How accurate is ‘Mrs. America’s’ depiction of Betty Friedan? We checked

Tracey Ullman, left, as Betty Friedan in "Mrs. America," and the real Betty Friedan in 1970.
Tracey Ullman, left, as Betty Friedan in “Mrs. America,” and the real Betty Friedan in 1970.
(Sabrina Lantos / FX, left; Associated Press, right)

If you’ve watched any of “Mrs. America,” the star-studded miniseries about the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, you may be wondering how accurately it captures this divisive chapter in American political history.

The nine-part drama pits conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) and her followers against a band of feminist all-stars led by Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), who are prone to spirited internal debates. Creator Dahvi Waller and her team of writers conducted extensive research into Second Wave feminism and the rise of the new right in the 1970s.

Like nearly all works of historical fiction, “Mrs. America” takes some liberties, particularly when it comes to private conversations behind closed doors, and offers a necessarily subjective take on highly polarizing figures such as Schlafly. But when it comes to events in the public record, “Mrs. America” hews close to the facts, often quoting feminist leaders and their critics verbatim.

“Overall, they have done a very good job,” said historian Marjorie Spruill, author of “Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized America.”


In Episode 4, Betty Friedan, whose book “The Feminine Mystique” helped ignite Second Wave feminism, fights to retain her relevance in the movement she helped launch and unravels dramatically in a debate with Schlafly.

Here’s a look at fact versus fiction in “Betty”:

We sort through what’s fact and what’s fiction in “Mrs. America” episode 3, “Shirley.”

April 24, 2020

Friedan had a rather complicated relationship with her ex-husband ...

Friedan and her husband, Carl, divorced in 1969. Less than two years later, he remarried a younger woman named Norene. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Carl praised his new wife, a blond model who made him chicken soup and shined his shoes — unlike Betty who, he claimed, never washed 100 dishes during 20 years of marriage. He also said his ex hated men, and that he’d married her — “the most masculine woman” he could find — because she reminded him of his overbearing mother. “My God, never marry them,” he said of women’s lib activists.

Despite such public comments — and as Carl divorced, remarried and divorced once more — the Friedans maintained a mostly friendly relationship for decades until Betty published a memoir in 2000 called “Life So Far,” in which she accused Carl of physical abuse. When he pushed back against the charges, she backpedaled, saying her husband was “no wife-beater” and they were both “hot-tempered.” A New York Times interview with Betty was updated with a lengthy editor’s note in which Carl called the accusations “blatantly untrue.”

... But enjoyed life as a single woman

Friedan never remarried, but eagerly dated and had a long-running affair with a married man. In “It Changed My Life,” a collection of essays on the women’s movement published in 1976, she talks about the fun of relating to men in ways that weren’t possible to her before. “Maybe I was too anxious to get married to really relax and enjoy the relationships with men before.” She also frequently wrote about her romantic life in her column for McCall’s Magazine, which Waller said inspired the series’ portrayal of Friedan.


Friedan really did tell Schlafly she’d like to burn her at the stake

As portrayed in “Betty,” many feminist leaders felt that engaging with Schlafly only helped feed her celebrity. It wasn’t worth it — especially when she got the best of them with her unflappable demeanor.

Which is just what happened during a debate in 1973 before a largely pro-ERA audience at the Illinois State University. When Schlafly suggested the reason there were so few women in Congress was that they weren’t willing to do the work to win elections and were more interested in having babies, Friedan fired back by calling her “a traitor to your sex, an Aunt Tom” and saying, “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” Alas, there is no video of this heated encounter, but there is a newspaper account. (There is, however, video of a 1976 debate between the political foes on “Good Morning America,” which you can watch above.)

Al Goldstein’s attacks on Gloria Steinem and the women of Ms. Magazine

This episode also delves into Al Goldstein’s attacks on Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine. Goldstein founded the pornographic magazine Screw in 1968, which he called “the Consumer Reports of sex” and featured massage parlor reviews, and was arrested multiple times on obscenity charges. (He was also one of the main subjects of “They Neighbor’s Wife,” Gay Talese’s chronicle of the sexual revolution.) A provocateur and bully, he waged a campaign of harassment against Ms., at one point advertising an oral sex service using the magazine’s phone number. He also attempted to sell a poster with an obscene caricature of a nude Steinem surrounded by an array of male genitalia with the headline “Pin the [Penis] on the Feminist,” as seen in “Betty.”

Most important of all: Friedan really did struggle to say the name “Schlafly”

A running gag in “Betty” is Friedan’s inability to pronounce “Schlafly” correctly. Ullman, a renowned mimic, has once again done her homework: at about 17:30 in the video above, you can hear a flustered Friedan refer to “Mrs. Schoffly.”