This week’s Mrs. America begins with the throwing of a pie, right into the face of Phyllis Schlafly, in the middle of a Women’s National Republican Club meeting. “You’re a traitor to your sex by waging a war against women,” says the pie thrower, a man, before dashing away. Stunned, Phyllis still manages to pull it together and put on her usual poised, public face. “Well,” she says, “I’m glad it wasn’t a cherry pie because it would have stained my dress.”
In real life, the pie that got Schlafly was apple, not the cream-based confection in this episode. (Cream pie in the face always looks better on TV.) The thrower of the pie was Aron Kay, a leftist protester who made a name for himself by pieing notable figures, not just a seemingly random waiter. Still, the implication of the pie throwing in fiction and reality remains the same: At this point, Phyllis Schlafly has become an even more high-profile target because of how vocal her anti-feminism has become. She is indeed perceived by many as a traitor to her sex, even to a growing extent by her own daughter, who, as this episode notes, changes her name from Phyllis to Liza in an attempt to avoid being associated with her mother.
There is a sense of responsibility that comes with acting as a figurehead for a whole movement, and in “Bella,” episode seven of Mrs. America’s nine total, that responsibility is confronted by both Phyllis and Bella Abzug, who, after an unsuccessful Senate campaign, is appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as chair of the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. (Yes, that’s the position previously occupied under Gerald Ford by Jill Ruckelshaus.) In that role, Bella also must oversee the National Women’s Conference, the event held in Houston in November of 1977 that is being built up as the Mrs. America equivalent of the Battle of Winterfell.
As planning of the conference begins, Bella immediately feels pressure to convey unequivocally that gay rights are part of the women’s rights agenda. First she’s dissuaded from making Betty Friedan a commissioner because of her history of keeping lesbians out of the movement. Then, as Phyllis’s crew seeks to undermine the convention by, among other things, seeking positions as state delegates to the convention, Bella is blamed by Gloria for not keeping the conservatives out. “This was supposed to be our Eden,” Gloria says, “and you let the snakes in.” Religious metaphors: Turns out they’re not just for the Christian right.
Ultimately, Bella heeds the advice she offered to Gloria early in the episode: “You want to be inclusive by excluding? Would you listen to yourself?” Despite a mixtape circulated by Phyllis & Co. that includes out-of-context quotes from the libbers about gay and lesbian issues, Bella decides to be inclusive without excluding, keeping a lesbian rights plank in the platform to be discussed at the convention and, at Gloria’s urging, allowing the conservatives to participate as well.
“This could blow up in our faces,” Bella warns. Spoiler alert: It does.
Why does Bella change her mind? For starters, as she says, right is right and supporting women of every color and orientation should be central to what feminism is about. For the record, in 1974 Abzug co-sponsored, with then-Congressman Ed Koch, the Equality Act, which was the first federal legislative attempt to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. So she does support gay rights, which makes it that much more frustrating when she gets too scared to publicly support them, even if her cynicism is somewhat understandable. (The Equality Act went nowhere in Congress.)
Bella also feels beholden, rightly, to Midge, assistant to the president and a closeted lesbian, who helped her get appointed as head of the commission. But maybe what bothers Bella most, and what pushes her toward the decisions she makes, is the fear that she has gone soft. When Gloria tells Bella she was a radical when Gloria first met her, implying that Bella isn’t anymore, Bella lashes out at her. But the sting from that comment clearly lingers, so much so that later, she asks Betty if she minds no longer being considered a radical. Betty says no. If the movement has reached the mainstream, she insists, that’s a good thing.
To borrow the coleslaw quip from this episode, when Betty says that, it’s the slaw that breaks the camel’s back for Bella. While Bella doesn’t want the convention to fail — she knows that Betty is right when she says that not only Bella, but all of womankind will be blamed if the event doesn’t lead to progress — she wants even less to become what Betty is: the older feminist pioneer who is respected but sneered at behind her back for being out of touch. If she’s still doing something “radical,” Bella isn’t Betty. Or to put it another way, if Bella is still a radical, she’s still vital and necessary, not old and useless.
Ageism is a major subtext in this episode, which shows Phyllis wrestling, in her way, with the same issue. When the pie incident forces Phyllis to step out of the spotlight, her fellow anti-ERA army members step up and start leading the charge themselves. Some of them, as per their plan, start winning delegate spots at the convention and don’t want to give them up when Phyllis suggests they should. “The government is paying us,” Pamela says. “It’s kind of like a job.” Just as Bella implies at the Illinois event that Phyllis bails on, the Schlafly Squad is becoming a pack of working girls. And just as Fred predicted two episodes ago, with a heavy note of condescension, the anti-ERA movement will continue apace, even if Phyllis is not involved.
Phyllis is also in the throes of menopause, as her sleeping difficulties and heavy sweating indicate, which makes her extra-sensitive to the fact that she is aging and potentially becoming less relevant. “Why does she get to be inside the White House?” she mutters about Bella, who she calls “that old battle-ax.” She wants what Bella has, which is power and clout. Paradoxically, the only way Phyllis can get power and clout, in her mind, is by making STOP ERA a success and, in the process, depriving every other woman of getting truly equal power and clout, for decades to come. Hey, if you can’t get what you want, why not deprive future generations from getting it also? Yes. This seems fair.
I have to pause for a moment to acknowledge the superb performances from the two “leads” of this episode, Cate Blanchett and Margo Martindale, who both say so much in moments of complete silence. When Bella walks outside of Betty’s apartment and hails a cab, Martindale’s face acts as a two-way mirror view reflecting the conflicting feelings and thoughts swimming around in the brain Bella houses under her huge hats. As decisive and stubborn as Bella famously is, she’s also tugged in 87 other emotional directions in this episode, and Martindale makes sure we can see every pull.
Then there’s Blanchett as Phyllis, once again up way past her bedtime, snooping through her daughter’s mail and finding a mixtape that’s been sent to her. Curious, Phyllis pops it into her Panasonic cassette player and hears “Cherry Bomb” by the Runaways come blasting out of the tiny, tinny speaker. “Cherry Bomb” is just a beautiful music choice here, because it’s such an aggressive rock song, and it was recorded by a legendary all-female band, and its lyrics are basically an assault on Phyllis’s values, courtesy of her daughter’s generation: “Hello daddy / Hello mom / I’m your ch-ch-ch- cherry bomb / Hello world! / I’m your wild girl.” The fact that “Cherry Bomb” also acts as a callback to Phyllis’s cherry stain comment is just [pie chef’s kiss].
For 40 seconds, the camera stays on Blanchett’s face as Phyllis reacts to the sound of Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, et. al. At first she’s bewildered, then horrified, but then, with a slight flicker of her eyebrows and a practically imperceptible almost-grin, Phyllis seems to be … kind of into it? Actually, as we find out moments later, the truth is that the tape has given her an idea. An awful idea. It’s given the Grinch a wonderful, awful idea.
That idea is to circulate the deep-fake recording of Bella, Gloria, and other feminists, something she does without considering its ethical ramifications for a single second. While she didn’t want to know any of the details earlier in the episode, when Rosemary’s Citizens Review Committee broke into the commission’s South Carolina office to steal documents (shades of Watergate, anyone?), by the end of it, she’s totally fine with circulating lies and telling Lottie Beth Hobbs that it’s okay if outside groups, like the KKK, help the effort to upend the convention in Houston as long as they don’t identify their affiliations. By that time, Phyllis wants to win at all costs.
As I watched all this, the phrase that hung over my head in a thought bubble was that famous Michelle Obama quote: “When they go low, we go high.” In this episode, Bella, flawed as she may be, tries to go highish and be more inclusive. But Phyllis and her cohorts sink to the depths, using tactics in private — stealing, spreading misinformation, dog-whistling to white supremacists — that years later, will be used in plain sight by our current administration. Going low isn’t supposed to pave a path toward victory. We all know that at least sometimes, it does.
“If we pull this off, Houston will be the death knell of the women’s liberation movement,” Phyllis says in the episode’s last line, which makes her sound more villainous than ever. “Let’s blow it up.”
You’ll never guess where going low gets her next.
Favorite “Fuck Yeah, Feminism” Moment in This Episode: The entire exchange between Bella and Phyllis’s supporters, including Alice, when Phyllis bails on them in Illinois is great. After Bella declares that Phyllis might be the most liberated woman in America, Alice defends Phyllis by saying how much she’s taught them. Bella asks if she has taught them to do a litany of things: how to lobby legislators, answer reporters’ questions, balance a budget? Of course she has, Alice says. “Congratulations,” Bella says. “You’re working girls.” All of them have learned that it’s possible, even valuable, to have lives at work and home, and they haven’t even realized it.