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Mary Tyler Moore, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (CBS) in 1970
At first, it was planned she'd be a divorcee — but instead of being jilted, Mary, brought up to view "doctor's wife" as an enviable profession, dumps her callous physician bean and stumbles into a career. "Take care of yourself," he says as he walks indifferently out of her life. And Mary, to her own amazement, replies, "I think I just did."
Bea Arthur, “Maude” (CBS) in 1972
In 1972, after New York legalized abortion, Maude, a married 47-year-old with grown children, becomes pregnant and chooses not to have it. The episode remains poignant except for one false note — an expectation of social progress that has far from come to pass. "When you were young, abortion was a dirty word." Maude's daughter says, "It's not anymore!"
Jean Stapleton, “All in the Family” (CBS) in 1978
In an unforgettable episode, Stapleton's Edith Bunker survives an attempted rape. The encounter with Edith in her frowzy housedress illustrates the thesis of Susan Brownmiller's controversial 1975 best-seller Against Our Will. Rape, she contends, is not a crime inspired by arousal and not the destiny of mini-skirted coeds who "ask for it."
Susan Lucci, “All My Children” (ABC) in 1978
On the heels of Roe v. Wade, Erica Kane, played by Lucci, undergoes the first legal abortion on daytime TV. Positioned as a bad girl who ended her pregnancy for selfish reasons, Erica gets her comeuppance in 2005, when she discovers the doctor actually implanted her fetus into his own wife, and a new character is introduced.
Candice Bergen, “Murphy Brown” (CBS) in 1991
During the 1991-92 season, Murphy, a Washington, D.C.-based TV journalist, bears a child outside of marriage. This so outrages Vice President Dan Quayle that he tongue-bashes Brown by name in an infamous 1992 speech, blaming the Los Angeles riots on a decay in moral values — and linking that decay to pop-culture figures like Bergen.
Roseanne Barr, “Roseanne” (ABC) in 1994
Barr also worked to enrage the family-values crowd. Her show featured frequent gay story lines, including one where she kissed actress Mariel Hemingway. More significantly, Roseanne exposed economic injustice, championing what Barbara Ehrenreich has termed "the hopeless underclass of the female sex: polyester-clad overweight occupants of the slow track."
Ellen DeGeneres, “Ellen” (ABC) in 1997
By 1997, lesbian characters were not exceptional on TV. But DeGeneres made history that year when her TV character — as well as herself — came out. There most likely would not be a New Normal for the upcoming fall TV season had Ellen not shattered the old one.