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Working Women of Classic TV — By Cary O’Dell

Contrary to what is often reported, Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not the first working women to be seen on series television. Long before Mary drove herself to Minneapolis and her new job at WJM, dozens of women on TV were holding down jobs, earning a living and sometimes even bossing around a few of the men they co-starred with.

Photo 1: Amanda Blake — Gunsmoke (1955-1975). As the owner/operator of Dodge’s main watering hole, Amanda Blake’s Miss Kitty tangled with a wide assortment of outlaws and other undesirables.  Often unfairly saddled as a “woman of ill-repute,” there’s little evidence in TV’s Gunsmoke of Miss Kitty making her fortune illegally. Certainly the high esteem the townsfolk hold her in suggests that she’s as legitimate as she is respected.

Photo 2: This post is part of Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association.Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com) to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

Photo 3: Barbara Hale — Perry Mason (1957-1966). As aide de camp to powerful attorney Perry Mason, Barbara Hale’s Della Street spent as much time in the court room — or out in the field — as she did behind a desk or in a law library.  Hunting down witnesses, ferreting out clues and, sometimes, even going undercover, Mason’s nearly-flawless conviction record could only be obtained thanks to his trusty (and non-romantic) assistant.

Photo 4: Beverly Garland — My Three Sons (1960-1972). By the closing seasons of this long-running show, women had stormed the previously all-male Douglas household. Along with the various wives of the now-adult sons, even dad Fred MacMurrary got hitched when he married school teacher Barbara Harper beginning in 1969. Beverly was played by Beverly Garland. (Previously, Garland played the title role in the 1957 series Decoy; she was a police woman 25 years before Cagney & Lacey hit the airwaves.)

Photo 5: Nancy Kulp — The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971). Long adept at playing working women, actress Nancy Kulp became one of TV’s most distinctive and definitive “right arms” as Miss Hathaway, the moral, intellectual and often overworked secretary to miserly banker Mr. Drysdale on CBS’s 1960’s mega-hit.   

Photo 6: Barbara Stanwyck — The Big Valley (1965-1969). On the big screen, the legendary Barbara Stanwyck made a career of playing, in her words, “tough broads.”  When she came to TV, nothing changed. On the Western The Big Valley, Stanwyck’s Mrs. Barkley was a rancher and landowner as well as a pillar of her community and a darn good sharp shooter.

Photo 7: Yvonne Craig — Batman (1966-1968). It took a woman to turn the Dynamic Duo into the Triumphant Trio. TV’s first super heroine (in the traditional sense) was Batgirl played by Yvonne Craig. A professional librarian by day, Barbara Gordon was never afraid to put on her own cap and cowl and take on any of Gotham City’s most notorious super villains. Not only did Batman/Bruce Wayne not know who she really was, neither did her own father, Police Commissioner Gordon.

Photo 8: Nichelle Nichols — Star Trek (1966-1969). In keeping with Gene Roddenberry’s future of a multi-cultural and peaceable future on the original “Star Trek,” the USS Enterprise’s chief of communications was Lt. Nyota Uhura.  As head of communications, Uhura was the fourth highest ranking officer on the ship and was often additionally called upon to assist as the ship’s navigator or be part of a special “away team,” transported town to a strange new planet.

Photo 9: (See below.)

Photo 10: Barbara Bain — Mission: Impossible (1966-1973). Lest it be believed women only worked in stereotypically feminine jobs in early TV, secret agent/super spy Cinnamon Carter, as played by Emmy-winning Barbara Bain, was an indispensable member of the Impossible Missions Force. During her run, Agent Carter brought down several years’ worth of dastardly dictators and out-of-control despots by relying on everything from her fierce intelligence to her ability to don a multitude of disguises.

Cary O’Dell is the author of June Cleaver Was a Feminist! Reconsidering the Female Characters of Early Television (McFarland, 2013). A former staff member at the Broadcasting Archives, he now works at the film, video and recorded sound division of the Library of Congress.

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