‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Didn’t Liberate Female TV Writers

Mary & Ted In A Still From 'Mary Tyler Moore'
Photograph by CBS Photo Archive—Getty Images

The Mary Tyler Moore Show was as revolutionary for what went on behind the scenes as for what happened on screen.

The show’s lead actress and producer, Mary Tyler Moore, passed away on Wednesday, prompting a flurry of think-pieces about what the 1970s series meant for television—and for feminism. It has been called “TV’s first truly female-dominated sitcom.”

Yet the show’s subject matter—it was one of the first programs to acknowledge the gender pay gap, sex before marriage, and birth control—isn’t the only thing that was way ahead of its time. In 1973, 25% of the writers on the show were women, according to The Atlantic. That number is extraordinary for a time when the vast majority of screenwriters were men.

The show’s lead writer, Treva Silverman, was the first solo female writer to win an Emmy for comedy writing in 1974.

“In the morning, I would get dressed, eat breakfast, get sick to my stomach and go to the office,” Silverman says of her early days as the only female writer on The Entertainers in an interview with the Television Academy. “I was terrified.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to gender in the writers’ room, not all that much has changed since the 70s. According to a 2016 study by the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg at University of Southern California, women accounted for about 28.9% of writers across all mediums in 2014. The research found that women were most likely to write for broadcast television, but even in that medium the gender breakdown was far from equal: 31.6% of broadcast TV writers were female.

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In the 1970s, one of the biggest issues facing female screenwriters was the idea that the presence of women would inhibit men’s creativity. “I had heard about how they didn’t want women on TV shows because the guys were macho, cursing and stuff—they didn’t want to feel restricted,” Silverman says.

Susan Silverman (no relation), another writer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show echoed this sentiment in an editorial for Refinery29. “I was told I could never be a writer. And the reason was: Men writers worked in an apartment and wanted to wear their underwear and fart, and it wouldn’t be comfortable for them to have me around. Yeah, farting almost derailed my comedy-writing career,” she writes.

Fortunately, profanity and flatulence no longer seem to be the major deterrent for hiring female screenwriters. Instead, the gender gap may be to be due to something much more quotidian: Women are disproportionately saddled with caretaking responsibilities. In the U.S., women spend about four hours a day on unpaid work, while men spend about two hours and a half.

In an interview with The Telegraph, television scriptwriter Ming Ho, who recently returned to her career after a decade-long hiatus taking care of her sick mother, says that the responsibilities of being a caretaker “effectively wiped 10 years” from “what should have been [her] most productive and lucrative time.”

“This is something I believe affects a huge number of women in competitive professions and is a major reason for the imbalance in male/female screenwriting ratios at the upper end of the business,” she says.

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