Looking back I realize we watched a lot of television when I was growing up, because I remember characters on TV as well as I remember the people I interacted with in real life. Maybe it was because television was still so new, still a novelty to my parents who were older when it first became accessible, and they seemed almost as fascinated by it as I was. My generation was the first to grow up always having television in our homes, and eventually in every room of our houses. Our first television was a 19 inch black and white set, on a chrome stand with wheels that rolled around easily on the braided rug that covered the cream colored linoleum floor in our den. Some of my earliest memories involve Olive Oyl screeching, “Ohhhh, Popeye!!” from that television.
But by the time “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” came around in 1970, we had a television in a wooden console in our living room. In Technicolor.
The show debuted on my ninth birthday. From then on Saturday night television meant Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett.
I usually took my bath during Bob Newhart.
Mary Tyler Moore played Mary Richards, the first female character who was single and had a successful career as a television producer. Unlike earlier shows with single women, like “That Girl” with Marlo Thomas, where each episode focused on her relationship with her boyfriend, most of the storylines on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” were driven by Mary’s work and the relationships she formed on the job.
That was new.
And I was paying attention in ways I didn’t realize.
When I was nine years old and watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on Saturday nights, I had no idea how much I was being shaped by a character on a television show. Lots of characters influenced what I thought about myself and the world around me – fictional characters I read about in books, like a spider named Charlotte and girls named Pippi and Jean Louise. Mary Richards was only part of an intricately woven and complex mix of influences on my life, but she was undoubtedly a part.
And a powerful part because she was brought to life on television.
At the age of nine I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. In 1970 expectations of women and the roles we could fulfill were limited, and depending on where you grew up, you may or may not have been exposed to thinking beyond those limitations. I felt those limitations, certainly, growing up in a mid-sized town in Texas, in a religiously conservative household, but I also had examples that defied the norm. My mother had been widowed at the age of 29 and lived nearly ten years of her life as a single woman before remarrying. During those ten years, she owned her own home, making a living and a full life for herself, during the1950s when that was most uncommon. She talked to me a lot about those years, and in doing so, taught me how to be single.
Then there was my mom’s closest friend. She and my mom had taught elementary school together in the ‘50s, and she married later in life. When I was little, she became the first female principal where we lived, a rarity in the 1960s, but I didn’t know that because I saw someone do it.
Another close family friend, a friend whom I adored growing up, focused on a career in teaching, “moved to the big city,” and waited until later in her life to marry.
My favorite teacher in elementary school and junior high was single and a devout believer.
I grew up knowing some extraordinary women.
And then came Mary Richards.
This female character in a television show we watched every week from the time I was in the fourth grade through my sophomore year of high school, blazing a new trail.
She wasn’t what women who are assertive have been called down through the years. She maintained softness and gentility, humanity in episodes where she stood up to her boss, Mr. Grant, but often not without trembling and hesitation in her voice. Yet we watched her keep going, asking the hard questions, like the episode where she confronted Mr. Grant about why she earned less than the man who held the same position before her. She still got coffee for Mr. Grant. She rolled her eyes at the absurdity of such expectations, but she still served the coffee with grace and dignity.
When I watch those old reruns now, I realize how effective that was in sending a powerful message – through humor and kindness. The only way to change thinking so deeply engrained.
As a little girl, though, I simply thought, wow, I could be like her someday. This woman who was smart and energetic, competent at her work, gracious and thoughtful.
Not aiming to be single –
Just knowing it would be okay if I was.
So thank you, Mary Richards, for painting a picture of a life of great worth for a lot of little girls.
For helping us know we could make it, after all.