Television

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 4

We break down “Betty,” which focuses on Tracey Ullman’s Betty Friedan.

Both women wear their gray hair back and their faces with looks of faint disdain
Betty Friedan and Tracey Ullman Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by FX/Hulu and Fred Palumbo/Adam Cuerden/ Library of Congress/Wikipedia.

FX’s new miniseries Mrs. America consists of nine episodes that each foreground a specific character. Last week, we broke down what’s real and what’s invented in the first three installments, which centered on Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba). In the fourth episode, “Betty,” the series paints a portrait of Betty Friedan, the author of the landmark feminist text The Feminine Mystique and the woman often called “the mother of the women’s liberation movement,” who is now being upstaged by the younger, hipper, and more conventionally attractive Steinem. In this episode, as Phyllis Schlafly and her organization, Stop ERA, gain momentum, the women on either side of the movement step up to battle on the public stage.

The Schlafly vs. Friedan Debate

In Episode 4, we see Schlafly go head-to-head on a debate stage with Friedan, resulting in both women making heated attacks. The two women publicly debated the ERA several times throughout their careers, including in a televised conversation on Good Morning America in 1976. That particular debate happens to be online, courtesy of the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles YouTube channel:

The debate depicted in the show, however, is the one that really did take place in 1973 at Illinois State University in Bloomington. In the show, things begin on an unfriendly note and only devolve further from there. Schlafly’s opening statement, “I’d like to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me be here today,” is both cringeworthy and characteristic. Just as the miniseries will go on to depict, the line became a signature of Schlafly’s public appearances, and the cunning Schlafly admitted, “I like to say that because I know it irritates women’s libbers more than anything else.”

In the show, the women then begin leveling thinly veiled personal attacks at each other, just as happened in the real-life debate. While there is no easy-to-read full transcript of the debate available to read online, it seems from the snippets that are available that the show stuck very closely to the facts. Brutal lines delivered by Schlafly in the show regarding the “personal problems” (i.e., divorce and unhappiness) of feminists track with things the real Schlafly said throughout her career. For instance, in the early 1970s, Ms. magazine itself reported that she once described feminists as “a bunch of bitter women seeking a constitutional cure for their personal problems.” Friedan similarly made ad hominem arguments, some of which are repeated verbatim on the show: She called out Schlafly for “hypocrisy” and really did tell her “I’d like to burn you at the stake” and “I consider you a traitor to your sex. I consider you an Aunt Tom.”

Screw Magazine’s Harassment Campaign

A side-by-side of both women, looking strikingly similar in long hair with their hair parted down the middle
Gloria Steinem and Rose Byrne. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sabrina Lantos/FX and Jay Godwin/Wikipedia.

Early in Episode 4, the phones at the offices of Ms. Magazine begin ringing off their hooks. Gloria Steinem answers, and a man on the other line asks if she will lick his balls. When Gloria asks the caller where he got their phone number, he answers: Screw magazine.

This reflects the very real harassment that the editors of Ms. magazine endured in the 1970s. In 1973, Al Goldstein, the notorious pornographer and publisher of the tabloid Screw, launched a campaign of attacks against Ms. that included publishing fake advertisements for “oral sex” alongside the Ms. phone number. This culminated in the publication of a crude and mocking centerfold image intended to look like Gloria Steinem. In a book-length oral history of Bella Abzug published in 2008, Steinem reflects on the incident, and it’s just as the show depicts:

On the newsstand outside our building was a display of Screw hung open to show its centerfold, a graphic nude drawing of a woman with my face, sunglasses, and long hair. Down the side of the page were drawings of diverse penises and testicles, and at the top was the headline “Pin the Cock on The Feminist.”

The fallout, similarly, matches Steinem’s recollections to the letter. In the same book, Steinem says she and her lawyer sent Goldstein a letter and that his response was simply “a box of chocolates with a note that said, ‘Eat it.’

Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (Niecy Nash)

A side-by-side of the two women, wearing cowboy hats
Flo Kennedy and Niecy Nash. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by FX/Hulu and Barbara Alper/Getty Images.

This episode also offers a closer look at Flo Kennedy, the lawyer and civil rights activist who helped to found the National Black Feminist Organization. As depicted in the show, Kennedy was an influential voice in helping to bridge the divide between the black and white feminist movements and frequently advocated for collaboration between Black Power groups and the women’s liberation movement.

She was also a quick-witted advocate for gay rights. In a party scene in this episode, she is seen scolding women for suggesting that homosexuals be excluded from the National Black Feminist Organization’s agenda, saying, “Lesbians are welcome, horizontal hostility is not.” While that precise quote seems to be an invention, it reflects both Kennedy’s beliefs and her way with words. In a 1973 article in Ms., Steinem wrote, “I have found that—like so many others—I can’t talk for more than an hour or so without quoting the infinitely quotable Flo.” More recently, Steinem credited Kennedy with many of her generation’s slogans and delivered an anecdote that illustrated Kennedy’s wit: “[O]ccasionally a guy would come and sit at the back of one of our talks, and would say something like ‘Are you lesbians?’ and Kennedy would say, ‘Are you my alternative?’ ”

Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson) and Diversity at Ms.

Sloan wears her afro out and her glasses with wire rims
Bria Henderson as Margaret Sloan-Hunter. Pari Dukovic/FX

Among the earliest editors of Ms. magazine was Margaret Sloan-Hunter, a civil rights activist and the first chairwoman of the National Black Feminist Organization. An early advocate for intersectional feminism, Sloan-Hunter appears in this episode pitching a story about tokenism in the workplace. In response, her Ms. colleagues—all of whom are white—furrow their brows and ask her whether she feels like a token. (She denies it, unconvincincly.) While it’s difficult to confirm whether the particulars of this moment are historically accurate (Sloan-Hunter died in 2004), the scene fits with what we know about the culture at Ms. at the time. Namely, that it had a majority white staff and that many women of color felt that they weren’t fully included in the magazine’s pages. A photograph of the Ms. office from this era, published to accompany an oral history of Ms. in New York magazine, depicts a scene almost identical to the one seen in the show, complete with Steinem seated on the floor and Sloan-Hunter appearing to be the only black woman in the meeting.

Indeed, the scene might be based on the experiences of Alice Walker at Ms. In the same New York magazine article, former Ms. editor Ruth Sullivan says, “I think Alice felt the burden of being, as she described it, the token black woman at Ms.” Sullivan denies that Walker was a token but admits that when Walker “worked in the office, it fell on her to generate the articles dealing with women of color.” In 1986, after contributing to Ms. for more than a decade, Walker resigned from the magazine, saying, “a people of color cover once or twice a year is not enough.” This complaint, and the opposing belief that (as one contributor put it) “putting black people on the cover would depress newsstand sales,” may have been the inspiration for another scene in an earlier episode, in which Ms. editors debate putting Shirley Chisholm on the cover before Steinem, concerned about sales, settles on Wonder Woman instead.

John Schlafly’s Sexuality

A side-by-side of the two women, both with their blonde hair up in curls and their faces smiling
Phyllis Schlafly and Cate Blanchett. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by FX/Hulu and Joan Roth/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Up to this point, hints about John Schlafly’s homosexuality have been a persistent subtext in Mrs. America, and in Episode 4, the hints grow less subtle. At the end of the episode, during the wedding scene, Phyllis watches John stare amorously at the groom in his military uniform, and the camera cuts back and forth between Phyllis’ pained face and John’s lustful one, making clear that she suspects what has really been going on.

It’s true that John Schlafly identifies as gay, but since he didn’t publicly come out until 1992—nearly two decades after the time period of this episode—it’s unclear whether Phyllis was aware of his sexuality at the time. That said, if she suspected her son was gay, Phyllis surely would have been distraught by the idea. Devoutly religious and socially conservative, Schlafly regularly employed homophobic rhetoric in her campaigns against the ERA.

Even after John came out, Schlafly maintained her political opposition to gay marriage, claiming it stood at odds with traditional American values. While Schlafly did not denounce her son, neither did she embrace him for who he was. “There is no way to control your adult children,” she said in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992, in a story reacting to her son coming out. “They have their own lives to live. I still love them. … What am I supposed to do? I can’t control what he says or his behavior.”

Read more:
What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America’s First Three Episodes

• What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 5

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 6

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Mrs. America Episode 7