The popular Hulu series Mrs. America is reinvigorating discussions on the women’s movement of the 1970’s, the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, and the political legacy we continue to grapple with to this day. Like everyone watching this series, NOW staff and interns have strong opinions on the content and are sharing them through a series of blog posts on NOW’s website.
The fourth episode of Hulu FX’s Mrs. America focuses in on Betty Friedan, the acclaimed activist and author of the 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. The episode uses Friedan’s iconic 1973 debate with anti-ERA activist Phyllis Schlafly as a backdrop to highlight some of the tension between Friedan and other women of the feminist movement.
The episode begins with the decision of Roe v. Wade and the celebration that abortion rights might finally be secured. It seems almost ironic that today, in 2020, NOW and other women’s rights organizations are filing an amicus brief demanding that Alabama stop using the COVID-19 crisis to strip women of their right to an abortion. We still have so far to go, and this episode really brings to the forefront the range of issues that we have targeted for decades.
This episode really centers on the debate between Friedan and Schlafly. Betty is frustrated that other women in the movement, particularly Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, do not want to engage directly with Schlafly’s STOP ERA movement. Gloria points out an interesting dynamic at play here – “That is exactly what the men with money want us to do. Use women as a cover and orchestrate a catfight to distract everyone so they can sit in dark rooms and smoke cigars and count their money.”
When Friedan decides to debate Phyllis anyway, the viewer gets a look at what is really at the heart of this internal debate among the feminists. Gloria tries to go to Betty’s apartment to stop her and instead runs into her friend Natalie. During their exchange Natalie reminds Gloria that this movement stands largely on the shoulders of Betty and her record-breaking book. “Without her there’s no NOW, no Women’s Political Caucus, no NARAL. We get to do what we do because she risked everything.” This is an important lesson for feminists everywhere. Our movement still has a long way to go, but we are only in this movement because of the women that came before us and risked it all; because of Betty. As a young feminist today, The Feminine Mystique still seems like required reading and has so many lessons to teach us.
The debate itself provides a mostly historical account of what took place, including the cringeworthy and famous line that Phyllis begins with – “Before I start, I’d like to thank my husband Fred for letting me come here today.” The debate quickly devolves into personal attacks, since the STOP ERA position had very little fact to stand on. They mostly relied on scare tactics about how daughters would be forced into combat and wives would be abandoned.
Another major plot point of this episode is an instance of Ms. Magazine receiving sexual hate mail from men, an idea that again feels all too relevant with the rise of hate on the internet. They also finally grapple with the inclusion of lesbian women in the movement, particularly in the newly founded National Black Feminist Organization. Flo Kennedy, a prominent black lawyer, and activist, immediately shuts down any discussion that lesbians not be included.
While I am a little disappointed that this episode focuses so heavily on the infighting of the feminist movement, I am happy that the lesson presented is that “the women before us have a lot to offer.”
Jailyn Seabrooks is an Intern with NOW PAC.