Before Liz Lemon, before Ally McBeal, before Rachel Green, there was Mary Richards, a 1970s sitcom television creation whose spunk and smile inspired a generation of female characters.
When the first episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” aired in 1970, Richards was introduced as a 30-something, single career woman moving on from a broken engagement. She lands a job at a local Minneapolis TV station, where her boss says he hates spunk.
From there, she has to navigate an all-male workplace, sometimes sparring with difficult coworkers. She’s seen on a series of dates that don’t go anywhere. When the last episode of the show aired in 1977, Richards was still single.
Played by the late TV icon Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at age 80, Richards changed how a woman was portrayed, seen and heard on television. When the PBS NewsHour did a callout on Twitter for Moore tributes, we heard how the television character — and the actress who played her — was revolutionary to people, big and small.
Here’s what they said.
Mary throws her hat at the end of the opening credits. Why do you think that’s become such an enduring image for the character?
“It’s a victory toss. A physical ‘YES!!’ A chest-bump to the world.” — Teresa Lynn Johnson, 56, a science writer in Woodbridge, Virginia
“I think it expresses the pure joy that a young woman can feel – not because of a relationship with a man – but because she feels comfortable and complete, alone, in the big, wide world. This was a new idea then, and something we all wanted to believe in.” — Rose Mary Reiz, 60, retired newspaper journalist in Lapeer, Michigan
“To me, it was the first sign of empowerment, being joyful and showing it. I don’t know if you remember the disapproving look from a bystander in the background, but that always resonated with me. She threw her hat regardless of the disapproving looks or attitudes from older women.” — Mary Harriet Talbut, 57, an instructional designer in Jackson, Missouri
“She looks so happy and confident, and the swirl of people around her are mostly oblivious to it — except that one woman who glares, which always made me laugh. Makes it like a private moment publicly lived. There was something about [Moore’s] smile and not looking at the camera that reinforced that.” — Jackie Syrop, 58, a writer and editor in Lawrenceville, New Jersey
“The moment is significant in the same way as when graduates throw their hats up in the air on graduation day; the fulfillment (and revolving and ever-changing) of goals and looking to the future. As the theme song reminds us, ‘You’re gonna make it after all!'”– Anna Kasper, 52, a self-employed social media administrator in Saint David, Illinois
“It means that anything is possible. The world is big, but there are so many opportunities out there. You have to grab the ones that mean something to you, and hold on tightly. If Mary can do it, any of us can do it.” — Tom Hardej, 30, an editorial director in Brookline, Massachusetts
“That hat throw captures so vividly that moment we all seek, when we realize that despite the challenges and doubts along the way, we’ve in fact arrived in a good place in our lives.” — Glenn Rosenkrantz, 50, a non-profit communications officer in New York
“Several years ago, I was walking with a boyfriend in Brooklyn. It was a bittersweet visit, as he had just moved to New York, and it was clear that I would go back to California and our romantic relationship would end. It was cold and snowy and I wore a wool hat. He pointed out that I looked like Mary. And I tossed my hat in the air. I can still remember that feeling, the empowering recognition, not that I was now alone in a big city, but that I would be okay.” — Nada Djordjevich, 47, a writer and executive director in Oakland, California
“Mary Richards has a real mix of independence and vulnerability that resonates with men as well as women. That’s remarkable when you consider how daring it was to base a show on the everyday life of a professional single woman, and have that show attract viewers from all walks of life.” — Evelyn Walsh, 51, a writer in Atlanta
Did the Mary Tyler Moore character reflect your own life experiences? If so, how?
“She blazed the trail that so many young women growing up in the 1970s followed. I was quite young when I started watching ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ with my grandmother each Saturday night, and I set my sights then on becoming a writer and journalist. (I now work as a communications director in Democratic politics.) I turned 50 last year, and eventually did have a family, but on my own terms and not until my 30s. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to make my own way, in the way that I did, if it were not for Mary Tyler Moore giving me the idea that I ‘could make it after all.’ I’ll be throwing my own beret in the air tonight in honor of her!” — Amy Carman, 50, a communications director in Frankfort, Kentucky
“I was 30 years old when I began the process of divorcing my husband … and had to learn not only how to be single again, but to realize it was okay to focus on my career and find happiness on my own, all while living in the frozen tundra of Minnesota. Mary provided a sort of roadmap for me, and became an important role model. I spent my 35th birthday visiting every ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ site in Minneapolis in a black trench coat just like hers. Her character grew by leaps and bounds in terms of independence and self-confidence over the seven years of the show, and I feel like she has helped me to grow into the woman I am today.” — Amanda Wirig, 37, an artist and musician in Mankato, Minnesota
“I was raised by a divorced, working mom. Mary reminded me of her: beautiful, smart and independent. And that was always a show my mom and I watched together, so there was a big connection there. But the biggest effect or reflection on my life is that I think having Moore as a childhood role model gave me an independent streak. I liked that she was like me in being emotional, feminine and not always as confident as she could’ve been; but ultimately was in charge and had a very full life. And, in the words of Lou Grant, she did it all with spunk.” — Page Goodman, 51, a sales representative in Tampa, Florida
“Even though I know I was fortunate (as a Black girl growing up in a lower-income neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut in the 70s and 80s) to have many supportive folks in my life that encouraged me to have a career and dream big dreams, I really believe that the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (and shows like it) was part of what made that possible for me. It’s one thing to be encouraged to do something, but it’s different to see it, right in front of you, even if it’s on TV. Mary was different that the rest. And it was okay.” — Gail Drakes, 44, a university director of social justice in New York
She had an iconic smile and laugh, but actress and comedian Mary Tyler Moore was also a revolutionary. The Oscar-nominated actress famously played a single career woman next door and a quirky housewife, changing how women were portrayed. Jeffrey Brown reflects on her life with Cynthia Littleton of Variety and Dick Cavett, a former friend of the late television icon, who died at the age of 80.
“I was young when ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ was on TV, but watching it late at night on TV Land while nursing my young daughter, it would bring tears to my eyes as I had the hope that the next generation of women would not have to fight so hard, and the would ‘make it after all.’My generation of women had the Mary Richard’s generation to thank for smoothing our way in the workplace. I had it easier than Mary, but still struggled to establish my own competence despite being a woman. We were not considered as competent as men, and we faced resentment for taking good jobs that men could have to support their families.” — Wendy Anderson-Brachfeld, 51, a teacher in Fairfield, Connecticut
“I wanted to be Mary Richards when I grew up. Ironically, I grew up to be Laura Petrie [of ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’] — a housewife living in the suburbs, a stay-at-home mom. But Mary’s independent, career-woman character was never far from my thoughts. Eventually, well into my 40’s, I went back to college and became a writer. A journalist, just like Mary. By the way, my daughter Megan has a big giant ‘M’ (a gift from me) hanging in her living room, just like the one Mary had!” Johnson wrote.
“There were times in my 20s that I felt like I was failing as a woman since I was single and not a mother. These were expectations I was placing on myself. Watching ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ gave me encouragement and a sense of freedom. She encouraged me to not be bitter, but rather to love life and others and not take life too seriously.” — Jennifer Walde, 35, a career coach in Indianapolis
“I have spent long stretches of my life as a single woman, and the Mary character showed me that such a life has value and fulfillment. Mary was never depicted as less of a person because she didn’t have a husband — she had relationships, her work, her friends, and family, and therefore, a life well lived. What a wonderful message.” — Christine Kent, 52, a content strategist in Oakland, California
“I was about 11 at the time when I used to watch [‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’] on Nick at Nite. But it was what I wanted it to be when I was her age. I remember thinking how awesome it was she was so independent. Being in a job where she was someone people looked up to. I wanted to be her. — Krysten Jorgensen, 30, an actress in Los Angeles
“The character was able to help form the man I became. She showed that it was okay to be your own person. It was okay to struggle to be accepted. It was okay to be driven. It was okay to be slightly insecure while you were figuring it all out. In the end, everything would work out.” — Martin Scott, 54, a project manager in Phoenix
“Mary’s character was one of the first single (by choice) women without children I can remember seeing anywhere in my life. She had love all around her, but focused on her career and close support networks. My life journey mirrored hers whether intentional or not. I focused on my career and “proving myself” professionally. While I had wonderful romances along the way, I did not choose to get married until I was in my late 40s. Maybe Mary would have done the same.” — Karen Long, 53, a chief executive in San Jose, California
“Mary’s friendship with Rhoda is a pretty accurate reflection of adult female-friendships. We share jokes, affection, annoyances, and are sometimes jealous over our successes in careers and romance, but ultimately, friendship is stronger than petty grievances,” Djordjevich wrote.
“I was four when the series started, but ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ helped set my world view. The concept of chosen family, seeing the silver lining, while being aware of the tarnish, and using humor as a coping mechanism were partially introduced to me by Ms. Moore. And I can still recite scenes that made me laugh, made me think, and helped shape me.” — Michael Jepson, 50, a LGBT rights activist in Spokane, Washington
“Almost 20 years after the show had ended, I saw myself as a modern-day Mary. I was in my early thirties, single, living in the Midwest, a writer with a journalism degree — and I was always the “normal” person at the office and in my group of friends. I felt like I was in control of my life, that my career was important, and that my focus wasn’t a man. Mary helped me feel empowered.” — Judy Milanovits, 52, a creative strategist in St. Louis
“I made a big change in my early 30s, too, when I landed a job in a newsroom for the first time … My difficult moments, like Mary’s, were tempered by the fact that I was doing something exciting and rewarding, and moving forward — not staying in a place where that wasn’t possible. And you know what I splurged on to celebrate that new era of my life? The first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show on DVD.” — Jonathan Padget, 46, a freelance writer and editor in Washington, D.C.
“In the last season, Mary suffers through yet another awful date, this time with her suitor proclaiming she hasn’t dated much. Mary quipped that ‘I’ve been dating since I was 17, I’m 37. That’s two decades of dating.’ I turn 37 today, and I can’t help but reflect on that hilarious scene and the unintended similarities to my own life. Like Mary, I’ve spent my entire 30s independent, single (with a series of lousy dates), career-minded (in a male-dominated field), and surrounded by a supporting cast of characters that enrich my life daily … Most importantly, I am content and satisfied with my life choices and self-being. I know I’m going to make it after all, and I feel that love is all around.
“<< cue hat toss >>” — Nicolette Jaworski, 37, a communications director in Cleveland
And, finally, one reader’s response to how the real Mary Tyler Moore — and not the TV character — made an impact.
Moore was “a person I greatly admired because I discovered years after the TV show ran that she had Type 1 diabetes since her 20s and yet maintained that demanding life. One of my children developed Type 1 diabetes as a very young child, and just knowing that [Moore] was living the life she did gave me so much hope and inspiration. Mostly what I heard was a lot of doom and gloom in the early 90s about the disease and, yet, there she was,” Syrop wrote.