the host is convinced she must be putting on an act until he speaks to her after the show, when she casually mentions that passage of the ERA could lead to the eradication of the Girl Scouts and unisex bathrooms. “Before you know it, we are living in a feminist totalitarian nightmare,” she says matter-of-factly, while Phil Donahue picks his jaw up off the floor and realizes she’s not faking at all. Like a bizarro Bella Abzug, Phyllis also realizes that using certain feminine skills to her advantage could be the clearest path toward getting what she wants.
Which is why Phyllis spearheads her “From the Breadmakers to the Breadwinners” campaign, in which she and her housewife friends give Illinois legislators homemade baked goods, greasing the wheels to get the “no” votes on ratification that they want. This is a total Tracy Flick move. Want to get ahead in politics? Give ’em cupcakes! “Is that all it takes to get a man to change his vote?” Gloria asks, incredulously. “Well,” Bella replies, with all the dryness that Margo Martindale can muster, which is a lot, “there was also jam.”
There was also something else: the fact that male lawmakers desperately need some evidence that voting against the ERA won’t be the equivalent of dismissing an entire gender. When Phyllis and her crew waltz in with buns straight from their ovens, they provide, in more ways than one.
The problem, obviously, is that Phyllis is building a movement based on lies and hysterical exaggeration, which is just one of the ways in which this episode of Mrs. America strikes a chord that resonates with contemporary politics. A female aide to a member of the Illinois legislature confronts Phyllis with this question: “When you go on Donahue, do you know what you’re saying has no basis in fact, or do you just not know what the hell you’re talking about?” Raise your hand if you ask this question multiple times a day.
Phyllis gets no credit for spouting talking points that she hasn’t bothered to more closely examine herself. She does get some credit for, following this confrontation, trying to do the research to understand the legal basis behind some of the conservative arguments she’s been making, although she has to ask her husband for help. Gloria, on the other hand, has convictions that she has carefully considered and that are rooted in a deep sense of the personal.
The episode eventually reveals, via flashback, that she had an illegal abortion at 22, which helps explain why she feels so strongly about putting a pro-choice plank in the Democratic party platform. (So does her conversation with a Ms. reader who also had an illegal abortion and remains shaken by the inhumanity of the experience.) Gloria finally argues strongly for that plank when she blows up during a meeting of key figures in the National Women’s Political Caucus. It’s the big, climactic moment of the episode, and it gives Byrne, who gets Steinem’s cool, low-key confident tone just right in every other scene, the chance to finally show us a Gloria Steinem with her volume cranked to a higher level.
“How long do we give people to adapt to change?” she asks Bella. “Or am I the only one who’s so fucking tired of waiting?” These are the same questions that progressive Democrats have been asking this election season when they’re told, for example, that lobbying for universal health care is pushing too hard and too far. This is one of the many moments in Mrs. America that reminds us this country hasn’t moved all that far from where it was almost 50 years ago. Which is depressing.
But the “Gloria” episode ends on a somewhat optimistic note when Gloria tap dances over to Bella’s — she really was a tapper, by the way — to the tune of The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow” to tell her she’s willing to be the spokeswoman for the ERA movement at the convention. But she has a condition: they must force a vote on abortion on the convention floor.
Gloria Steinem is used to making concessions. Now she’s starting to figure out, maybe, how to leverage her power. To put it another way: She agrees to provide the bread. But she demands that Bella pony up the jam.
“Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment of the Episode: It’s definitely the moment when Gloria makes that speech. “How many more women are going to die from botched abortions while we wait for men to feel comfortable with us having control over our own bodies?” she asks. “How many women are going to be forced to give birth to babies they can’t afford to feed while we wait for housewives, who have no idea what it’s like to have to work to survive, to feel comfortable with women having power?” These, too, are questions that are still relevant in 2020.