1970: Mary Tyler Moore Brings Empowered Women To Prime Time

Culture | September 18, 2017

Cloris Leachman (left), Mary Tyler Moore (centre), Valerie Harper pose, sitting on stools, wearing Seveties fashions, in a publicity portrait issued for the US television series, 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show', USA, circa 1974. (Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Ge

What sitcom did the most for women in the turbulent '60s and '70s? The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a feminist showcase that never announced itself as such. For TV's first two decades, women had largely been wives or girlfriends -- often subordinate to male leads, or simply part of the scenery. And for all Lucille Ball's comedic brilliance, her character on I Love Lucy wasn't empowering -- she was often creating messes that her husband had to clean up. The Mary Tyler Moore Show featured a single woman forging ahead in the workplace, whose friends were a working divorcee and a feminist wife with an invisible husband.

Premiering in 1970 and running for seven seasons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also, importantly, a show about grownups. It happened in grownup and professional spaces, particularly a single woman's apartment and the offices of a TV station. Mary Richards wasn't wearing an apron or putting a pie on the windowsill, nor was she gossiping all day with bored, mischievous housewives. 

An Evolving Role For Women On TV

Valerie Harper (Rhoda Morgenstern) and Mary Tyler Moore (Mary Richards) in a publicity shot from 1971. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

The Mary Tyler Moore Show picked up, thematically, where another successful show had left off. The main character of That Girl, Ann Marie (played by Marlo Thomas), was also a career-minded young woman who wasn't married and enjoying herself, although she had a boyfriend for the entire run of the show who later became her fiance. Mary Richards actually broke up with her fiancé in the show's antecedent action -- then drove to Minneapolis in her Ford Mustang -- and wasn't actively husband-hunting.

Mary, Rhoda, And Phyllis Had Their Own Scene(s)

Upon arrival in the big city, Mary Richards was starting to realize the gravity of her situation. She was in unfamiliar territory and was about to find out what she was really made of. Mary found herself living in a modest, 3rd floor apartment of a beautiful Victorian house. She made fast friends with her housemates Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper) and Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman). The three women could not have been more mismatched in terms of their personalities. Rhoda, the sarcastic, divorcée and more adventurous of the trio, was always trying to draw Mary out of her shell. She was very blunt and often said what Mary was thinking but would never dare say. Phyllis, the snobbish, married, mother of one daughter, Bess, was, in her own mind, always jockeying for position in Mary’s life, with Rhoda. Phyllis seemed to have the carefree life of the “kept” wife of Dermatologist Lars who, by the way, was never actually seen on the show. It was ironic, however, that although Phyllis liked to be taken care of, she was always pushing what was then known as "women’s lib."  Rhoda and Phyllis were constantly trading insults, leaving Mary as the unofficial referee.

Mary, Rhoda and Phyllis were notable female characters in that attachment to a male wasn't really a defining element of their characters. Rhoda was in fact detached from a man, and Phyllis' husband was somewhat fictional. 

Unlike Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Bunch, this wasn't a show about a family -- but it was a show that depicted young and middle-aged adults who shared family-like relationships. It's a genuine reflection of how single and professional people often function in cities.

Mary Richards Relished Her Independence

Let’s not forget what brought Mary to Minneapolis in the first place. She was a young career woman in search of a job that would allow her to be independent of a man and stand on her own two feet. She never gave up on men altogether, but was determined to make it on her own. After landing her big break at WJM Television Station as the Associate Producer of the 6 O’clock News, she settled in and quickly won the hearts of her co-workers. Much like her friends, Mary’s work family was equally mismatched and lovingly dysfunctional.

She Was The Glue In A Dysfunctional Workplace

Lou Grant (Ed Asner), Producer of the news program at WJM, had a gruff and abrasive exterior with a no-nonsense personality. The one and only exception to this rule was Mary Richards. Although Lou was Mary’s boss, for some reason, she always had his ear. Lou had a fondness for Mary and looked out for her much like a big brother or uncle would. In turn, Mary looked out for him as well, often counseling him on matters in his personal life.

The Man Who Thought He Was All That -- Wasn't

Ted Baxter (Ted Knight), portrayed the dim-witted, self-absorbed, stingy anchorman of the Six O’clock News. He often, unknowingly made mistakes in reporting the news and was oblivious to the actual nature of the topics he was reporting on. Despite that fact, Ted regarded himself among the country's best anchormen. He was often criticized and was the butt of many jokes but never doubted his own greatness! Later in the series, he found true love and married Georgette (Georgette Engel) who was as ditzy as Ted was obnoxious.

Mary And Murray Are Close, Platonic Friends

Murray Slaughter (Gavin MacLeod), who sat directly next to Mary in the newsroom, was the head writer of the News. Murray, who was married and had several children, was Mary's closest co-worker as well as her close friend. Murray may have been Ted’s toughest critic and made no bones about the fact that he found Ted to be somewhat of a glorified idiot.  

Sue Ann Had The Hots For Lou

Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White) was another television personality and hostess of WJM's The Happy Homemaker show. Sue Ann seemed to flit in and out of the newsroom with her superficially, cheerful demeanor, all the while making judgmental comments which were usually directed at Mary and Murray. Sue Ann was not shy about being strongly attracted to Lou and often made sexually suggestive overtures directed mainly at him. For all of her efforts, she was never able to get his attention.

The Show Remains Influential And Respected Today

The Mary Tyler Moore Show boasted a stellar cast, earning Emmy Awards three years in a row (1975-1977); not to mention the American Writers Guild ranking it No. 6 in its 2013 list of the 101 Best Written TV Series of All Time. The show continued to live on long after its final episode in 1977. Mary was truly a pioneer in the portrayal of women being something other than a housewife and mother. Many women began to see the many possibilities that were to follow.

Tags: Famous Quotes From The 1970s | Mary Tyler Moore | The 1970s | TV In The 1970s | Youre Gonna Make It After All

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.