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1970s Feminist Sitcoms: The Mary Tyler Moore Show

How Does a "Girl" Make It On Her Own?

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Sitcom Title: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, aka Mary Tyler Moore
Years Aired: 1970-1977
Stars: Mary Tyler Moore, Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Betty White, Georgia Engel
Feminist Focus: A single woman in her 30s has a successful career and a fulfilling life.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show depicted a single career woman in Minneapolis who famously “made it on her own,” as described in the show’s opening theme song. The feminism of Mary Tyler Moore is seen both in specific moments as well as the overall premise and theme of an independent woman’s success.

Starring Mary as … a Single Woman?

One aspect of the feminism of Mary Tyler Moore is the central character. Mary Tyler Moore is Mary Richards, a single woman in her early 30s who moves to the big city and launches a television news career. It was a bold move for a sitcom’s main character to be a single woman, not just because of the many family oriented shows of the 1950s and 1960s, but because of the statement it made about a significant question of the Women’s Liberation Movement: why couldn’t a woman define her happiness and success by things other than husband and children?

Single Woman Fictions

The original premise of The Mary Tyler Moore Show called for Mary Richards to move to Minneapolis after a divorce. CBS executives resisted this idea. Mary Tyler Moore had starred in the well-regarded Dick Van Dyke Show during the 1960s as the wife of Dick Van Dyke’s character. There was concern that viewers would perceive Mary as having divorced Dick Van Dyke, because they were so popularly associated in the public’s mind, even though this was a new show with a new character in a new setting.

This legendary story of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s beginnings shows just how linked an actress could be to her male co-stars. However, the fact that Mary Richards was single and had never married worked out better for the show and may have made an even stronger feminist statement than if she were divorced.

Taking Care of Herself

The Mary Tyler Moore Show deals with Mary’s marriage or lack thereof in the first episode. In that debut, Mary Richards moves into her new apartment and begins her new job. She has recently ended a relationship with a man she helped financially support through medical school, only to then find him still not ready to get married. The ex visits her in Minneapolis, expecting her to fall happily back into his arms, even though he is revealed to be less than thoughtful by bringing her flowers swiped from a hospital patient. As he leaves her apartment after she tells him goodbye, he tells her to take care of herself. She answers, “I think I just did.”  

Friends, Co-Workers, and Assorted Guests

From day one in her new home, Mary interacts with neighbors Rhoda and Phyllis. Rhoda, played by Valerie Harper, is another unmarried thirty-something who contributes sarcastic wit and an ongoing search for good dates and a husband. Phyllis, played by Cloris Leachman, is a quirky, self-righteous type, married and raising a strong-willed pre-teen daughter, with unconventional behaviors that touch on many 1960s social issues and political themes, including support of Women’s Liberation.

One of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s writers, Treva Silverman, pointed out that Rhoda’s character arc over the years mirrors the feminism of the Women’s Liberation Movement. She goes from being self-deprecating and insecure to more confident and successful. (Quoted in Women Who Run the Show by Mollie Gregory, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.) Both Rhoda and Phyllis became spinoffs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  

Other Glimpses of Feminism

Over the years, the feminism of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was seen in episodes dealing with equal pay, divorce, “career vs. family,” sexuality and a woman’s reputation. The real strength of the show was that it realistically portrayed a variety of characters, including women, who were fully defined individuals apart from their encounters with topical issues of the 1970s. Part of what made Mary special was that she was normal: interacting with co-workers and friends, dating, encountering troubles in life, being likable and easygoing.

In addition to the successful feminism of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the program won a then-record number of Emmys and a Peabody Award. The Peabody summary said it “established the benchmark by which all situation comedies must be judged.” The Mary Tyler Moore Show contributed multiple iconic moments to television history, including Mary’s joyfully free hat toss in the opening credits, and it is remembered as one of the best sitcoms in television history. 

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