From Laura Petrie to Mary Richards

From 1961 to 1966, there was Laura Petrie, loving wife of Rob and mother to Ritchie. The Petries lived in New Rochelle, New York and Rob commuted to Manhattan and worked as the head writer at the Alan Brady Show. Laura met Rob when she was a 17-year-old dancer with the USO, and she happily gave up her career to settle in to be a homemaker and mother. Her suburban abode was impeccable, she was best friends with next-door neighbor, Millie, and she hosted elegant dinner parties where drinks flowed, smoke filled the air, and the talented Alan Brady writing staff entertained the other guests. Oh, and she and Rob slept in twin beds.

From 1970 to 1977, there was Mary Richards. Coping with a broken engagement, she made her way to Minneapolis. She moved into a cute apartment in a Victorian home – old friend Phyllis lived below with husband and daughter, new friend Rhoda lived above in an attic hideaway. Mary found work as an associate producer at WJM-TV doing lots of filing, phone answering, and occasional reporting. In 1970, her theme song expressed some doubts:

How will you make it on your own?

This world is awfully big, and girl this time you’re all alone.

But it’s time you started living, time you let someone else do some giving.

Love is all around, don’t need to waste it; you can have the town, why don’t you take it?

You might just make it after all!

Mary’s life in Minneapolis was a rewarding one. Though she dated, she didn’t find love. Instead, she learned that she could be fulfilled through her career, coworkers, and friends. As she told her boss, Lou Grant, “sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking that my job is too important to me. And I tell myself that the people I work with are just the people I work with. But last night I thought, what is family anyway? It’s the people who make you feel less alone and really loved. And that’s what you’ve done for me. Thank you for being MY family.” It’s no wonder Mary’s theme song changed. Because once she could “turn the world on with her smile” and “take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile,” there was no longer a doubt: She’s “gonna make it after all.”

Laura Petrie and Mary Richards – both played by the iconic Mary Tyler Moore – were women of their times. Laura – the beautiful wife, doting and concerned mother, gourmet cook, keeper of the immaculate home. Other men might admire her lithe form in Capri pants, but all was content in her marriage to Rob. She was successful and exhilarated when she spent a week as a television dancer, but realized that she was much more content in New Rochelle. One wonders what might have happened if we snuck her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique when it was released in 1963. Would she recognize “the problem that has no name” in her life?

And then, there was Mary – embracing the challenges of work, enjoying life with friends, but still hoping for love and marriage. Her experiences were shaped by rapidly changing social norms about women and work and family. But was she a women’s libber? Did she and Rhoda ever attend a consciousness-raising group? And had she felt the well-known “click” that recognized patriarchy as she thumbed through early issues of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine?

These 16 years from 1961 until 1977 are my growing up years – from toddler to high school graduation. There was never a question that I would go to college, that I would have a career. This bedrock belief sprung from both the social changes reflected in these television shows and from the family I grew up in – I saw my mother going to work every day, saw her picture and byline in the paper, so knew it was more than “possible” – it was the way the world was.

But for women a decade or two older than me, it wasn’t such a done deal. It wasn’t so obvious. The shift from Laura Petrie to Mary Richards was, for some, a battle to be won. It was, for others, a struggle to be endured. For others, a question to be asked … or perhaps even a change to be contested. The women’s pages of the times reflected the complexity of these changes, as women embraced the opportunities offered by the vision of Mary Richards but didn’t always want to let go of the life embodied by Laura Petrie in New Rochelle.

Of course, those changes were just the beginning – years to come would bring us Murphy Brown, Carrie Bradshaw, and a host of other working women on television. And beyond the small screen, the complicated business of being a woman in the workplace and at home is to this day still fraught with both interpersonal and institutional challenges. In spite of widespread progress, we still struggle, question, and sometimes fight with each other about how we’re supposed to be navigating the terrain.

It took only one season for Mary Richards to realize that she was “gonna make it after all.” Unfortunately, though all of us feel her joy as she flings her beret into the cold Minnesota air, we know that it isn’t always that easy in real life – then or now.

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