photo by Flickr user slgckgc
Who do you think did the most for women’s rights: Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug or Mary Tyler Moore?
First, a refresher for readers who are not old enough to remember when everyone used the term “women’s lib.” Steinem is a journalist and activist who founded “Ms.” magazine and became an outspoken advocate of equal rights for women in the 1960s and ‘70s. Abzug was a lawyer, activist and Congresswoman, who boldly declared, “This woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives,” in her 1970 campaign. And Moore was a beloved icon of American television.
Wait. Don’t answer just yet.
The question occurred to me on Wednesday, when news broke of Moore’s death at age 80. Moore boasted a long career, during which she garnered a Tony Award, six Emmys and an Oscar nomination. And while she first rose to national fame on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” it is the sitcom that bears her name that cemented her legacy.
I watched the inaugural episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in 1970, and was a regular viewer thereafter. Moore not only starred in, but co-produced the program during its seven-year run and became indelibly linked to her character, Mary Richards. Through “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” CBS offered viewers something novel: a show built around a woman who was not someone’s wife, or a genie, or a witch, or a flying nun. Mary Richards was a real woman, trying to make it in a world that was still several years away from Roe v. Wade and Title IX.
Just how different the show would be was clear before a single camera rolled. Moore and her then-husband Grant Tinker originally pitched a show about a recently divorced woman working to support herself. While the network executives liked most of the idea, especially given Moore’s popularity, divorce was still taboo on network television. To solve the problem, Moore and Tinker settled on a compromise in which Mary Richards would be arriving in the story from a broken engagement, not a broken marriage.
Through Mary Richards, Moore was able to show the country that a single woman past 30 did not deserve to be an object of pity or the butt of jokes. But “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its influence reached even further. It illustrated, in a good-natured way, the obstacles a woman faced in being taken seriously in the workplace. The show also made clear how much women had to offer and that all of us would miss out if we failed to give them the chances they deserved.
Of course, the show would not have had the time to irrevocably change the American landscape as it did if it had not been hugely entertaining. The considerable talents of the cast, especially Moore, meant that the show never felt preachy. On the contrary, the show won 29 Emmys during its run. To see why, check out this clip from “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” an episode that appears on many critics’ lists of the best of all time. The show’s irreverent but warm take on issues that straddled the line between serious and ridiculous was not always as blatant as in the instance where Mary Richards and her co-workers attend a clown’s funeral. But the ability of the show’s writers and its cast to entertain while performing such a balancing act explains why “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was, and is, so deeply beloved.
I do not mean to diminish in any way the contributions of Steinem, Abzug and the many women who did the political lifting and community organizing that underpinned the feminist movement of the 1970s. Moore, however, could reach an audience who would never pick up a copy of “Ms.” and was able to do the foundational work of changing hearts and minds from the comfort of Americans’ own living rooms.
Our popular culture sometimes reflects what we are, but the best examples often show us what we could be. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” used women, both on camera and behind the scenes, to introduce conversations about birth control, equal pay and women’s sexual independence. And at the same time, Moore was able to use her considerable talents to portray a character so real and engaging that there is a statue of her in Minneapolis, where the show was set.
Advancing the cause of women’s rights was not a contest, so declaring a “winner” is not really necessary. But it is obvious that Moore accomplished much more than most, and that her influence is being felt far beyond television – though certainly there too – even today, and probably will be for decades to come.