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With Mary Richards in my heart, I refuse to go back then

The recent reversal of Roe v. Wade takes us back to the early '70s when 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' showed a generation of us how to fight back.

Tracy Briggs at Mary Tyler Moore statue
Tracy Briggs (right) and a friend throwing imaginary hats in the air in front of the Mary Tyler Moore statue in downtown Minneapolis.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum
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MOORHEAD — I owe everything to Mary Tyler Moore. OK, not really, but kind of.

I was barely in elementary school when Mary triumphantly threw her beret into the air in front of Dayton’s in Minneapolis, and I was hooked. She had a cute little apartment, a sardonic best friend and a super cool career as a producer in the WJM newsroom.

As she was turning the world on with her smile, she was showing me what it was like to be a single, working woman and a journalist. She also just happened to inspire a generation of us girls to stand up for ourselves.

I remember Mary fighting back when her boss, Lou Grant, told her he wasn’t going to pay her what a man in the same position got paid.

"Mr. Grant, there is no good reason why two people doing the same job at the same place shouldn't be making the same."

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That stuck with me. I was only 7 or 8, but Mary showed us women should demand equal treatment under the law.

Unfortunately, many of us are having to channel our inner Mary to get through battles we thought she and her contemporaries had settled 50 years ago.

mary and lou.jpg
Ed Asner (Lou Grant) and Mary Tyler Moore (Mary Richards) in a scene from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Whether audiences knew it or not, they were watching feminism take place nearly every week in Lou's office as Mary fought for her place in the newsroom.
Contributed / CBS Television / Public Domain

Back when Mary came on the air

When "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" came on the air in 1970, America was marking the 50th anniversary of (white) women’s suffrage, yet we were still two years away from the passage of Title IX promoting equal participation by sex in all educational programs and activities receiving federal financial aid. By the way, Mary fought for equality in sports, too, when she decided to hire a female sportscaster.

"The idea of hiring Barbara Jean Smathers to do sports is not dumb. What's dumb is rejecting the idea because of some stupid prejudice. That is dumb," Mary tells Lou.

It wasn’t until 1974, well into the show’s run, that married women were allowed to have a credit card in their own name. Single women like Mary might have had to have her father cosign for any credit card or loan she took out. Crazy, right?

Open up any newspaper in Mary Richards' day and you’d see women referred to not as Jane Smith, but Mrs. John Smith. Women apparently had no identity independent of their husband.

Scrolling through the want ads, you’d see two segregated columns: “Help Wanted Man” and “Help Wanted Woman.” You can guess which column had higher-paying jobs and more leadership and managerial positions and which column offered more service jobs, paid less and often mentioned “attractive” as an important job qualification.

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It still makes my blood boil, maybe because I didn’t experience this inequality personally. I was able to apply for the same jobs men did, I’ve always had a credit card in my own name and I’ve never felt like anything was unreachable to me because of my gender.

I felt my blood boil to the same degree last week after the Supreme Court made a decision that, I believe, takes us right back to where we were in Mary Richards’ day.

mtm1970.jpg
Mary Richards as played by Mary Tyler Moore was a groundbreaking character in 1970. She was an unattached single woman fighting for equality in the workplace.
Contributed / CBS Television Publicity Photo / Public Domain

Back to square one

In 1973, Mary Richards was hitting her stride. Her career trajectory at WJM would soon have her promoted from associate producer to producer and have her moving into a fancy high-rise apartment. Many women in America were also heartened when on Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued a 7–2 decision holding that the U.S. Constitution provides a fundamental "right to privacy," which protects a pregnant woman's right to an abortion.

Women who had fought tooth and nail to be seen as equal and autonomous under the law celebrated.

In her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing, future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said, “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

She was confirmed by a margin of 96-3.

As former President Barack Obama said, the reversal “relegated the most intensely personal decision someone can make to the whims of politicians and ideologues.”

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Equally troubling to me is that the court is hinting that this could be the beginning of stripping individual freedoms from many others.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that with the Roe reversal now decided, the court must revisit and potentially overrule past landmark decisions that legalized the right to obtain contraception, the right to same-sex intimacy and the right to same-sex marriage.

Back in time

I suspect some of you might be disappointed that I’ve wandered away from my normal happy “walk down memory lane" and "do you remember” stories. I know for me writing this column is a nice break from the more serious news of the day. But I just couldn’t, in good conscience, act like nothing has changed this past week. I feel like my daughters have just lost rights that I took for granted the last half-century. I'm livid.

Related coverage:
Attorney General Drew Wrigley on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, certified that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed North Dakota to prohibit abortion in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision issued last week.
While 33 states reported a rise in abortion numbers, 17 states reported declines. And the swings up or down are striking.
In the fall of the 1971, when the abortion case was heard for the first time, the justices were focused on an equally momentous clash over the fate of the death penalty.
Amid wide national variability, abortion rates have remained relatively stable in Minnesota and North Dakota since 2017, while falling sharply in South Dakota. Abortion travel is likely behind the variations.
If we could set aside our feelings about abortion for a moment — a tall ask, I know, given how passionate we all are on this issue — perhaps we could recognize that the Court is doing something extraordinary.
Clinic Director Tammi Kromenaker said while she knew the ruling was coming because of the draft opinion leaked in May, it's still "devastating."

Some of you will wholeheartedly disagree with me on everything I’ve said here. Heck, you might even hate "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." I choose to respectfully disagree with you. (But maybe not on the hating of Mary Tyler Moore part. That is non-negotiable).

I would hope that there can be some way we can find resolution and common ground – shades of gray – within the very black and white abortion debate. But how do we move forward, when millions of us feel like we’ve gone back? We can march, we can vote and we must get involved. All of us. Men and women.

Next week, I will return to our light look back in time. Because nostalgia is a blast and memories can feel great. Back Then is awesome, but it doesn’t mean I want to live there.

Tracy Briggs Back Then with Tracy Briggs online column sig.jpg
Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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