Diane Haithman is contributing to Deadline’s TCA coverage.
Today’s TCA panel on PBS’ documentary Makers: Women Who Make America, which traces the last 50 years of the women’s movement and premieres February 26, featured some powerhouse players in the fight for equality: Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas among them. Both made strong statements about the state of feminism in America in 2013. But one of more telling stories recounted on the panel was not about politics, but rather Thomas’ recounting the struggles behind her 1966-71 TV series That Girl. At age 24, Thomas became both producer and star in the comedy about a spunky single girl and aspiring actress taking on New York City.
At the time she was pitching the series, Thomas had read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and said that after college “I was a bridesmaid 17 times” and didn’t want to get married. She said that every TV script she was reading was all the same: “the women were wives, daughters and secretaries.” She took her idea to NBC programming executive Edgar Scherick, demanding: “Ever thought of doing a show where the woman is somebody?” She said Scherick responded as though “I had been speaking Swahili.” She gave him a copy of Feminine Mystique. His reaction: “I just have one question: Is this going to happen to my wife?”
Thomas said she ran into massive pushback from writers, editors and network personnel who didn’t want to take orders from a “girl.” “We worked at Desilu [Studios], and Lucille Ball was on the lot,” Thomas said. “The joke around the lot was if you couldn’t find me, I was probably in the men’s room having a meeting with Lucy.”
The story was funny, but the effect was harmful to Thomas career, she said. And hers wasn’t the only such story that told during the session. Thomas and Steinem were joined on the panel by executive producers Betsy West and Dyllan McGee; filmmaker (and only male panelist) Barak Goodman; Aileen Hernandez of the National Organization for Women; and Barbara Burns, one of the first women coal miners.
Burns told the story of having male coal miners harassing her by plastering her walls with photos of nude males from Playgirl magazine. She chose to defuse the attack with humor by asking that the men replace the photos with new ones every month when the magazine came out. The men, she said, never pulled the stunt again.
On a more serious note, Steinem expressed fears that the women’s movement is in danger of heading backward at the hand of the right wing that she believes controls the Republican Party. “I think a lot of them have read The Handmaid’s Tale and are doing it over,” she said, referring to Margaret Atwood’s near-future novel about a young woman put into sexual slavery by a totalitarian Christian theocracy. Steinem added that women would always be unequal in the workplace if there is not an equal division of childcare between men and women. If not, she said, both men and women will continue to associate “female authority with childhood” and not be able to accept women as leaders.