The fourth episode of Mrs. America on Hulu features a debate between Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly in real life. And yes, the debate really did happen. You can watch a similar debate between Friedan and Schlafly in the embedded video later in this article, which took place a few years later. The actual debate as depicted in the episode isn’t on video, but accounts from the time indicate that the real-life debate was very close to what we saw in the episode. Read on for more details.
Much of Episode 4 of Mrs. America focuses on the debate between Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly. In the episode, Friedan was besting Schlafly for most of the debate, after Schlafly had buckled under the pressure of debating her husband Fred Schlafly the day before. But at the very end of the debate, Schlafly bested Friedan when she started talking about how women couldn’t use the ERA to fix what was wrong in their personal lives or find happiness when they were lonely. Whether or not Schlafly’s argument was actually good wasn’t really the point of that scene, it seems. Instead, the episode showed how Schlafly seemed to cut below the belt and Friedan wasn’t prepared for the attack on her personal life.
Here’s the ERA debate between Schlafly and Friedan that happened on January 28, 1976 on Good Morning America. Although the debate in Mrs. America was based on a debate in 1973, the video below shows the Schlafly and Friedan talking again about the ERA and debating its merits three years later after their infamous faceoff.
The 1973 debate in real life appears to have been just as divisive as the one portrayed in the Hulu episode. Schlafly really did have a favorite opening line for her speeches, just as was shown in the episode, when she’d say: “I want to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me come here,” The New York Times reported. Schlafly said she liked to say that phrase because “it irritates women’s libbers.”
The New Yorker reported that the debate in Bloomington, Illinois had moments just as intense as shown in the episode. Apparently Friedan really did say phrases like: “I’d like to burn you at the stake… I consider you a traitor to your sex. I consider you an Aunt Tom.” What’s unclear is whether this was said during both the debate and on a talk show a couple hours before their debate. It appears the phrases might have been used twice.
The Pantagraph describes the heated May 1973 debate and a talk show appearance that the two participated in before the debate. Steve Vogel wrote in 2013 about how Schlafly and Friedan agreed to appear on his show, Problems & Solutions on WJBC, hours before the Illinois State University debate. Vogel said that Friedan told Schlafly on air: “I’d like to burn you at the stake. I consider you a traitor to your sex. I consider you an Aunt Tom.” And Schlafly responded: “That just shows how intemperate you and your followers are. Why won’t you women libbers accept that most women are happy being a wife and mother?’
Vogel said that Schlafly was wearing a dress, makeup, and her hair up for the debate, while Friedan was wearing a pantsuit, no makeup, and her hair down. He said they didn’t have any small talk during commercial breaks.
Vogel interviewed Schlafly in 2013 about the debate and her appearance on his talk show. Friedan had already died and could not be interviewed too. Schlafly told Vogel that she found Friedan to be “cross and disagreeable.” Schlafly said she didn’t chat during the breaks on his show because “I never had any small talk with the libbers… They all wake up mad.”
Meanwhile, The New York Times paid just a bit of attention to the debate in its 1973 paper. It said that during the debate, Schlafly told Friedan she had: “resorted to abusing opponents and hurling epithets at them and making false and phony charges.” Friedan responded: “I’d like to burn you at the stake, as far as that is concerned.” And Schlafly replied: “I’m glad you said that because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of ERA.”
There’s an interesting article about the debate that you can read here from 1973, also published by The Pantagraph. This article says that ISU’s auditorium was standing room only for the debate and most of the audience was college age. Schlafly did indeed address the audience as “girls,” which was greeted with groans and people shouting, “Women!”
Schlafly responded: “I always thought it was a sign of immaturity for girls to want to look older.” Friedan, on the other hand, referred to the audience as: “women who are too old to be girls and men who are their brothers,” The Pantagraph reported.
Schlafly’s argument was that women already had equality, and the ERA would make them give up the privileges they had, such as not being drafted. Schlafly said, “That’s the hypocrisy of the ERA supporters. They don’t want to serve themselves, but they want to take away the right not to serve from others.”
According to the Pantagraph in 1973, Friedan had laryngitis on the night of the big debate and was almost “inaudible” at times. She said they had to fight for equality. “We knew that equality of privilege and opportunity must mean an equality of responsibility. Otherwise, no way.”
According to the Pantagraph, Friedan argued in the debate that the ERA was meant to bring women “as a full person” into the Constitution “with all the rights and privileges and all the responsibility.” She said that men were also victims, dying 10 years younger and bearing burdens of society alone.
According to The Pantagraph’s 1973 depiction, Schlafly told the crowd: “This is the pattern of the proponents of the ERA. They continually use emotional speeches. But I didn’t hear one single word about what the ERA will do to benefit women. Their arguments are based on a fabricated myth that women are not persons.”
Schlafly said that her side was quiet and polite during debates, while the other side hissed. She told the audience: “Maybe some of you are still young enough to be girls and think of having husbands. You have a wonderful position. Don’t knock it. You’ve never had it so good.”
What’s not clear about the episode vs real life is whether Schlafly really did attack Friedan’s personal life or if she said that women wanted the ERA because of their own personal lack of happiness. The Pantagraph article does say that a reception was held after the debate where attendees could talk to Schlafly and Friedan in person. More specifically, The Pantagraph reported that the moderator said: “the audience can attack you in person.”
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