TV Women's Water-Cooler Moments

It started in the '70s, when ERA still had a chance in hell.

Not to undercut the accomplishments of real-life feminists such as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug or Gloria Steinem, but Mary Tyler Moore, that reluctant TV icon of female independence, along with other important characters stirred conversation about progress (or the lack thereof) and helped usher in a post-June Cleaver world.

Bea Arthur
Maude, 1972 (CBS)

In 1972, after New York legalized abortion, Maude, a married 47-year-old with grown children, becomes pregnant and chooses not to have the baby. 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!"

Candice Bergen
Murphy Brown, 1991 (CBS)

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-lashes 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.

Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen, 1997 (ABC)

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 The New Normal for the upcoming fall TV season had Ellen not shattered the old one.

Jean Stapleton
All in the Family, 1978 (CBS)

In an unforgettable episode, Stapleton's Edith Bunker survives an attempted rape. The encounter with Edith in her frowsy 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 miniskirted coeds who "ask for it."

Mary Tyler Moore
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970 (CBS)

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 beau 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."

Roseanne Barr
Roseanne, 1994 (ABC)

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."

Susan Lucci
All My Children 1973, (ABC)

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.

MG Lord is the author of The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor raised our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice