Fab, Fearless, Females: First Sitcom About Empowered Women

By: Susan Berman Hammer

The Mary Tyler Moore (MTM) Show, now viewed as a trailblazing sitcom for its time, first aired 45 years ago this month on September 19. Those of us who curled up on our comfy sofas to watch the first episode had no idea how influential the Emmy-Award winning show -- with its strong female characters and its behind-the-scenes female writers -- would become. They shined a harsh light on the workplace, then dominated by men, and helped to communicate the messages of the women's movement and the struggles for equal rights in the workplace. 

In 1970, even before the availability of the pill for all women regardless of marital status, female stars in The MTM show represented empowered, independent types who could thrive in professional work settings and on their own. While the sitcom won Emmys in three consecutive years for Outstanding Comedy Series and in 2013 was ranked 6th by the Writers Guild of America on its list of the 101 Best TV Series of All Time, The MTM Show did have its critics. Gloria Steinem and other women's right advocates complained that The MTM females weren’t assertive enough.

Profile of Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore played TV news producer Mary Richards, far different from her previous role as Laura Petrie, the devoted wife and mom on The Dick Van Dyke show which aired from 1961-1966. In contrast to Petrie, Richards was an independent, 30-year old who ditched her long-time boyfriend, a medical student, and moved to Minneapolis to embark on an exciting new life and career. And in so doing, she became a role model for millions of impressionable, young women. Enjoy the first and subsequent episodes of the classic sitcom here: (and listen to that endearing theme song, Love is All Around). 

Decades later, Oprah Winfrey paid homage to The MTM show when she interviewed Mary Tyler Moore on The Oprah Winfrey Show and discussed how Mary Richards influenced her own career path.*

Other independent women characters in The MTM show included Valerie Harper who played Rhoda Morgenstern, the hard-boiled New Yorker who became Mary's close friend. And we all probably remember the other strong women – Cloris Leachman as Phyllis Lindstrom, the landlady, and Betty White as “happy homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens.

But equally important to the show's success were the women writers behind the scenes, according to Hope Reese in The Atlantic and Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in her bookMary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. 

Armstrong said: “It (The MTM Show) was the first time in television history when a woman's perspective was not only highly regarded, but also crucial to the success of the show.” By 1973 – for the first time ever in sitcom history - 25 of the 75 MTM writers were women. One of the most influential was Teva Silverman who earned an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series and Writer of the Year in 1974.

In her book, Armstrong also describes the typical, less-than-welcoming, real-life workplace of the TV business at the time. Ethel Winant, vice president of talent and casting at CBS, was the first female executive in network television in the early 1970s. “Winant had to place her high heels outside the restroom at her office at CBS to alert men that the room was occupied. But there was no ladies' room at work, let alone a lock on the door!”

Sidebar from The Atlantic 

The creators of The MTM Show -- James L. Brooks and Allan Burns – originally pitched Mary Richards as a recent divorcée, but CBS didn't accept the premise. "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." The Atlantic writer concluded: "While Mary's character showed her vulnerability, the show's other characters broke all the rules: Rhoda Morgenstern is Jewish, from New York; News Room Director Lou Grant divorces his wife; and Anchorman Ted Knight grows a mustache.”

Network execs also doubted the show would succeed, according to the article in The Atlantic. “The first taping of the pilot was a disaster, critics slammed it, and it was originally slotted at the worst possible time.” Time magazine called the show a "disaster," and the St. Petersburg Times pronounced Mary a "spinster."

Well...as we all know, by the time the last episode of The MTM show aired on March 19, 1977, the naysayers were certainly proved wrong!

*Note: This author was also influenced by Richards' exciting TV news career. After graduating from college, I, too, dreamed of a job in TV news. Though I couldn't find one, I accepted a position in the TV Promotions Department of the local CBS station in Chicago.

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Susan Berman Hammer brings more than 35 years of professional communications, management and parenting experience as well as journalism training to The Honey Good team of writers. Susan is also PR counsel and a business strategist to HoneyGood.com. Susan previously served as the Senior VP-Account Supervisor of a Chicago PR agency and later headed her own agency. She earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from Northwestern University. Follow Susan on Twitter: @SueBermanHammer