Mary Tyler Moore gave me something to dream about. There she was right in my living room, the perfect role model for my aspirations. I loved everything about her but was especially fond of how she swung around and threw caution to the wind, in the form of a striped tam. She was experiencing life her way and on her terms but simultaneously plagued with issues legions of other women were already dealing with – how to hold on to your dreams in spite of society’s expectations.
As a young girl, my life was devoid of young ambitious women who could serve as role models. I had a mother who was before her time in many ways but her life was cut short by breast cancer when I was 11. I had aunts who were spectacularly talented artists and seamstresses who were held back by financial circumstances and their father a domineering Italian immigrant. In her short time with me my mother would whisper: “Make sure you go to college and work before you get married.” She was a young widow when she met my father and remarried in her early 30s. She carried the injustice and reality of not having the opportunity to attend college and pursue her dreams. Mary Tyler Moore took that dream further for me. I can close my eyes and visualize her entire apartment – the table for two by the window, the sofa Rhoda collapsed on while seeking Mary’s sage advice and the cozy kitchen where she made coffee or tea. The large “M” on the wall crowned the apartment as hers and she was doing it her way. As a 12 year old who watched her every week I thought she was perfect. She was tall, beautiful and wore clothes my fashionista mother and aunts would approve of and she was articulate and smart. Smart was important in my family and that would be the way out for the next generation who would go on to college and graduate school and work in professions such as teacher, psychologist, veterinarian, writer, business executives and more. Yes, many of my cousins would go on to be moms but the steps had been taken for something more with the message that “we would make it after all” firmly planted in our heads by the brave generation that preceded us.
To the 12 year old girl that watched her every week, Mary was perfect. Yet, perfect in an imperfect way and that was the magic of Mary. The wonderful writers, who I know now, consisted of pioneering women, pushed the envelope with many societal issues such as sex, birth control, equal pay and homosexuality but they never crowned her a woman of perfection. Mary was never an ideal. Mary was authentic and when she grappled with issues you could feel her pain. She wanted to be a good friend, a respected journalist and a desired woman. Yet, she struggled to juggle all those aspirations and that was the genius of it all proving how exceptionally talented the show’s writers were. Mary taught me to laugh at myself. My twelve year old self spent countless hours thinking, likely the same amount 12 year olds spend on their phones today, about life, about who I was, who I would ultimately be and how I would get there. I never thought about being perfect or beautiful though my mother and aunts were formidable beauties. I did, however, have a desire to be liked. Mary cared about people but didn’t want to be anyone’s doormat. She wanted to do the right thing for the right reasons and grappled with her “good girl” persona. For some reason we seemed to have moved in a different direction today where women are celebrated for their outward perfection and though we know it’s a sham society adores those who look great after having a baby, who don’t sport wrinkles after 40 and appear to have it all. As far as we’ve come, many of the issues Mary grappled with are still issues today. At one of my first jobs I was told about the company’s unfair pay practices toward women. As a young executive, I had sexist remarks made toward me. What did I learn from Mary? I watched as she gracefully picked herself up and held her head up high all with a wonderful sense of humor. She didn’t depend on a man or her looks for approval. When she pounds on Mr. Grant’s door and queries why the former associate producer earned $50 a week more than her she still speaks for women today. Hers, as we can see today, was a timeless message. As long as there are streams of women willing to march in streets, young girls across the globe risking their lives to study in their rooms and Moms who have big dreams for their daughters Mary’s light will shine.