I’m not sure how old I was when I started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Although the last episode aired more than 12 years before I was born, I regularly tuned in for reruns on Nick at Nite. From an early age, I was transfixed by Moore’s portrayal of Mary Richards—a single, strong, and decidedly hilarious 30-something who moves to the big, bustling metropolis of Minneapolis for a fresh start after calling off her engagement.
Until Mary came along, single working women had rarely been portrayed on network television. They were either seen as hapless spinsters or too miserable for TV—stereotypes that professionally successful but unmarried women are still trying to overcome. By not being tied to a husband or children, Mary outrightly rejected the societal assumptions and expectations of her day. Her eponymous show was a watershed moment in American pop culture history.
And on that show, nothing was off limits.
She pushed back against the notion that childless, unmarried women didn’t have anything to contribute to society.
The pill, which had won federal approval in 1960, wasn’t made available to unmarried women until 1972. In one episode, it is revealed that Mary—who is unmarried for all seven seasons—is, in fact, on the pill. In another episode, Mary asks her grumpy, but generally endearing boss, Lou, why she’s getting paid less than her male predecessor. His reason? “Because he’s a man.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted two and a half years before the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose. Yet now, more than four decades later, many of these battles are still being hard-fought. The recent Women’s March on Washington—along with its hundreds of sister marches across the world—underscored just how little progress we’ve made in the fight for gender equity. Women are still paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to men, and a room full of male politicians can dictate what a woman can and can’t do with her body.
Are we as far removed from Mary’s universe as we thought?
When it comes to work-life balance, things don’t look very different. Mary was one of the first TV characters to accurately depict the contemporary American woman’s struggle to “have it all.” While Mary didn’t have children of her own, other female characters helped to shed light on the tough choices mothers face, such as deciding that they don’t want any more children. It was a critical representation, but, unfortunately, not much has changed or improved in the decades since. Without equal pay and paid family leave policies, many women are forced to choose between having a family or having a career.
Whether it was fighting rumors that she was having an affair with a colleague (she wasn’t), asking for more responsibility in the workplace, or confronting a guy who just wouldn’t take no for an answer, Mary brought to life the many instances of everyday sexism and misogyny that women are subjected to. Yet remarkably, she never allowed herself to become a victim of her circumstances. She proudly pushed back against the prevailing notion that childless, unmarried women didn’t have anything to contribute to society. Mary owned her status as a bachelorette—and while that may seem passé now, 40 years ago, it was downright revolutionary.
As women everywhere contemplate their next moves after the Women’s March, Mary’s example is one that can provide some direction. She refused to be muzzled or silenced just because birth control, premarital sex, and gender discrimination in the workplace had never been addressed on primetime. In fact, that was all the more reason to speak up.
Moore understood that a character like Mary would have a lasting effect on American TV history. But that was also the point. The objective was to permanently illuminate an entirely new world for a large percentage of the population. By simply portraying an unmarried woman working full time on TV, Moore did just that. She burst open the door for generations of women to be unapologetic about putting their careers first. She helped normalize the supposedly radical notion that not all women want to get married and have children. Now it’s our turn to take the torch and to keep fighting for autonomy over our lives.