Mary Tyler Moore may not mean much, if anything, to millennials, all of whom were born after her TV show went off the air in 1977, but to dinosaur women, that show meant a lot and still does. Many, if not all of us, single women in the 1970s stayed in on Saturday nights to watch the thirty-minute show, which first aired in the fall of 1970. Her death is a reminder of how influential the show was during its time for women in the workplace.
That show made a difference to dinosaur women, many of us who were in college, graduating college, or out in the big wide world trying to find where we should go, what we should do, how we should be.
Imagine a time when help wanted ads were divided into “help wanted male” and “help wanted female.” Were available jobs for men mainly secretaries, teachers, nurses, and the like? Not hardly. Were available jobs for women those where women could climb the corporate ladder to better and better positions and more pay? Please, give me a break.
For those of you millennials who have seen The Mary Tyler Moore show in whatever delivery system, you have no idea how revolutionary that show was in its own quiet, but emphatic, way. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, you’d be amazed at how different times were then for dinosaur women, whether they were lawyers or anything else.
Mary Richards was a career woman, independent and unmarried in her 30s (almost unheard of in those times) who worked as an associate producer of a TV newscast in Minneapolis. Surrounded by an assortment of characters, both literally and figuratively, she was just about the first woman character on TV (not a model or an actress) whose life did not revolve around marriage and the inevitable kids and pets. She did not have a steady boyfriend, or really any serious boyfriend for that matter; she lived alone in an apartment; she was on her own before many women were.
Understand that in those days, women were often considered to be going to college to get their “Mrs.,” rather than striking out in a career on their own terms, let alone any terms. Parents would tell their daughters to get teaching credentials so that they would have “something to fall back on” if they didn’t get married and have families. Raise your hand if that was your scenario. Do you see my hand raised?
Couple this character with the time when the second wave of feminism was in full bloom. The dynamics of the show and the women’s movement intertwined and empowered women to think that, just possibly, they could make it on their own.
If you don’t know the reference to the song, it was the theme song of the show and possibly one of the anthems of the women’s movement in the 1970s, along with Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman.
It was the era that gave birth to Ms. Magazine, to women entering professional schools in increasing numbers, to doors opening just a crack for women to have opportunities they had never had before. It was a time when women started to speak out. I know it’s hard to believe that such was ever the case, but it was.
So, you ask, what really was so revolutionary about the show, given that some of the very same issues still exist today? I think you had to be alive them, a single woman searching for a career path, forging ahead despite disapproving clucks or outright opprobrium from family members, friends, and society at large, to understand just how important the show was to my generation of women. It was still hard for women to be taken seriously in the world of work, especially in the professions and the schools that turned them out.
You had to have “spunk.” When was the last time you heard that term, if ever? It means courage, determination, mettle, pluck. One of the most famous scenes in the show is in the first season when Mary Richards interviews for the associate producer position with the gruff old-fashioned editor Lou Grant, played memorably by Ed Asner.
It took spunk, courage, determination, pluck to forge a career back in dinosaur times, when women in the professional workplace were still not seen very often and not heard very often.
Mary Richards was a feminist icon. Many women attribute their career successes to her character and to Ms. Moore herself, who with then-husband Grant Tinker formed a very successful television production company, MTM Productions. By the way, the term “Ms.” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.,” which first became popular in the 1960s, was disliked by many men and women alike; it gradually became accepted over time, but not without a struggle.
Moore’s show implicitly or explicitly delved into such issues as being unattached to a man, being an independent single woman at the time when that profile was regarded as anomalous, rather than normal. Her character showed that it was possible to push back and push ahead at the same time, not an easy task then and still not an easy task for women in our profession and elsewhere. Sexism was present then and is present now. Equal pay issues existed then and still exist now.
The Mary Tyler Moore show personified that women could make it in the working world, a novel concept back then, that women could progress in the working world and that there were choices open to them that there hadn’t been before.
The focus on the show was on career and friends, not husband and kids. It was, as I have said, revolutionary for its time. It will always be relevant as a look back in a time in our not so distant past when women had to fight for opportunities. However, thinking about it, it may not be a look back, but only refreshing our recollections of battles fought and that women still fight, both in our profession and others.
By Jill Switzer