Seeing as how Gloria Steinem is probably the most well known figure of this series, her episode has the largest shoes to fill, so to speak—and Rose Byrne really delivers. Byrne has always had an uncanny ability to mimic real people: Her Rebecca Skloot from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks movie was eerily perfect, and her Gloria is no exception. Byrne nails the slightly hunched posture and sardonic murmur perfectly, though her giant multi-faceted hair color and giant specs and general costuming help a ton. My favorite detail is how we see Gloria carefully put her glasses on over her hair, so that her locks stay in place. She knows her aura is just as much in her looks as it is in her politics.
“Gloria” sets Phyllis and Gloria up as a study in contrasts. Where Gloria refuses to run for the head of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Phyllis manipulates her friends into choosing her. Where Phyllis’ home base is at home, Gloria is constantly on the road. Where Gloria winces at her publisher’s story about reaching out to her because of her “great legs,” (as does the rest of the Ms. Magazine office), Phyllis and her crew lean very happily in to the housewife aesthetic. While Phyllis gains power (and loses it) with her husband’s help as well as his whims, Gloria knows that marriage to Frank Thomas (Jay Ellis) would be a tricky prospect for her. Where Phyllis plies policymakers with bread, Gloria attempts to reason with Senator McGovern (John Bourgeois) with her wordsmithing. And where Phyllis manipulates and coerces the women of her coalition, Gloria and Betty Friedan talk openly and know they’re at odds, but have the same goals. And finally, where Gloria’s views on abortion and politics are personal, for Phyllis they are a means to forward her agenda, which is about expanding her ego and personal power.
The main contrast, of course, is that Gloria is authentic and Phyllis isn’t. Yes, they both engage in politics and compromise. For Gloria, it’s her condescending publisher, as well as her acceptance of herself as a celebrity to help the feminist movement. The Ms. Magazine launch party looks like something out of Studio 54, with Gloria bedecked in furs and her classic aviators, and Gloria’s mother gets interviewed about her daughter. But for Phyllis, it’s partly about becoming a celebrity. She even wants to name her group after herself.
And her disinterest in caring about the issues extends to not caring about the facts as well. As the formula discussion last episode suggested, Phyllis is more interested in repeating lies like they sound like facts. Unsurprisingly, considering how the real Phyllis was a big fan of Trump before her death in 2016. In fact, she speaks in such a Trumpian way in her appearance on The Phil Donahue Show that Phil asks her if she even fact checked her claims. She doesn’t see how that’s relevant.
Unfortunately, here’s where the focus on Phyllis Schlafly gets in the way of the series. While the first episode drew up deep into Phyllis’s world, we don’t get the same benefit of immersion into Gloria’s. The episode is disorienting because of it, not unlike the problems you’d find in a movie like Julie & Julia. The late, great Nora Ephron’s talent aside, it’s very hard to focus on two characters, especially characters that evoke such different feelings (both from the audience and through direction) in one story and give them each their due. Even though Gloria and Phyllis are at odds, their stories are very different and the back and forth is disorienting.
I do like how Gloria’s passion for reproductive rights—specifically, abortion—is presented as about her personal experience with abortion. So much about the problem of politics around abortion is that there’s so much shame around it, and people feel too vulnerable talking about their personal experience with it. Her personal story about abortion—taken straight from her dedication of her memoir My Life On The Road—is presented at the end of the episode, but there are echoes of this passion throughout the episode. When she asks the woman if she’s ever told anyone, the way that she will only lead the caucus if she can push for a vote on abortion at the Democratic National Convention, and the fact that it appears in the first issue of Ms. Magazine. And of course that’s not a knock against having children, as Phyllis suggests it is—in fact, when someone new joins the magazine staff, she brings her daughter, who joins the childcare section inside the offices themselves like something out of 9 to 5.
It’s the National Women’s Political Caucus’ passion that pours out of their protests that Phyllis can’t compete with. When the ERA is up for ratification in Illinois after passing the Senate, Illinois House Rep. Henry Hyde (Geordie Johnson) tells her that she and her coalition may think they’re protesting with “dignity” by not appearing with signs and slogans, but it actually makes them seem invisible. I was a little wary of this scene, as it attributes Phyllis’ idea to start baking bread and making homemade jam to a man. But it was interesting to see how baking bread could be its own protest—maybe one we could do ourselves nowadays, considering how much bread I see being baked on Instagram. Rep. Henry lords this over the sponsors of the bill, Illinois State Rep. Ginny Dyer (Laura DeCarteret) and Rep. Ginny Chapman (Alison Brooks) when he finds them eating the bread and jam.
Furious, they confront Phyllis on her lies when the STOP-ERA women come to the state senate to fight. This seems to be enough to shake Phyllis’ confidence, though only because it happened in front of her peers.
It’s enough for her to start doing her homework. She asks her husband for help with understanding constitutional law, so she can brush up on legal research and writing. When he teases her, she says witheringly that she also got into Harvard Law School. “The first thing you need to know when presenting a legal argument, is that while you have a lot of leeway to be creative, you never want to make a statement that’s objectively, verifiable as being false,” Fred says in response. “For instance, you weren’t invited to attend Harvard Law.” He points out that her lie is easily debunked with a phone call, especially considering she got her master’s before the law school went coed. Phyllis harrumphs, saying, “They would’ve made an exception for me,” demonstrating that there’s a limit to how truthful she wants to be.
- The childcare point made me curious about the legislation around child care and I found out there was a comprehensive child care bill that passed the House and Senate in 1971 before being vetoed by Nixon! *shakes fist at sky* NIXON!
- Jay Ellis plays Frank Thomas, who was Gloria Steinem’s boyfriend from the founding of Ms. Magazine. He was an accomplished lawyer, charismatic community leader, and divorced father of four, who served as President of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation during the 1970s. Steinem describes him as “the longtime love of my life, and best friend.” We don’t learn much about him this episode besides the fact that he does have children.
- Read more about Ms. Magazine in this oral history piece.
- Gloria sees famous feminist lawyer Florynce Kennedy (Niecy Nash) at the Ms. Magazine party. Flo, bedecked in her standard cowboy hat and wit and charm, complains that Andy Warhol didn’t say hi to her. “Well, you did represent Valerie Solanas,” Gloria reminds her.
- Apparently Shirley Maclaine cut out Gloria’s bit on abortion from George McGovern’s speech with a pair of scissors. Here she is stumping for McGovern (though not by name, per ABC’s insistence) on The Dick Cavett Show.
- I love how the cover of the first issue of Ms. Magazine is an image of the goddess Kali. Sure, they got rid of her skirt of arms and necklace of skulls, but the use of Kali and her many arms is a perfect metaphor for the unfair expectations put on women, and it’s still used today. Look, anything is better than the Kali representation in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom.