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Mrs America and the Truth about the Women’s Movement

It’s one thing to take a saintly cultural icon like Mister Rogers and bring him down to earth. It’s quite another — and, apparently, the sign of a really daring and accomplished actor — to take a despised public figure and render her not only sympathetic, but fascinating.

Among the cult favorite TV series that have come to the fore during the COVID crisis, beside Schitt’s Creek and Tiger King, is an FX on Hulu offering titled Mrs. America. Produced by Cate Blanchett, the series chronicles the conflict between staunch conservative Phyllis Schlafly and the leading lights of the National Organization for Women. Betty Friedan (uncannily portrayed by Tracey Ullman), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) fight the powers that be — and each other — as the deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment approaches.

Blanchett takes the plum role of Schlafly, portrayed as a brilliant national defense wonk and conservative author. Schlafly’s efforts to get a seat at the GOP table are thwarted by her sex — until she happens to voice criticism of ERA. This, it seems, turns her into a valuable asset. Capitalizing on this angle, at least according to the series, Schlafly begins a national campaign to defeat the ERA, employing “a woman’s place is in the home” talking points she half-embodies and half-contradicts, all in order to achieve her ambition to political office.

Whether this psychological portrait of Phyllis Schafly is accurate, I cannot say. What I can say is that along with the brilliant acting and the spot-on dialogue, broad assumptions are made about NOW that simply are not true.

A clear demarcation is established between the dowdy yet spunky homemakers and the vital, intelligent feminists. Aside from Friedan’s reluctance to include gay rights in the NOW agenda and Abzug’s willingness to compromise for the sake of incremental political gains, everyone on the feminist side seems to be of one mind. Historically, this was not the case. In fact, at least for a time, a substantial number of NOW members looked much like Schlafly’s homemakers.

They wanted equal pay for equal work, but they did not want the “right” to murder their children. They wanted a place at the political table for women, but this did not lessen their conviction that the traditional family is the building block of civilization.

When these convictions ran afoul of more radical feminist views — “motherhood is slavery,” etc. — Friedan cast the deciding vote. NOW would never be the same.

Betty 1.0

When the series begins, the year is 1971. Betty Friedan’s tenure as president of NOW is over. The torch has passed to luminaries like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. This is, in a sense, Betty 2.0.

Previously, back in 1963, the Women’s Movement became firmly established with the publication of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. The book called attention to deep wells of depression and frustration in women who were by a large margin at that time mothers and homemakers. The source of this depression Friedan called “the problem with no name” or “the feminine mystique.”

Friedan insisted, “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. The problem with no name is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities.”

This proposed trajectory did not exclude the family or paint her sex’s life-giving potentiality as the central obstacle to her freedom and fulfillment.

Instead, thirty years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan would insist, “Women are the people who give birth to children, and that is a necessary value in society[.] … Feminism was not opposed to marriage and motherhood. It wanted women to be able to define themselves as people and not just as servants to the family. You want a feminism that includes women who have children and want children because that’s the majority of women.”

Because this view was shared by many NOW members — which one would never know by watching Mrs. America — at the second NOW convention on November 18, 1967, the question of whether a repeal of abortion laws had any place in a feminist platform was hotly debated. Opposing abortion was not automatically a “War on Women.” In fact, when Betty Friedan announced, counter to her previous position, that the repeal of all abortion laws must be added to NOW’s platform, a civil war erupted.

According to Sue Ellen Browder, author of Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, “before the dust completely settled, one-third of the women who attended the Mayflower Hotel convention resigned from NOW.”

Gaining ascendency — and presented largely as the feminist norm in Mrs. America — were those who saw marriage as a patriarchal construct, motherhood as slavery, and abortion as 100% necessary to progress. These included Helen Gurley Brown, whose magazine, Cosmopolitan, idealized “the new woman” who enjoyed sex without responsibility, and Lawrence Lader, whose simple goal in life was the destruction of every last remaining shred of Christian moral tradition.

Brown and Lader are, in a sense, the missing chapters of Mrs. America.


The Cosmo Girl was a new breed of woman invented and promoted by Helen Gurley Brown.

Author of the bestselling Sex and the Single Girl, and editor of Cosmopolitan, Brown guided her writers in the development of this new role model for women. The Cosmo Girl, Brown advised, would “never waste time feeling guilt, never agonize too much, and have a lot of paid help at home, and never, ever, let [children] interfere with the long climb to the top.”

Women’s sexuality according to Cosmo was a magic spell, a tool — a ticket to fun, to corporate advancement, and to a carefree lifestyle of high fashion, travel, and sexual adventure.

Covers of Cosmopolitan regularly featured teasers illustrating the challenges the average Cosmo Girl might face. On the cover of the February 1970 issue, “A Gynecologist Tells the Reassuring Truth about the Pill” conveniently precedes “When He Wants You to Make the Orgy Scene.” Oh, and “Warren Beatty Has Been Wronged.”

Articles told the real-life stories of young women living the dream, stories that Sue Ellen Browder, then a writer for Cosmo, admits “were entirely fictitious. Helen had even written a set of writers’ guidelines suggesting it was fine for us to make up ‘experts’ to quote and to invent anecdotes. … The Cosmo Girl was not a real person but a persona, a mask the single girl lonely and alone in the world could put on to turn herself into the object of a man’s sexual fantasies[.]”

Browder explains, “We wrote about this sexually ‘free’ woman as if she really existed. Over time, readers who regarded the fantasy as real began to live out the Cosmo lifestyle. Within a decade or so, those of us who wrote regularly for the magazine began to find single women openly sleeping with their boyfriends everywhere, and I no longer had to make up so many anecdotes to produce an article Helen deemed publishable.”

Meanwhile, Betty Friedan described Cosmopolitan as “quite obscene and quite horrible.” In fact, Friedan had long resisted including contraception and abortion in NOW’s platform. But something changed her mind. According to Browder, at the Second Annual NOW Conference, Friedan “created an uproar … when, in her characteristic domineering style, with a voice like a foghorn … she demanded that NOW take a stand in favor of contraception and for total repeal of all abortion laws.”

What changed Betty’s mind?

Larry Lader.

“Larry and Bernie”

Lawrence Lader was a Harvard grad, a devotee of Margaret Sanger, an heir to old money, “a cadaverous-appearing man with a rasping voice,” and a friend of Betty Friedan via Vassar.

Lader served as executive director of the Hugh Moore Fund, one of those seemingly ubiquitous charitable institutions set up by very rich men convinced that their best contribution to humanity is to pour millions into population control. Lader was convinced that abortion not only served this purpose, but was the key to freedom and fulfillment for the modern woman.

Lader’s partner in crime was Bernard Nathanson, M.D. Nathanson would go on to direct the world’s largest abortion facility, presiding over 75,000 abortions during his career. The toll would become too much, leading Nathanson to join the Catholic Church. Part of his penance took the form of Aborting America, a book in which he confessed “the dishonest beginnings of the abortion movement.”

Back in the day, while Nathanson rather stuffily regarded abortion as “a broad social issue that feminists shouldn’t abrogate to themselves” and feared that “if a bunch of radical women appeared to take over the abortion movement … modern legislators and judges (again the vast majority of them men) would dismiss abortion reform without a fair hearing,” Larry Lader disagreed.

According to Nathanson, Lader put it this way: “If we’re going to move abortion out of the books and into the streets, we’re going to have to recruit the feminists. Friedan has got to put her troops into the thing — while she still has control of them.”

Meanwhile, Larry planned “to market abortion to women, the media, and the American public.”

Step One of Larry Lader’s Plan: Establish the villain. “Historically,” he explained to Nathanson, “every revolution has to have its villain. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a king, a dictator, or a tsar, but it has to be someone, a person, to rebel against.” Larry’s favorite whipping boy was the Catholic Church, which he considered “the biggest single obstacle to peace and decency throughout all of history.”

Step Two: Put a face on the Cause. “We’ve got to keep the women out in front. You know what I mean. And some blacks. Black women especially. Why are they so damn slow to see the importance of this movement to themselves?”

Step Three: the slogan. Larry’s choice was perfect: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body.” As Noam Chomsky puts it, “[t]hat’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something.”

Step Four: disinformation. This arrived in the book Abortion, a 212-page hardcover written by Lader. The subtitle read, “The first authoritative and documented report on the laws and practices governing abortion in the U.S. and around the world, and how — for the sake of women everywhere — they can and must be reformed.”

According to Nathanson, information in Abortion was consistently fabricated.

“Knowing that if a true poll were taken we would be soundly defeated, we simply fabricated the results of fictional polls. We announced to the media that we had taken polls and that 60 percent of Americans were in favor of permissive abortion. This is the tactic of the self-fulfilling lie. Few people care to be in the minority.”

Regarding the number of illegal abortions in America, says Nathanson, “The figure we gave to the media repeatedly was one million.” The actual figure was near one hundred thousand. Likewise, through the National Organization for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), Lader and Nathanson would contend that ten thousand women die each year simply because they cannot procure a safe abortion. The real number was two hundred fifty.

Nevertheless, the book grew legs, and pretty soon, Reader’s Digest subscribers were perusing excerpts from Abortion. In his contribution to the Roe v. Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun would cite Lader’s book no fewer than seven times.

Larry’s disinformation media blitz finally convinced (or rather deceived) Betty Friedan into joining the Cause. With her came the entire Women’s Movement.

Perhaps even more importantly, Helen Gurley Brown woke up in a haze from a night of partying with New York City’s elite to discover that the superficial lifestyle she promoted in Cosmo — sex without marriage, the fashionable flaunting of “worn out” social norms, all delivered in giddy, gossipy verbiage — had suddenly gained a backbone of ideological fervor and intellectual clarity. And this supplied by none other than Betty Friedan.

As one ad for Cosmo puts it:

Am I in love? Do stars fall on Alabama? He’s wonderful, of course, but you can also love other things than a man. I love my work . . . my friends . . . the skimpiest little black suede skirt you ever saw. I think I’m in love with my new cropped hair . . . the color . . . with children (though I don’t have any yet) . . . with my baby red convertible. Love is what it’s all about, isn’t it? My favorite magazine says love deeply, love often . . . love many different things. I love that magazine. I guess you could say I’m That COSMOPOLITAN Girl.

Betty 3.0

While the first edition of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique “struck a loud chord of recognition in the minds and hearts of middle-class women across America and made Betty the most widely known feminist in the nation,” the book contained not a single reference to contraception and abortion. Friedan, who co-founded the National Organization for Women, originally saw the movement as addressing the needs of women, many of whom wished to be mothers yet found themselves struggling with a deep sense of neglect and untapped potential. At that time, Friedan did not in any way see contraception and abortion as key to a path of self-actualization for these women.

Pre-November 18, 1967 members of NOW were intelligent, accomplished women like attorney Elizabeth Boyer — women who happened to consider each new life “a sacred trust.” Once the platform of NOW called for the repeal of abortion laws, the departure of women like Boyer left NOW in the hands of prominent feminists like Ti-Grace Atkinson, who, in a speech at the University of Rhode Island in 1970, would demand “that all institutions and practices that are founded on inequitable principles … must be destroyed. Some of these institutions are marriage, motherhood, sex, love, prostitution, religion.” Atkinson would go on to speak at the Catholic University of America, stating that the Catholic Church is “the greatest organized crime ring the world’s ever seen.”

Viewing the fallout from the vantage point of the 1980s, Betty Friedan would observe, “The women’s movement … has come to a dead end[.] … Our failure was our blind spot about the family[.] … In cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where feminist consciousness was supposedly at the cutting edge, women of childbearing years [divided] into bitter antagonistic camps as they were forced into no-win, either-or choices, motherhood vs. career.”

In The Second Stage, a follow-up to The Feminist Mystique, Friedan “called for the women’s movement to set aside its divisive anger, stop overemphasizing abortion rights, and reaffirm the importance of family.” While promoting the book, she told a reporter, “We are for the choice to have children, for affirming the generative roots of women in families.”

Mrs. America, while promoting its thesis regarding the duplicity of Phylis Schlafly, misses the really pivotal character arc of Betty Friedan — and the decisions that shifted the power base of the women’s movement.

Image: FX Networks via YouTube.

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