The year is 1974. Thirty-three states of the 38 required have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. Traditional gender roles are still running rampant. In episode 5 of Mrs. America, we explore what it means to be in a marriage and how eerily similar it feels to be a woman in a traditional one or a “non-traditional” one through the lenses of Phyllis Schlafly and Brenda Feigen Fasteau.
One of the things this show does exceptionally well is telling the stories of women in the movement that often get forgotten. For me, one of those women is Brenda Feign Fasteau. She was one of the founders of Ms. Magazine, a Harvard educated lawyer, and the co-director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While this episode focuses mostly on her marriage to fellow lawyer Marc Fasteau, it was fascinating to see how Brenda has influenced this movement that I did not even know.
Brenda and Marc have a less traditional marriage than most in the 1970s; they both work full time, and as Marc says, “both wear the pants.” That free-spirited way of life gets tested when Brenda sleeps with a Ms. Magazine photographer, Jules. In a move that screams mid-century misunderstanding, Marc is initially not threatened by this since he sees affairs between two women are just not as serious. It is troubling to see lesbians treated as some sort of frivolous afternoon activity that can be used and discarded for fun. That idea underscores much of the way Mrs. America, and the broader public at the time, see the LGBTQIA+ community. Even our antagonist, Mrs. Schlafly, treats her son’s gay identity as something that he can overcome with willpower, like when she quit smoking cigarettes. It is an important reminder that even our heroes of the 1970s women’s movement still had a long way to go for real inclusion of lesbians.
What is more striking in this episode are the eerie ways in which Brenda’s and Phyllis’s marriages are similar. The episode centers on the debate that occurred between the two of them and their husbands. This debate is again full of iconic one-liners like Brenda calling out the fact that Phyllis is not really a housewife but instead a “full-time lobbyist working to defeat the ERA.” While Brenda and Marc work through what an open relationship means in conjunction with having a child, Fred and Phyllis work through the fact that she wants to go to law school at the age of 50. Phyllis’s entire public image is built on her traditional values and traditional family, but at home, she is struggling with a husband who will not accept her ambitions. Fred even goes as far as to call her “submissive” during the debate. It is fascinating to see how Phyllis is fighting for a way of life that she does not even want. It truly makes my skin crawl to think about the influence she had in steering women away from their dreams while she is pursuing her own.
At either end of the conservative or progressive spectrum, we see women truly struggling in their marriages. This episode asks the viewer to question what it means to stand for something. Do you have to be a “man-hating lesbian” to be a feminist, or do you have to be a traditional housewife to be a conservative? What happens when the things we as women want in life conflict with the movements we are pushing for? In today’s progressive movement, we have come closer to the ideal that you can choose to create a family in whatever way feels most true to you. You can be a housewife with children and still fight for feminist values. You can be a single woman and still fight for things like child care and paid family leave. We can all acknowledge that what we want is for every woman to be free to make her own choices, even if those choices differ from our own.
Jailyn Seabrooks is an Intern with NOW PAC.