I was one of those first lucky writers. Our leads turned into two of the most beloved characters in TV history: Minneapolis TV producer Mary Richards, played by Moore, who died two years ago, and Mary’s neighbor and fellow single working woman, Rhoda Morgenstern, played by Valerie Harper, who died on Friday.
We were encouraged to write from our experience, which both inspired our viewers and reflected their own lives. Some of them were marching for equal rights. As Gail Collins put it in “When Everything Changed,” “Like Mary Richards, American women in the 1970s were figuring out how to use their new powers to craft a good life.” They “went to college thinking what work they wanted to do, not what man they wanted to catch.” Some of them, like me, were trying to make changes once we got a foot in the door.
With feminism as a backdrop, we were all learning a new language as women. We spoke that language in ways that could be contradictory. Mary and Rhoda, seen as two halves of a whole, represented different aspects of the new multidimensional woman. That endeared them to their audience then, and it still does today.
Mary was the soft, reluctant feminist, perhaps. Gloria Steinem once mentioned to producer Jim Brooks that she needed to be more of one. Mary wouldn’t call herself a feminist, but by her actions, at first hesitant and then more (sweetly) aggressive, she made strides that encouraged real women to do so — particularly at work. Women like Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey have credited her as a role model.
Valerie Harper’s character, Rhoda, on the other hand, was pushy from the start. Remember the fight over the apartment, in the show’s pilot episode? Rhoda had climbed through the window and ordered Mary out. Well, I, too, was accused of being pushy. Los Angeles Magazine applied descriptive terms to a few of us women writers, who were new to the game. Mine was “Pushy, pushy, pushy!” I was the only writer so labeled. Yes, I cried. I’ll admit it.
I had thought I was just “enthusiastic” and “determined.” My then-husband said I should get a T-shirt with “Pushy, pushy, pushy” on it and wear it to my next writers meetings for other shows — a badge of honor. I did. It helped a little, and got laughs. But I still was embarrassed. There were no rules, and I was just trying to live my life and write about it, learning as we went along.
When I wrote Rhoda, I guess I used the “pushy” side of myself. But I took pleasure in reversing roles. In an episode that featured Rhoda losing her job, Mary, in a move that seemed to go against her character, hid the fact that her TV station had a perfect position open. She had simply turned a tad territorial — as we all do, even with our besties, and even if we are the perfect Mary Richards. Mary’s boss, Lou Grant, announced the discovery with relish in a gotcha moment: “It’s just nice to know that everyone’s rotten. Up to now, I thought you were one of the few holdouts!” he said, grinning wildly. Of course, the nice Mary eventually confessed to Rhoda, and Rhoda, who had by then been hired for another position, said she wouldn’t have wanted “that crummy job” anyway. Also, she was making more money than Mary, she took pleasure in telling her.
Women have been called worse than pushy in the battle for equality. We still have a way to go. Rhoda was outspoken, brave in her wardrobe and her decor, and no doubt an early feminist. Her fans remark that the Rhodas, like them, always play second banana to the Marys — they did then and they do today. Lou, on first meeting Mary, said she had spunk — “I hate spunk!” — but Rhoda had her own brand of it. Today, instead of her trademark hoop earrings and colorfully patterned headscarf, Rhoda would probably wear a “Pushy, pushy, pushy” T-shirt, proudly.