The National Commission on Working Women, which has been monitoring the portrayal of women on television since 1979, has given "thumbs up" to the new season, as actress Linda Lavin put it, with a report showing that women are appearing in the new shows in greater numbers, in more diverse roles and in characters and family situations that more closely reflect reality than ever before. The days of the television dingbats may finally be numbered.
The commission issued its report and honored television and radio programs that have given outstanding coverage to working women's issues at an annual luncheon at which "Alice" awards were presented. These awards were named after the character Lavin popularized on television -- a single woman who works as a waitress in a diner and raises a son, a woman who works in one of the "pink-collar ghetto" occupations that employ 80 percent of American working women.
Lavin, who received an "Alice" in 1980 and who has been a member of the commission since 1979, emphasized the importance of the way television portrays women.
"In 1980," she said at the awards ceremony, "Valerie Harper, Esther Rolle and I came to Washington to receive awards because we weren't 'The Donna Reed Show' or 'Ozzie and Harriet.' The characters we represented were saying something contemporary about our society . . . something that caught the spirit of the times and of the women we knew as friends and coworkers."
Both Lavin and Betty Thomas, who plays police officer Lucy Bates on NBC's "Hill Street Blues" and who has been on the commission since 1983, had a few words for U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairman Clarence Pendleton and his recent remark that comparable worth was "the looniest idea since 'Looney Tunes' came on the screen."
Hollywood, said Thomas, is often "accused of having a distorted view of reality." But Washington, she said, "may be giving us a run for the money. . . . According to Mr. Pendleton, the invisible hand of the marketplace will miraculously eliminate sex bias once and for all. Mr. Pendleton, if you need a job, Hollywood will take you.
"The media can be the most visible and powerful force for opening doors of opportunity for American women," said Lavin. "Our leaders may dismiss the notion of comparable worth from their own public policy agendas, but they cannot take it off our agendas. Which means that, as long as we struggle visibly to create a just society, they will not be able to take it off the evening news. They will not be able to write it out of our scripts."
Among the encouraging signs of the electronic media's growing awareness of contemporary women's lives, she said, was the fact that the number of radio and television entries in the contest has risen from 75 in 1979 to more than 300 this year. "We are seeing a new dynamic in the media," said Lavin. "The news is getting through that women are making news."
Among the winning entries was a feature done by ABC's Cable Vision "Working Mother" series about a young, single mother of two who went to welding school, finished first in her class and became North Carolina's only licensed female welder. The first place entertainment winner was "A Matter of Sex," the television movie based on the case of eight women in Willmar, Minn., who went on strike through two bitterly cold winters to protest unequal pay and promotional opportunities at their bank.
That movie, in particular, showed the power of television to bring into living rooms across the country a story of terrible unfairness -- a situation that no one in his right mind would find tolerable -- and the courage women showed when they decided not to take it anymore. An incident that could have remained isolated in an obscure town helped educate a nation.
The commission's annual report faulted television for neglecting the lives of minorities and for its continued obsession with wealth. But it found that nearly half of the 143 new characters this season are female, 76 percent of the women work outside the home and 64 percent of the families on the new shows are headed by single parents. The commission also praised the networks for more plots that "revolve around the actual concerns of women . . . and have a ring of authenticity to them."
Realistic movies such as "A Matter of Sex" and "The Burning Bed," the film about a battered wife that aired this fall, certainly make for better television. And, in turn, by dramatizing the truth in women's lives, television can educate, sensitize and foster a climate in which that reality may be improved.