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Alan Alda, Feminist: M*A*S*H Star Was The Sensitive '70s Man

Culture | October 8, 2019

Alan Alda at press conference for their television series MASH. Photo by Ann Clifford/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

In the '70s, there was one male celebrity whose name always came up in discussions of feminism: Alan Alda, M*A*S*H's Hawkeye Pierce. Feminism, at the time, was eyed with skepticism by many, perhaps most, American males. It was often dismissed as a movement of man-haters and bra-burners; those who marched and advocated for the concept of "Women's Liberation" were derided as "Women's Libbers." A man who declared himself a feminist was viewed sort of like a martian -- if not some kind of traitor.

Yet there was Alan Alda, an out and proud feminist, proving it day after day. He advocated for women's equality, he spoke out against the dark side of masculinity, and he even tried to make his character on M*A*S*H less of a chauvinist. And a lot of people snickered at him.

Alan Alda, 'Quiche Eater'

Alan Alda on 'M*A*S*H.' Source: IMDB

How was Alan Alda snickered at? Well, perhaps in a good-natured way, but also with a little bite. For all his progressive views -- a vision of maleness that is to some extent par for the course today -- he was often cited as the example of the new, soft man. Take this, from Bruce Feirstein's best-selling 1982 satirical book Real Men Don't Eat Quiche:

We’ve become a nation of wimps. Pansies. Quiche eaters. Alan Alda types—who cook and clean and relate to their wives.

That was Alan Alda, the punchline. But Alda took the cheap shots in stride, and pressed on advocating for women. He once said, "I am a feminist insofar that I believe that women are people."

Alan Alda Tried To Use His Celebrity To Help Women

Alan Alda on 'M*A*S*H.' Source: IMDB

Alan Alda had been a fairly successful actor in the '60s, but not a star by any means. That all changed when he was cast as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV adaptation of the Robert Altman film M*A*S*H. From 1972, the year M*A*S*H began its 11-season run, Alda became one of the most beloved sitcom characters on TV, and a celebrity whose voice would be listened to.

Alda made headlines by fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment. He also co-chaired the Equal Rights Amendment Countdown with First Lady Betty Ford, and served on the National Commission for the Observance of International Women’s Year in 1976.

Alda Felt Compelled To Stand Up For Women

Alan Alda on 'M*A*S*H.' Source: IMDB

Alda's embrace of feminist and women's causes confused some people -- and for awhile, he admits in his memoir Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I've Learned, he didn't have a great explanation:

'Why are you working so hard for equality for women?' I was asked a little suspiciously sometimes. In fact, I was asked this so many times, I began to realize I didn't know myself what the answer was. At first, I tried flip answers. 'I come from a long line of women,' I said. Or, 'Well, I'm from a mixed marriage. My father was a man, and my mother was a woman.' But these jokes didn't explain it. Why was I spending so much energy on it, even willing to get some people mad at me?

Alda Was Crushed When The Equal Rights Amendment Didn't Pass

Alan Alda and Loretta Swit on 'M*A*S*H.' Source: IMDB

Again from his memoir, Alda did eventually zero in on why he was a feminist:

Partly, it was that I knew it could be helpful if a man spoke out in public about these things, and I kept going out, trying to help. ... But mostly, I think, it made me angry that we were refusing to guarantee half our citizens equality under the law.

He's talking there about the Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution proposed in 1923. It had passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971 and the U.S. Senate in 1972. To become an amendment, the ERA needed to be ratified by 38 states by 1979, which was thought to be completely achievable. But it didn't happen. The failure to get the ERA ratified was a major disappointment for feminists in the 1970s and early '80s. The text of the ERA (minus some generic Constitution-y stuff) reads as follows:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Alan Alda Was An Early Critic Of Masculinity

Alan Alda and Meryl Streep in 'The Seduction of Joe Tynan' (1979). Source: IMDB

Alda promoted the rights of women so much the Boston Globe called him, “The quintessential Honorary Woman: a feminist icon.” In 1975, he criticized toxic male masculinity to a degree no other man of his stature would:

“Everyone knows that testosterone, the so-called male hormone, is found in both men and women. What is not so well known, is that men have an overdose… Until recently it has been thought that the level of testosterone in men is normal simply because they have it. But if you consider how abnormal their behavior is, then you are led to the hypothesis that almost all men are suffering from testosterone poisoning.”

Alan Alda Sought To 'Cure' Misogyny

Here's a Toast to one of the Most Famous Male Feminist (pinterest.com)

He never bemoaned the problem as if it couldn’t be solved. In fact, he did exactly the opposite, “I think [misogyny is] like a disease that needs to be cured. And we could eradicate Polio, I don’t see why we can’t eradicate misogyny. There’s a very basic male problem that is genetic and it needs to be addressed, but just because it has genetic roots it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it.”

Alda Made Hawkeye A More Sensitive Character

Alan Alda and Kieu Chinh on 'M*A*S*H.' Source: IMDB

Ironically, M*A*S*H has been criticized in recent years for its misogyny. The series was adapted from a Robert Altman film of the same name, which was about irreverent Army surgeons engaging in frat-boy antics while serving in Korea. The TV series picked up where the movie left off. In the first couple of seasons, Alda's character was a Groucho Marx-inspired womanizer. As a group, the surgeons act in a sexist and suggestive manner toward the nurses -- what we now call sexual harrassment -- during those early seasons. As time went by, Alda took more creative control; he would end up writing 18 episodes of M*A*S*H and directing 32. With Alda's guidance, Hawkeye Pierce and the other male characters mellowed over time, becoming more sensitive and less chauvinistic. 

Alan Alda Has Been Married To Arlene Since 1957

Alan and Arlene Alda. Source: heavy.com

Alda was in his mid-40s when he became a major star on M*A*S*H, and became a feminist spokesman. He'd also been married, at that point, for a decade and a half. Alan Alda is still with Arlene, whom he married in 1957, and gives her the credit for his forward-thinking beliefs. “Most of the good intentions I have come from my wife who helped me become a person better than any other person I can think of. So, I’m indebted to her. Not for what I have and what I do, but for who I am to a great extent,” said Alda. 

Tags: Alan Alda | Feminism | Equal Rights Amendment

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!