Iconic comedian and actress Mary Tyler Moore has died at the age of 80 — but not without leaving behind a significant legacy, particularly when it comes to how women are portrayed on television.
When Moore’s eponymous show premiered in 1970, television was dominated by images of women as wives and mothers (with the odd witch or genie — though as housewife and captive, respectively — thrown in the mix). But the Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Mary Richards wasn’t married, nor was she a mother. She was single at 30 after the end of a long-term relationship; moved to Minneapolis on her own and established a career as an associate producer for the evening news. Richards lived alone — Entertainment Weekly called her apartment “TV’s ultimate bachelorette pad” — and throughout the series’ duration, she remained single and undefined by her relationships with men.
It’s important to remember where women’s rights were in the early ’70s. It wasn’t until two years into the show’s run, in 1972, that the birth control pill became available to all women, no matter her marital status. Though women were getting college degrees (34.6 percent of American women were enrolled in college in 1970) and filling workplaces in greater numbers, they were still dwarfed by men in these areas, in pay and stature. Simply having a single, working woman (one who left her fiancé, to boot!) as the center of a network television show was revolutionary at the time.
Throughout the show’s run, which coincided with the rise of second-wave feminism, it tackled social issues in a way the bulk of pop culture hadn’t. Storylines about equal pay for women, homosexuality, divorce, prostitution and premarital sex popped up throughout the later seasons. The show celebrated female friendship over romantic relationships, and saw Richards promoted in her job at the station, rising to become the producer of the evening news. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, called it “TV’s first truly female-dominated sitcom.”
It was forward-thinking behind the camera, too. One of the show’s writers, Treva Silverman, went on to become the first female executive on a network sitcom. By 1973, a third of Mary Tyler Moore‘s 75 writers were women.
The show’s progressive look at the life of a modern woman in the 1970s made Moore a feminist icon, especially for aspiring female comedians. At a time when feminists were often vilified by society (think “bra burners”), Mary Richards showed a more relatable side to the movement — a feminist (though not outright) that reminded the average American of someone they knew in their day-to-day life. Many mourning her death couldn’t help but acknowledge the tremendous impact she had on feminism and women’s rights.
Today, Mary Tyler Moore‘s legacy lingers on screens across the world. You could argue that without Mary Tyler Moore, there would have been no Sex and the City or Girls: Shows that focused on smart, funny, single women, and yes, their relationships with men — but while placing a premium on them as individuals, too.
“We’ve had this incredible spate of shows about single girls, lots of them very good, but yeah, you know, I think that a lot of the young women who are creating shows are affected by this show,” Armstrong told NPR in 2013. “Combining the pathos and the funny is really a hallmark of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, so I think it is all over the place.”
During a telling moment of what was to come during its seven-season run, in one of the show’s first episodes, Mary’s ex-fiancé comes to Minneapolis to try to win her back. He expects it to be an easy effort, but she rebukes his advances, and asks him to leave. When he does, he tells Mary to take care of herself.
“I think I just did.”