Single Women in 1960s and 1970s TV: What Should We Make of Their Relationships?

The 1960s single female TV star was not alone

Posted Nov 22, 2011

Mary Tyler Moore. What comes to mind when you think about that character and that show? I haven't watched an episode in ages, but my gut reaction is mostly positive. She's a single woman star of a long-running and wildly popular TV show, her work is front and central, and - unlike the fate of so many single women on contemporary dramas and comedies - she does not end up married.

In an intriguing book I'm currently reading - Those Girls: Single Women in Sixties and Seventies Popular Culture - author Katherine J. Lehman turned my attention to a different aspect of the show. Mary is single and she is not alone. Her boss and co-workers are like family, Lehman says. Rhoda is an important friend.

The embedding of single women in a network of relationships was not specific to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Lehman notes that in many of the 1960s and 1970s shows starring single women, "the women's coworkers, neighbors, and roommates functioned as symbolic family members." That theme, the author suggests, was a way of calming Americans' fears about single women heading off into the big, bad, dangerous city on their own.

I see the foregrounding of single women's personal communities in the shows of that era as a very positive feature. Single did not mean isolated or alone. At the time, though, critics were not so enamored of those portrayals. Consider, for example, these excerpts:

"[single women's] independence was curbed by the constant presence of coworkers and neighbors, who severed as symbolic family members."

"...the concerted emphasis on relationships rather than personal autonomy also countered potential anxieties about women's independence and placed these singles in recognizable personal roles: as confidants, sisters, daughters, and love interests. To echo NOW's earlier complaint about women in media, it was near impossible to find truly 'autonomous [women], leading independent lives of their own.'"

In those conceptualizations, independence and autonomy stand in opposition to interpersonal relationships - independence is curbed by interpersonal ties, and autonomy is undermined by friends, relatives, and love interests. To me, a single woman without any important people in her life would be a caricature rather than a character. I don't see autonomy and sociability as working at cross-purposes.  I think most people - whether single or coupled - want some measure of both.

Perhaps, though, the point was that the single women protagonists had little or no space to themselves. Even if they had an apartment of their own, other people could just drop by unannounced. That would crimp my own sense of independence and privacy.

Those Girls is about the 60s and 70s, so shows such as "The Golden Girls" or "Sex and the City" are not covered. Nor are the very recent series such as Rizzoli & Isles. I've only seen a few episodes of that one, but so far, I'm optimistic. Jane Rizzoli (Angie Harmon), a police detective, and Maura Isles (Sasha Alexander), a medical examiner, both take their work very seriously. They love what they do, unapologetically. They are close friends. They have occasional love interests, but the main themes are their work, their friendship, and family.

In contrast to the "Sex and the City" women, for whom parents and siblings were mostly invisible, Jane Rizzoli is close to her family. To Maura Isles, family is something entirely different - either distant or troubling. The two single women also differ in personal styles and in social class. I also think it is a step in the right direction that the single women in the series are neither very young (as was true of the early seasons of "Sex and the City") nor senior citizens (as in "The Golden Girls"). They are single, they always have been, and they are women, not girls.