When Women Ruled Television
If, as they say, behind every great man there’s a woman, in ’60s TV, at least, behind every great woman was a guy doing his level best to squelch her power. Barely a year after The Feminine Mystique ignited a movement, a comely young witch had swept into town, parking her broom at ABC where she dominated the ratings—at least until the first Darrin Stephens mysteriously disappeared and was replaced by an impostor. Tens of millions of people watched Samantha each week as she agreed never to use her magical powers. In exchange she got to live with a mortal, which, as anyone who’s been married knows, is highly overrated.
Plot device or sinister backlash to the empowerment of women? The same thing was going on over at NBC. This time it was an astronaut and a blond with no last name who calls her boyfriend “master” and is permanently dressed for business in a harem. Both Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie were among the most popular shows in America. Both were produced by Screen Gems.
Not every show was about bottling up—literally—women’s capabilities. That Girl was one of the first sitcoms, starting in 1966, to present an unmarried female out on her own. Ann Marie was determined to live an independent life, a feminist message that was beginning to resonate. The title may have been a bit retrograde—today it would be “That Woman”—but Marlo Thomas knew what she was doing. Besides, there was already a Catwoman. No need to confuse people.
By the late ’60s television was hitting the theme of women’s lib head-on. One episode of Petticoat Junction finds Billie Jo (or Bobbie Jo, or Betty Jo) wearing a pants suit and a tie, spouting movement rhetoric and demanding to be treated just like the men in Sam Drucker’s barber chair. The men find it all very amusing and try to teach her a lesson by agreeing to cut her hair just like theirs. Billie Jo (or Bobbie or Betty) is horrified, heads back to the Shady Rest, and, as usual, sorts it all out with Bea Benaderet, who, when she wasn’t running the inn, was the voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones.
Never mind that Samantha Stephens could have ended the patriarchy with a twitch of her nose. The ethos of an era inevitably filters down to the shows we watch about ourselves. By the 1970s there was nothing subtle anymore about the message of strong, independent women. All in the Family, Maude and One Day at a Time were all confronting Neanderthal attitudes without the least bit of apology, as Mary Tyler Moore showed that a single career girl—woman—could indeed make it after all.
As Madison Avenue began congratulating women on how far they’d come—with Virginia Slims they even now had their own cigarette—it was only a matter of time before they were back to jiggling and looking pretty on shows like Baywatch. But at least now they were also doing the rescuing. Betty Rubble would be proud.