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In honor of Women’s History Month, I decided to take a look at the most groundbreaking female characters in television history. Many of these characters have inspired and even changed society’s view of women, proving that television can have a huge impact on its viewers. Here are some of the female characters in television history who have helped pave the way for the shows and characters we know and love today.
Lucille Ball’s iconic role as Lucy Ricardo has definitely left its mark on television history in more ways than one. Lucille Ball was the first pregnant woman to ever star on a TV series. Ball discovered she was pregnant during the second season and the network decided to write it into the show. CBS still thought the word “pregnant” was too obscene, so they had to say “expecting” instead. Lucy is a hilarious independent character that is not only fun to watch, but also relatable to audience members.
Julia Baker played by Diahann Carroll was the first African American woman character on a major series in a professional, non-stereotypical role. Julia was a widow working as a nurse and raising her young son. During its initial run, the show received a good deal of criticism, but it was also speculated that the show was just ahead of its time. Even though Julia wasn’t that successful when it first aired, it’s hard to ignore that it helped pave the way for other shows, like The Cosby Show.
Mary Richards, played by Mary Tyler Moore, was another iconic female television character. She helped show that women can be independent and successful in the working world. The Mary Tyler Moore Show offered a fairly accurate portrayal of what it was like for a single woman at the workplace and in society during the 1970s. She helped pave the way for future characters like Liz Lemon and Elaine Benes.
Bea Arthur as Maude really shook things up in the television world. Maude was a liberal, independent woman who has been married multiple times, owned her own business, and dealt with situations that at the time were very controversial. Maude was also the first character on television to get an abortion. At age 47, Maude found herself pregnant, and after searching for solutions, and she ultimately decided to have an abortion. The episode even aired two months before Roe v. Wade, which made the episode even more controversial. CBS received a number of letters in protest, but it was a hit in ratings.
Clair Huxtable, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, was a groundbreaking character in more ways than one. For starters, she is a successful African American woman who took care of her family and had a high profile job. She was also outspoken, particularly when it came to feminist issues. One notable scene was her rant to Denise’s new boyfriend, who thought she should be staying home with the kids instead of having a career. She also wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with her husband, Cliff, often coming out on top of those arguments as well.
Ellen DeGeneres’ turn as Ellen Morgan was a role many people will never forget, as her coming out episode ensnared record ratings. It was the first time something like that had happened to television history, and the episode is still considered one of the most controversial TV episodes ever. Many even believe this event is what led to the shows eventual cancellation, but while the episode may have led to the demise of Ellen’s sitcom (and blacklisting in Hollywood for a number of years), it also paved the way for additional gay and lesbian characters to emerge in the show’s wake. Joss Whedon even mentioned that Ellen inspired the scene where Willow came out as a lesbian on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Gillian Anderson’s work as Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files was, and still is, inspirational to many women. She was the scientist and logical thinker in her partnership Fox Mulder, who in turn was the more emotional of the duo. She constantly tested gender biases and openly questioned her male co-workers. She was smart, passionate and strong in her convictions. She continues to inspire young women with her never-ending search for the truth.
Buffy Summers was one of those characters that has stayed with teens from the 90s and 00s. She kicked ass, while still having flaws and struggling with everyday issues of growing up. She showed that being strong and independent doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. Even though her romantic relationships weren’t perfect, each one she had was more of a partnership. The show tackled tough topics and made it known that women could be just as powerful and damaged as men.