Schlafly, Steinem, and Friedan: Finding the Key Connection in Mrs. America

Mrs. America series photo

By Savannah Jelks

Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan—you may know these names from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the US. Beyond being primary figureheads of the movement, these two women also played a significant role in raising support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA, which had been first proposed by the National Woman’s Party in 1923, was passed by Congress on March 22, 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. 

The political turmoil of this time in history sets the stage for FX’s recent miniseries, Mrs. America, airing on Hulu. According to the show’s website, “Mrs. America tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the unexpected backlash led by a conservative woman named Phyllis Schlafly, aka ‘the sweetheart of the silent majority.’” Although Friedan and Steinem stood on the opposite side of the political debate from Schlafly over the ratification of the ERA, they all had one major connection in common—all three were members of Phi Beta Kappa. 

Betty Friedan (ΦBK, Smith College), sometimes called the “Mother” of the modern women’s movement, might be best known for authoring The Feminine Mystique (1963), a book that “described the pervasive dissatisfaction among women in mainstream American society in the post-World War II period.” In the following years, Friedan helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). In 1971, Friedan co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, and other key players, including Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisolm, both of whom also make an appearance in Mrs. America. In the miniseries, Friedan is portrayed by Tracey Ullman.

Gloria Steinem (ΦBK, Smith College) is played by Rose Byrne. After graduating from Smith, Steinem travelled to India for two years on the Chester Bowles Fellowship. Upon her return, Steinem worked as a journalist. She helped to found New York magazine in 1968, writing articles on social issues such as the women’s movement. Her work in journalism continued in 1971 when she co-founded Ms. Magazine, a feminist magazine that was devoted to topics such as women’s rights. Like Friedan, Steinem helped to found numerous organizations including Women’s Action Alliance, Voters for Choice, Women’s Media Center, and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Currently, Steinem continues to be an activist and author. Her memoir, My Life on the Road (2015), became a bestseller. Steinem has received numerous honors and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, in 2013. 

Cate Blanchett steps into her role on the show as Phyllis Schlafly (ΦBK, Washington University in St. Louis). Schlafly rose to prominence in politics as a strong conservative. She authored the book A Choice Not an Echo (1964), a “clear, concise statement of the issues of the 1964 presidential campaign, including the hidden issues within the Republican Party.” In 1972, Schlafly founded Stop ERA, which became the Eagle Forum, a national volunteer organization that focused on creating a strong pro-family movement in response to the growing women’s movement. Her organization attracted many opposed to the ERA, including those who feared that the amendment would deny a woman’s right to be supported by her husband, that women would be sent into combat, and that abortion rights would be sustained. According to the New York Times, “Mrs. Schlafly’s campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment played a large part in its undoing.” Although the ERA deadline was extended several times, it was still three states short of ratification on June 30, 1982. 

While Friedan and Schlafly had met and publicly debated before, all three of these Phi Beta Kappa members made an appearance at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas. The conference, meant to serve as a means to unite women, ended up creating an even bigger divide. While Friedan and Steinem were in attendance at the conference, Schlafly organized a counter-rally of her own. About 15,000 pro-family supporters gathered just five miles from the conference. These events form the plot of Mrs. America’s “Houston” episode. Today, the ERA has been ratified in the 38 needed states, meaning its fate now lies with Congress. 

Photo: Mrs. America series, from FX on Hulu.

Savannah Jelks earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Union College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2020. Union College is home to the Alpha of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.