But she wasn’t allowed to use the words “cancer,” “uterus” or “Pap test.”
Somehow, she pulled it off what is considered the first health story line in a daytime drama. And it paid off — thousands of women wrote in to thank her for letting them know the importance of such a test.
In 1968, Nixon shared part of one such letter in the New York Times. It came from a Santa Barbara, Calif., woman, and it read, “Like Bert, I had not gone to my doctor in twelve years. After what happened to her I did go for a Pap test and found that I, too, had uterine cancer. I have now had a hysterectomy, am feeling wonderful and I want think you for saving my life.”
In 2002, she received a Pioneer for Health Award by Sentinel for Health for the episodes.
This was just one of the many informative, progressive moments created by Nixon and neatly fitted into a soap opera. In her career, she would tackle child abuse, AIDS, racial segregation, racism, abortion, addiction and the Vietnam War in the two soaps she created: “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.”
All after honing her TV skills on as a writer on shows like “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light.”
Nixon died on Wednesday at the age of 93 in Haverford, Pa.
It’s arguable that soap operas had long been subtly political, a counterpoint to feminism. Even in the early soaps Nixon worked on, she was creating mostly escapist fantasy for housewives, as the New York Times noted.
That was no secret to those working on the shows, either.
Irna Phillips, creator of “As the World Turns” and “Guiding Light” and Nixon’s mentor, explained this in the New York Times in 1968 when discussing the success of the former show.
“[Character Nancy Hughes] finds her happiness within her home and herself, and she believes that this is woman’s true function. Nancy is my answer to the ‘feminine mystique.’ ‘Why,’ she once asked, ‘do I need to go out and prove myself at a political rally?’ I believe that ‘As the World Turns’ is successful because millions of women are against the ‘feminine mystique,’ and Nancy is their spokeswoman.”
But Nixon pushed against the norm, first by guiding the Pap smear episodes then by creating “One Life to Live” and “All My Children.”
These shows would feature gay characters, transgender characters, characters with AIDS and alcoholism and drug addiction, characters who abused children or were abused as children.
But, perhaps because of soap’s escapist origins, the shows — and their creators — got little respect.
In a screed against this, Nixon wrote in the New York Times in 1968, “The syndrome persists that soap opera is a Never-Never Land where hack writers and their inferior producers, directors and actors serve melodramatic pap to a lunatic fridge of female children who grow older but never grow up.”
In that piece, she discussed the Pap smear episode:
The soap opera has been able to do stories which have performed a public service to the national community in a way which no other kind of television entertainment could achieve.
She also held herself and the rest of the industry accountable for the lack of black actors in soap operas, writing:
It would be fatuously dishonest to pretend that daytime soap operas have, in the past, done as much toward providing jobs for Negro actors as they should. There have always been some parts played by Negro actors over the years but certainly when compared with the number of white parts and the degree of involvement in the story, it could not help but appear as a token gesture, no matter how sincere individual attempts to improve the situation may have been.
So she cast two black actors in the lead of “One Life to Live.”
It still didn’t earn her immediate respect.
A year later, in an article explaining that with a six-figure salary, Nixon was one of the highest compensated writers in television, the New York Times — the same publication in which she wrote that scathing op-ed — referred to her as a “Philadelphia Main Line house-wife-writer.”
But, as she told the New York Times after “One Life to Live” aired with its prominent black actors: “I’m not afraid. I introduced the theme of racial integrations into my last show — “One Life to Live” — and, while a Texas station canceled the show, we received far more compliments than complaints.”
“On the social issues, whether the Vietnam War or abortion or racism, I never thought I could change the way most people felt,” Nixon told the magazine America in 2002. “I just wanted to show the unfairness of it, the inequality, the injustice.”
The article’s first paragraph was, “The day time television serial, or soap opera, is in the process of going activist.”
For Nixon, it had gone “activist” years before. The critics simply hadn’t noticed.