Women's History Month: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" Proved Women Could Make It After All

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Women's History Month: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" Proved Women Could Make It After All

Some say I look for any reason to write about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They aren't wrong, but in my defense I'll point out that I don't have to look very hard. It may have ended its run 45 years ago this month, but it remains the gift that keeps on giving. (A note on that: It certainly helps that the increasingly invaluable Hulu includes TMTMS on its burgeoning roster of classic and current television series.)

There is no better time to reflect on this ground-breaking series then during Women's History Month. The Mary Tyler Moore Show holds a special place in television history for many reasons -- not least the way in which it helped to advanced women, not only in the television business but, through example, in the working world as a whole. It premiered in the fall of 1970 at a time when women were just beginning to enter the workforce in numbers not seen before. Mary Richards, the character played by Ms. Moore, was not simply a hard-working newsroom staffer (first as an associate producer of WJM-TV's nightly newscast, and eventually as a full-fledged producer), but also a woman who had broken up with her long-time boyfriend at age 29 and learned in her 30s how to be independent and self-sufficient.

It's worth noting here that The Mary Tyler Moore Show throughout its run employed more female writers than had any other sitcom in television history -- among them Susan Silver, who is now entertaining us via Instagram (@susansilver88). Maybe that's why it is so damn good.

Women like Mary have been ubiquitous on television since then, but prior to Mary Richards meeting the challenge of making it on her own? Not so much. Put simply, Ms. Moore and her alter-ego Ms. Richards were both trailblazers.

Consider the third season premiere of TMTMS, titled The Good-Time News, which debuted on September 16, 1972, which tackled the subject of gender equality head on. It's as engaging today as it was back then, and certainly as relevant. (Just check out the many columns and recorded panels produced by the Female Quotient here on MediaVillage, as well as the insightful interviews by WomenAdvancing.Org editor Kate Byrne.) This outstanding episode was written by series creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, but it was their star who brought it home. Moore's performance is easily one of her best in the seven year stretch of the show's original run.

The episode opens in Mary's apartment, where she is busy preparing for the annual meeting with station manager Jack Stonem. Since she had been at WJM for a couple of years at that point, she was expected to contribute more than usual. "Why do I feel I'm representing women everywhere?" she laments to best friend Rhoda. When Rhoda says she doesn't understand why Mary feels that way, Mary replies, "What would you say if the station manager kept trotting in groups of people and saying, 'This is our woman executive.'" (Remember, this was during the early '70s, when female executives were not common and certainly not considered equal to their male counterparts.)

The way men regarded women in the workplace at that time was at the heart of the episode, and it's what makes The Good-Time News an essential classic. Shortly before the meeting with Stonem, Mary learns that the man who had her job before her was paid $50 more per week. She is, in a word, pissed, revealing a side to her character that we hadn't seen in the two previous seasons.

Mary charges into her boss Lou Grant's office and tremulously demands to be treated as an equal (something viewers had never seen a woman do in a workplace-based sitcom). Visibly shaken, she has trouble initiating a confrontation. At first, words fail her, so Lou ignores her obvious distress and blithely begins talking about other things.

This further infuriates her, and when she explains this, Lou simply states, "I figured it was one of those woman things."

Those words push Mary into action. "I would like to know why the last associate producer before me made $50 more a week than I do," she declares.

"Because he was a man," Lou matter-of-factly replies.

Mary is stunned, and instantly empowered in a way she had never been.  "Let me get this straight," she shoots back. "The only reason he was paid $50 more a week than I am is because he was a man?"

"Sure," Lou says with a smile. "It has nothing to do with your work."

"I want to get this straight," Mary continues. "I'm doing as good a job as he did …"

Lou interrupts. "Better," he says.

"Better!" Mary exclaims. "And I'm being paid less than he was because …"

"You're a woman," Lou explains.

Mary is, indeed, now "representing women everywhere," as she said earlier to Rhoda. "There is no good reason why two people doing the same job at the same place shouldn't be making …"

Lou interrupts again. "He had a family to support," he says. "You don't. Now, why don't you come back when you have an answer [to that]?"

Mary is speechless, but I am certain that the millions of women watching that night had a lot to say.

Later in the episode, during the first telecast of WJM's Six O'Clock News in its new "entertaining" format, Mary delivers the editorial commentary because, as she tells Rhoda, "The station manager is under pressure to use more women on the air."  (Again, consider the era.)

But when the focus turns from the witty banter between newly paired Ted Baxter, the unctuous anchorman, and Gordy Howard, the cool weatherman turned co-anchor for the new format, to Mary's serious presentation (on population control), Ted continually interrupts with stupid jokes. Mary grows increasingly irritated until she loses her cool and snaps, "Will you shut up, Ted?"

In one of the funniest final sequences of this or any other sitcom, Lou tells Mary that he has thought about her salary request and has decided to raise her $25 per week. Mary, to her credit, isn't having it.

"Mr. Grant," she says, "I'm not sure you understand the principle here."

Her point has been made. "The whole $50, huh?" Lou asks.

"Right," she says.

"Ok," Lou responds. "I'll try to get you $50 a week more."

Ted overhears this exchange and turns to Lou, seething with indignation.  "Why are you giving a $50-a-week raise to someone who told me to shut up on the air?" he growls.

Says Lou: "It's all I can afford, Ted."

The line is as priceless as the episode is timeless. Indeed, everything about this show remains relevant today or is, at the very least, worth thinking about. Also, it is as funny now as it was 50 years ago. These are hallmarks of a groundbreaking sitcom. The Mary Tyler Moore Show broke more ground than most.

A version of this column was first published on July 23, 2020.

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