How 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' made a difference

CNN
January 26, 2017
By Stephanie Coontz

I first discovered "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" when I was 25, and I immediately fell in love with it. But a few years ago, when I showed some episodes to a family studies class I was teaching, my students were far less impressed than I had expected them to be.

I explained what a revelation it had been in 1970 to see a show about an unmarried working woman in her early 30s who was devoted to her job, was attractive to men and well-liked by her fellow workers, and who turned out to be the most well-adjusted character in the whole cast.

Still, there were gripes. "Her voice is too high and her nervous laugh too cutesy," one complained. "She's so timid it's embarrassing," said another. They grumbled that Mary usually got her way with her gruff but soft-hearted boss by being indirect rather than confronting his bullying. "And why is she just an associate producer when the on-air anchor is such an ignorant blow-hard?"

One of my male students pointed out that all the other women on the show were either desperate to land a man or self-effacing wives who pretended their husbands weren't dumber than posts. "Why in the world did you like this show when you were in your mid-20s and starting out on your own career?" he asked incredulously.

To answer their questions, I showed them some episodes of the TV shows that were popular when I was in my teens and early 20s. My students guffawed at images of Donna Reed happily vacuuming her living room in pearls and high heels. But it was an episode of "Father Knows Best" called "Betty, Girl Engineer" that did the trick.

Betty, the teenage daughter, defies her parents and teachers by going out to shadow a survey crew on her high school's career day. Once there, she is treated with such hostility by the young engineer in charge that she flees home in humiliation.

Her father reacts with amused satisfaction that she has, as he'd predicted, so quickly abandoned her ridiculous notion of becoming an engineer. Her mother encourages her to put on a new dress. And sure enough, the young crew boss who had been so mean to her when she wanted to work beside him shows up with a box of chocolates, looks approvingly at her demure appearance, and takes her out on a date.

Seeing what my alternative models of womanhood had been gave my students a better understanding of why many women in the early 1970s loved that show. Mary Tyler Moore may not have been a Jedi knight, but she gave us the message that we could make our way through a system of sexism that at the time seemed every bit as all-powerful as The Empire of Star Wars.

It wasn't just television sitcoms that made women worry that maybe we should be husband-hunting instead of job-hunting. Among women aged 25-31 in 1971, fewer than 10 percent were single. If such a woman wanted to get a job and live on her own, as Mary did in the show, most well-paying jobs were closed to her. Not until 1973, in Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, did the US Supreme Court rule that listing separate jobs for men and women was illegal. And women were unable to qualify for credit on the same terms as men until passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974.

In 1970, a newswoman like Mary took home just 64 percent of what her male colleagues made, according to the Pew Research Center. And that was actually higher than the gender pay ratio in most jobs.

The average working woman made only 60 percent as much as the average working man. Indeed, until 1980, the average female college graduate, working full-time, earned less than the average male high school graduate.

So in the episode where Mary asked to be paid as much as her male fellow writer and producer, it was not surprising to hear her boss marshal all the usual arguments against it, including that men, but not women, had families to support. What was surprising was that when she reluctantly but firmly stood up to him, he told her ,"You've got spunk" instead of calling her a "pushy broad" or "nasty woman."

It was also eye-opening that no one sexually harassed Mary on the show, a practice that was all too common in the real workplace and played for laughs in the more risque TV shows of the era. It was not until 1977 that a court ruled an employer had no right to fire a woman for refusing his sexual advances. And only in 1980 did the EEOC declare that unwelcome sexual advances and lewd comments created an unacceptably hostile workplace environment.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" certainly did not create today's opportunities for women. Its presence on the screen was more the product of an emerging -- though still minority -- outlook that reflected the influence of a growing movement for women's equality. 1970 was also the year of the Woman's Strike for Equality, which drew 50,000 people to a demonstration in New York, and sparked sister demonstrations or parades all around the country. That same year female writers at Newsweek filed an equal pay lawsuit, while feminist activists staged a sit-in at the Ladies' Home Journal to protest its stereotyping of women. The country's first women's studies center opened at San Diego State University that year as well.

But old ideas remained strong in mainstream culture. As late as 1977, two-thirds of all Americans believed that it was a woman's job to take care of the home.

Tens of thousands of young women were inspired by their emerging new opportunities but also intimidated by the hostility they faced and by the dire warnings that they would end up the lonely, shriveled-up old maids portrayed in so much of popular culture. Mary Tyler Moore offered us a different message. It might be scary, but "you're gonna make it after all."

 

Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

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