Mary Tyler Moore Taught Me to Be a Feminist and I Didn’t Even Know It

Today, as I listened to another tribute to actress Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday, they played the iconic theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore Show. That auditory cue unleashed a flood of memories, and as I listened, I realized something. I realized that the fictional Mary Richards had made a lasting impression on me. You see, Mary Richards and her creator, Mary Tyler Moore, taught me to be a feminist.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show first aired when I was twelve and remained on the air through my teenage years. In the beginning, I watched the show faithfully every Saturday night; I watched less frequently as I grew older and had better things to do on Saturday nights. At the time, I thought it was just a funny show that I watched, an experience I shared with my mom. Every week we watched the comic adventures of Mary Richards in the fictional newsroom where she was employed as an associate producer. My mom laughed as hard as I did at the silly antics of Mary and the cast of lovable but quirky characters. The world of Mary Richards was a fairy tale, completely alien to the reality of my mother’s life.

When my mom was a teen, she’d dreamed of becoming a sports writer but there was no place for women in that field in post-World War II America, so she went to secretarial school. She worked as an executive secretary, one of those acceptable occupations for women. Then she married, had two kids, and stayed home to take care of us. By the late 1960’s, she was restless. She got involved in the PTA, she taught catechism, and she sold Avon. Finally, around 1969, she returned to work as a part-time secretary for a real estate office. She juggled her work around keeping house and taking care of a family. I saw my mother’s life and somehow I sensed that there had to be more. I knew I wanted more.

As a young teen, I watched the fictional Mary Richards navigate the workplace and the greater world with grace and humor. She was what they used to call “a career gal.” She was still single at thirty and devoted to her job, a job she was good at. She was open to romantic relationships if they presented themselves, but she wasn’t anxious to get married. She wore stylish clothes and lived in her own charming apartment. She faced important issues like birth control, equal pay, and opportunity for career advancement. This was a quiet subversion of traditional roles for women, echoing what was taking place in the real world. Mary didn’t burn her bra and she didn’t make speeches but she contributed to the dialogue about women’s place in the workplace and in society.

I wanted to be like her, to have a career and an apartment. I wanted to be independent. I entered high school the year that the third season of the show aired. By then, Mary was dealing with issues like asking her boss for a raise and whether to go after a promotion. It was around this time that I first thought about college and possible careers. That was when I decided that I wanted to become an attorney. My mom suggested nursing and teaching, careers she felt were within my reach even though I was a straight-A student. Girls don’t go to law school, she said. Don’t aim so high.

The 1970’s were a time of turmoil and change in America. Women were fighting for equal opportunities. I was too young to participate in those early battles but I watched Mary Richards and learned how life could be. I could aim high; I could have a career and independence. I was absorbing Mary Richard’s brand of feminism, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

By the time I graduated high school and entered college, things were changing rapidly. In my college political science classes, women students spoke up and showed they could compete with the male students. Girls were applying to the service academies for the first time; medical schools and law schools were accepting more women. When I entered law school four years later, one-quarter of my 1L class was female. When I first entered the courtroom to practice, there were only a handful of other women litigators in that suburban courthouse. We wore dark suits and silk bow ties to indicate our professional status. Despite that, I was often asked by older male attorneys if I was the court stenographer. But gradually, our numbers increased until we reached a point when women attorneys were no longer a novelty.

I achieved the goals I set for myself all those years ago as a young girl watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show with my mom. I had a career, financial independence, a cool apartment, and (after ditching the dark suits and silly silk ties) I had a stylish wardrobe. I’d proved to myself that I could make it in what was called “a man’s world.”

I was a feminist, although I’d never called myself that. I’d like to think that Mary Tyler Moore and her alter ego, Mary Richards, had something to do with it. So in her memory, today I will toss my pink pussy hat into the air and catch it, because I know we’re going to make it after all.

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