Mary Tyler Moore, a television titan, died on Wednesday, January 25 at the age of 80. She contracted pneumonia, which led to cardiopulmonary arrest, according to a statement released by her agent.
The iconic actress will be remembered for many things, including her ability to reduce Oprah Winfrey to a puddle of tears, but it is the enduring feminist legacy of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" that is most resonant.
When Moore's agent announced her death, many social media users shared the iconic photo of her throwing her hat during the opening credits for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."
In honor of a life well-lived, here are six ways that "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which aired from 1970 to 1977, revolutionized television for women.
Mary Richards prioritized her career.
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" premiered in 1970, a mere two years before the founding of "Ms. Magazine" and other feminist cultural markers. Politics were embedded in the fabric of the show, most specifically when it came to making the title character, Mary Richards, a single working woman.
The show followed Richards' move to Minneapolis, Minnesota to work as an associate producer at WJM, a fictional television station. Richards initially applies for a secretarial job, but her boss, Lou Grant (Ed Asner), offers her for the associate producer role. The job is usually reserved for men, but Grant is inspired by Richards' grit.
From that point onward, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" focused on Richards ascending the career ladder by showing her interacting with her colleagues and navigating office politics.
"The [Mary Tyler Moore Show] was a perfect convergence of the right people, at the right time," Dr. Elana Levine, director of graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies, told Revelist. "The TV industry was realizing that American women and the expectations we had of their place in society were changing. TV networks, TV producers, and TV advertisers wanted to find ways to reach the 'New Woman,' who was thinking differently about her role as a result of the Women's Liberation Movement."
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is the first sitcom that showed a woman making strides in a male-dominated field. In that way, it paved the way for subsequent shows like "Alice" and "One Day At A Time."
"These and other characters were possible in the first place because of 'The [Mary Tyler Moore] Show,'" Levine said.
The show tackled feminist issues, including the wage gap.
The wage gap is real. Currently, white women earn 79 cents for every $1 a white man earns while Black and Latina women earn far less. It's an issue that's now being addressed through policy, but in 1972, "The Mary Tyler Moore" legislated it publicly in primetime.
In the first episode of the third season, Richards discovers that the previous associate producer made more than her because he's a man. She confronts Mr. Grant about the pay discrepancy — and negotiates for what she knows she's worth.
Mr. Grant makes several excuses for paying the male associate producer more: He has children to support, he's a man with financial responsibilities, women should automatically earn less, etc. By the end of the episode, she's convinced Mr. Grant to give her a $50 raise.
Moore perfectly championed this progressive character. Plus, audiences already adored her because of her stint on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
"Because [Moore's] own public persona was so adored, and because the character was so non-threatening and sweet, the feminist stances she took, or the times she hinted that she was sexually active, were all the more powerful," Levine said. "No one associated this type of woman with these potentially revolutionary feminist ideas and that made it more possible for all women to openly hold these ideas."
The gendered wage gap is still an issue more than 30 years after "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" went off-air, but the sitcom is legendary for willingly addressing the issue.
Richards remained unmarried throughout the show.
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" premiered two years after Hollywood abandoned The Hays Code, which previously forced TV couples to sleep in separate beds on screen. However, the moral policing of TV shows and movies lingered.
Initially, the creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" pitched the show to CBS as a sitcom about a recently divorced woman relocating to Minneapolis for a fresh start. In her book, "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All The Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic," Jennifer Kishin Armstrong detailed why CBS shifted the show's focus.
CBS allegedly told the show's creators that "American audiences won't tolerate divorce in a series' lead any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York."
She still had sex though.
Richards never focused on finding a partner. However, that didn't preclude her from having casual sex throughout the series. In the third season, Richards asks her best friend, Rhoda Morgenstern, if she's "undersexed." Nothing could be further than the truth.
In a subsequent episode, Richards goes on a date. The next day, she's shown wearing the exact same dress. While she doesn't address her sexual endeavor, it's implied that she spent the night with her date.
Many men were angered by this depiction female sexual autonomy, according to Armstrong. "Men across the country wrote to the show in despair over the betrayal of their trust and admiration," she wrote. However, many women, including former first lady Michelle Obama, were inspired by Richards' independence.
In a 2016 interview with Variety, Obama explained why:
[Mary Richards] was one of the few single working women depicted on television at the time. She wasn't married. She wasn't looking to get married. At no point did the series end in a happy ending with her finding a husband — which seemed to be the course you had to take as a woman. But she sort of bucked that. She worked in a newsroom, she had a tough boss, and she stood up to him. She had close friends, never bemoaning the fact that she was a single. She was very proud and comfortable in that role.
She even took birth control, even though unmarried women were still fighting for legal protections to do so.
The Food and Drug Administration approved birth control for commercial sale in 1960, the Supreme Court didn't grant unmarried women access to contraception until 1972. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" wasted no time including this ruling.
In season three, Richards quickly — and subtly — addresses her usage of the birth control pill. As her parents leave her apartment after dinner, Richards' mother tells her not to forget to take her pill. She quickly responds, "I won't," as the camera pans to her face.
This is still a revolutionary television moment.
"That the program so casually indicated that Mary was taking the pill was revolutionary, not because this was unusual for single women of the time, but because it was unusual for a broadcast network TV series to acknowledge that a morally upstanding, well-liked single woman was taking it, and was thereby likely having sex," Levine said.
Single women are now all over television, but "The Mary Tyler Moore" set the standard.
"Mary Tyler Moore was a working woman whose story lines were not always about dating and men," Tina Fey once told The Sunday Times. "They were about work friendships and relationships, which is what I feel my adult life has mostly been about."
The show had 25 female TV writers.
Women mattered on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." They were writers, directors, and producers. They contributed to the show's massive success.
For instance, Treva Silverman wrote for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." She began as a freelance writer and eventually became the first woman with an executive title on a network sitcom, according to Armstrong. She even earned an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series.
Twenty-five of the show's 75 writers were women, which is still revolutionary. It is still difficult for women to make strides behind-the-scenes: The Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film found that only 26% of TV's creators, directors, writers, and producers are women. However, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" assisted in breaking the barrier.
Moore never called herself or her show feminist. In fact, Gloria Steinem called her out for exactly that. However, what her show did for other women in TV can't be overstated. Armstrong is remembering the iconic show for that exact reason.
"The biggest stars today — Oprah, Tina Fey, and Julia Louis Dreyfus among them — cite her as their inspiration," she said in a statement sent to Revelist. "Millions of women emulated her spirit of independence. She also paved the way for future generations of women in Hollywood to become producers and writers and rise to other positions of power. Her spirit will live on through all of them."
This story has been updated with comment from Dr. Elana H. Levine.
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