Mary Richards wasn’t trying to be anyone’s feminist icon. She became an associate producer at a Minneapolis TV station not because she was trying to make a statement but because she needed a job to support her new life on her own in the city after a breakup. She took birth control pills because she was a responsible single woman who dated. She stayed out all night on a date because she was having a good time. She gave her best friend, Rhoda, a pep talk about body image because Rhoda needed it. She asked for a paycheck equal to her male predecessor’s because it seemed only fair.
And yet, because Mary was the central character on the classic 1970s sitcom “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” those small, everyday actions made her a feminist icon. When the actress who portrayed her, Mary Tyler Moore, died Wednesday at age 80, it marked the end of an era, sure. But coincidentally, another era officially started this month with the Women’s March on Washington and millions marching in solidarity around the world. And Mary Richards was one very important step between the women’s movement of her era — once seen as a radical, fringe group — and this resurgence of feminism in mainstream culture as it stares down four years with an openly sexist new president.
Would a modern Mary — no TV star, no feminist icon, just a woman living life on her terms — have marched? Of course. In fact, that’s exactly who made the march powerful: Millions of Marys — this time of all ages and colors and backgrounds — realized that they didn’t have to be famous, they didn’t need a degree in women’s studies, and they didn’t have to be paragons of feminism. They deserved to demand basic equality, and together they could command at least as much attention as a TV show.
The creators of ”The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, didn’t set out to make a feminist heroine when they wrote their first script in 1970. They simply set out to make great TV, which to them meant a modern, unique character grounded in the realities of the day. After decades of housewife dominance on television, they created an independent, single, professional main character who copped to being older than 30 and didn’t obsess about finding a husband. Still, she also hewed to classic “good girl” traits: Played by Moore, she was beautiful, thin, sweet, people-pleasing and often deferent. She was, for instance, the only character who called her boss “Mr. Grant” instead of just “Lou.”
Feminist leaders at the time expressed disappointment with Mary’s lack of radicalism. But that nice-girl quality helped her win mainstream American hearts: When, a few seasons in, she mentioned contraception or did the walk of shame, viewers largely forgave her. If Mary was doing something, it couldn’t be that bad, right? As a character on “Maude,” another landmark feminist show of the 1970s, said, referencing Mary’s all-nighter, “As Mary Tyler Moore goes, so goes America.” In time, the show would deal with birth control, equal pay, gay acceptance, body image, the struggle for women to own their leadership positions, and the difficulties of being the token woman in the office, among many other issues. Incidentally, we’re still fighting all of these battles today. Many are referenced in the Women’s March Unity Principles, along with sorely needed additions such as civil rights, disability rights, immigrant rights and environmental justice.
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” helped generations of women to see alternatives for themselves beyond the standard housewife role. Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres have cited Mary as a role model. Many millions more who watched lived out Mary’s influence in quieter ways — as single women who embraced living alone, as professionals determined to rise to the top of their game, as friends and mentors to other women, as women who could make a difference in the world. As women, that is, who marched with and for other women this month.
Better still, this new movement goes beyond the limitations that Mary Richards-style women’s lib couldn’t. Today’s movement is led by women of color, immigrants and Native Americans. It acknowledges the larger systemic issues that feed into women’s oppression, such as poverty, environmental crises and continued attacks on reproductive justice. It’s a group Mary Richards likely never imagined. But it’s also a group she’d be happy to lend a bit of her signature spunk to. I’m tossing my hot pink hat in the air in her honor.
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