Bea Arthur: How One Powered Woman Spoke Up

by Gloria Feldt on April 25th, 2009
in Pop Culture and tagged , , , , ,

Actress at age 86.

She was a Tony-winning stage actress when Norman Lear saw her and tapped her for a guest role in his famous “All in the Family” series, where she played Edith Bunker’s mouthy liberal cousin Maude who was
always at odds with Edith’s conservative husband Archie. “Maude” soon became a sitcom of its own, and Arthur’s character continued taking on the significant social and political issues of the day–speaking up about all those subjects we were warned against bringing up in polite company, from sex and infidelity to politics and activism to death and depression.

It was the mid-1970′s at the height of second wave feminism, and if ever there were proof that feminists have a sense of humor, it was in Maude’s way of playing even the most serious of subjects for laughs.

In this classic exchange between Maude her husband Walter, who arrives home to find Maude distraught, the show dealt with abortion–a first on a major sitcom to do so forthrightly.

Walter: Maude, did you wreck the car again?

Maude: Did you hear that, everybody? DID YOU HEAR THAT? Not “Maude, are you sick?” Or “Maude, are you unhappy?” Or even, “Maude, are you pregnant?” No, “Maude, did you wreck the car again?”

Walter: You’re right, darling. You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry. So tell me, are you sick?

Maude: No.

Walter: Are you unhappy?

Maude: No.

Walter: Are you pregnant?

Maude: Yes.

They go through all aspects of the decision process. Maude, already a grandmother in her late 40′s, decides she should not go through with the pregnancy and has an abortion. Watch the video to see how her daughter speaks of abortion as it should be.

It was a little slice of realism rarely seen today, when the option of abortion is so often pushed again into the virtual back room and rarely mentioned in pop culture; the movie “Knocked Up”, for example, uses the euphemism “rhymes with smashmortion” rather than mention this–the most common women’s surgical procedure–by name. And soap operas are famous for those well-timed miscarriages that avoid the sticky subject of real women making reproductive choices, while leaving the full drama of mistimed pregnancies available to their script lines.

After “Maude”, Arthur had a chance to open up for public discussion yet one more previously off-limits topic: aging, especially the issues women face aging in a youth-oriented culture. She played Dorothy on “The Golden Girls,” the NBC comedy hit that ran from 1985-92. The show explored the lives of three older women sharing a household in Miami with Dorothy’s widowed mother, Sophia (played by Estelle Getty). Besides Arthur’s character, there was Betty White playing the ditsy Rose and Rue McClanahan as the sexy senior, Blanche.

Arthur won Emmys for both “Maude” and “Golden Girls”. She was inducted into Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 2008, an honor well-deserved for her lifetime of extraordinary work.

But personally, I am most grateful to Bea Arthur, (and of course to Norman Lear and everyone associated with “Maude”) for bringing the reality of unintended pregnancy and abortion out of the back room and into the real human story where it belongs. May she rest in peace and her memory be a blessing to us all.

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

10 Responses to Bea Arthur: How One Powered Woman Spoke Up

  1. Corene says:

    Gloria, This is a great tribute. I was deeply saddened to learn of her death today, and your essay reminds me about how she was such a trailblazer in her own way. And of course, she is/was a huge icon in the gay community just for being herself.

  2. Sandy Price says:

    worth sharing, gloria (and i did!). thank you for taking the time.

  3. Gloria Feldt says:

    Sandy, Sammie…Thank you for reading and commenting. This woman and the character she played touched so many. Isn’t it amazing what an impact pop culture can have? We see so much bad pop culture, but remembering Bea has made me relive and appreciate all the remarkably progressive shows the brilliant Norman Lear spearheaded. We need more of those REAL reality shows today.

  4. Kelley Bell says:

    Thank you for this lovely tribute Gloria. I was just talking with the neighbors last night about Maude and All In The Family and MASH. We don’t see that kind of social commentary in television today.

    I wonder why.

  5. Gloria Feldt says:

    Many people have asked that question, Kelley. I attribute it to what I call false balance that has overtaken the media. They polarize issues and will only present a point of view when they can show “both sides”, even if they are dealing with a complex issue that has three sides or five and many shades of grey. They–and the advertisers who support them–are controversy averse because it is safer and they won’t suffer the slings and arrows of challenges from whoever disagrees with them. Right wing radio attack jocks like Rush Limbaugh have fostered a climate of hate and fear of progressive ideas which in turn foments controversy even when there none, whereas the tolerant moderate majority stays silent. Here’s a link to a blogpost taken from a speech I made on false balance if you want more: http://ilfpost.org/?p=221

    It takes a lot of courage and persistence to stand up to these factors and factions. On the positive side, I think this is why blogs that express strong opinions and give news analysis have become so popular and why the mainstream media is losing market share. We all have voices–they are meant to be used.

  6. Joyce says:

    Thanks for this marvelous piece! You show us why Bea Arthur was a courageous reformer as well as brilliant performer, and help us see why we should take our comedians seriously.

    Joyce A

  7. Gloria Feldt says:

    Hey Joyce, maybe someone should make a documentary about comediennes called “Making Trouble” :-)

  8. Cybil T. says:

    Gloria,

    I too loved Maude in the 70s and her discussion of the issues, but hmmmmm, that was 40 YEARS ago! While the issues may not have changed, perhaps the answers have.

    Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much room for REALLY HONEST dialogue or debate any longer because seemingly in this new millennium, since we have POLITICAL CORRECTNESS which seems to supersede truth, no matter how pretty or ugly. Once people of a certain group: say “feminists” for example decide upon a certain agenda, their minds seem to harden to stone, disallowing any further discussion of difficult issues. Personally, I find inflexibility of thought processes something of a millstone to carry around one’s neck.

    Perhaps its time for a new breed of feminist to emerge, with the courage and honesty to revisit and re-examine women’s issues in the light of a new day, perhaps even deriving new answers for the woman of the new millennium which defy today’s politically correct status quo.

    The issue of abortion for example, what feminist of today could shout to the world that she did NOT believe in a woman’s “right” to choose without being ridiculed, even if she believed every other tenet of feminism and even if her reasons for believing were logically sound and plausible (never mind the fact, that any woman should be able to have HER own opinions, right, wrong, silly or indifferent). Intelligent, logical debate should have a forum, but sadly this doesn’t seem to happen much anymore, the discussion more often than not deteriorates into the equivalent of a public verbal stoning of vile epithets. Today’s feminists are more often than not, just women ideologues who block any free interchange of ideas and discussion which challenge their status in search of best life ideals for women. quo and political viability. This should not be, true feminism should always be in search of best life ideals for women.

    What IF for example if: abortion is not really the answer? What if the physiological, psychological, emotional and social tolls upon women are really too high to justify the ends? What if they are not? But where is the debate, the inquiries, the social discourse and open minded dialogue about abortion amongst feminists? Why must they always roll over and play dead on this issue as though it is irrevocably decided? Why do so many politicians,(Kerry, Kennedy, Pelosi and Granholm to name a few) yep, even the women ones, say they support pro-choice although they are quick to point out to the public that they would never condone abortion for themselves. What is that?!!! Talk about some passive-aggressive behavior toward the masses, (as in we high-minded people who are better than you would never stoop to such lowlife behavior, but we know you poor sluts cannot live without it so here ya go!) Really? Gee thanks.

    Anyway, like it or not, there is much that is debatable about abortion and its social,(whose body is it anyway? who is really making the decision to abort? the woman or her parents, boyfiend – SIC, husband, etc.) psychological (in view of survival rates of early term fetus viability and since so many people want to adopt is there traumatic guilt and stress for the woman who chooses to abort) and physiological (high mortality, breast and uterine cancer, or likelihood of lower future fertility rates among those who have aborted) ramifications not only upon women but the world (i.e.: cultures or countries – like China, that value males (why?!) more than females thus choosing to abort a female fetus the majority of the time) could this phenomena become the norm in the world of the future relegating the then rarer (female) sex to only that of egg-bearer status?

    This discussion should not be the realm of only right vs. left politicians. If women are really serious about being in charge of their destinies, they must continually re-evaluate the long term repercussions and effects of even the long held beliefs and tenets of feminism to see if they still hold up to scrutiny and are not just being used as a crutch to support outdated political agendas.

  9. Gloria Feldt says:

    Cybil, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Times do change and needs do change and even opinions do change on occasion. But abortion has never been about abortion per se; rather it is just the tip of a much larger ideological iceberg concerning women’s place in the world and society, the nature and purpose of human sexuality, and more.

    For me, as time has gone on, I have had to think so deeply about abortion and what it means that I have become more committed than ever to the belief that women are capable of making those decisions without politicians or courts telling them what to do, and that the proper role of public policy is to clear away the barriers to women’s ability to exercise their choices and access the health care and supportive counseling services they need. Check out my post called “Beyond Roe and Toward Human Rights for Women” on Heartfeldt Politics if you want more of my thinking on this. I’d love to know yours if you do read the article.

    There is an important new book that might interest you by a young women named Michelle Goldberg, in which she looks globally at what she calls “The Means of Reproduction.” Though I know this history from having lived it, I am heartened that a young woman is researching and telling the tale in today’s language for a new generation. Here’s the Amazon link for more: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1594202087/talpoimem-20

    Also Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com, is another young feminist who has recently published a book on the topic. It’s called “The Purity Myth”. In fact, I find a substantial groundswell of younger people who are interested in these issues today. What’s hard for them is breaking through the cultural myth that they don’t care.

  10. Sammie says:

    Gloria: This is a really nice tribute to probably the first “out” feminist on TV — in all of her roles she maintained the gutsy, assertive, and compassionate persona that must have characterized her in real life (I’m guessing). Thanks

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