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?
Walter: Are you unhappy?
Walter: Are you pregnant?
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.