Mary Tyler Moore and the Pantsuit Nation she inspired onscreen and offscreen

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Before Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit became a beacon of female power and resistance to patriarchal ideas regarding femininity and the female body, there was Laura Petrie. While her role on The Dick Van Dyke Show as a stay-at-home mom conformed to the traditional values ascribed to women, Petrie’s capri pants did not. Never before had a woman on an American sitcom worn pants. And the woman behind this bold sartorial choice, which challenged and subverted systematic television sexism? Mary Tyler Moore.

Moore was a mainstay of American television during the counterculture years that defined the 1960s-1970s. She entered the living rooms of families, filling a void in the television sitcoms of the time: a female character based in reality rather than male fantasy.

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Rob and Laura Petrie. 

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Rob and Laura Petrie. 

It is fitting that Mary Tyler Moore’s first appearance onscreen has been iconized by a pair of pants. Onscreen it was men who were depicted, both figuratively and literally, as wearing the pants in the home. Moore as Laura Petrie presented a new image of a housewife, one that aligned with more modern fashions and values. Although feminine in their design, Petrie’s capris were a significant marker of changes that were occurring both in and out of the home in 1960s America. The rise of the women’s movement was a key factor, inspiring a growing segment of American women to reinvent themselves as independent and progressive. Their attitudes towards marriage, sex and career aspirations changing to suit their own needs rather what was expected of them. Fashion became emblematic of this liberation from established conventions and governance. Traditionally ‘masculine’ attire such as pants, along with “un-ladylike” shorter hemlines, entered the fray and became part of public discourse.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, attributes Moore’s own strength and personal character to the presence of ‘the pants’. “[The decision to wear pants] was a huge contribution. It was all her idea.” For Moore, it was not only an obvious costume choice but a way of injecting realism into the show. As she explained in an 1995 interview with NPR, “I’ve seen all the other actresses and they’re always running the vacuum in these little flowered frocks with high heels on, and I don’t do that. And I don’t know any of my friends who do that. So why don’t we try to make this real? And I’ll dress on the show the way I do in real life.” By foregoing the housewife uniform of heels and a skirt, Moore redefined how a woman’s reality was depicted onscreen.

While she was the thoroughly modern woman costumed as Laura Petrie, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Moore took her first steps in cementing her status as a pioneer and influencer for a new era of self-sufficient women. Moore, like her former co-star Dick Van Dyke, was now the protagonist of her own self-titled sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. From 1970-1977, she wore the pants.

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With its female protagonist, and emphasis on female friendships and experiences, The Mary Tyler Moore Show pioneered the female-focused format. Set against the backdrop of a fictional Minneapolis news station, the sitcom starred Moore as WJM-TV news producer Mary Richards. She was unapologetic about her career aspirations, and her choice to remain single and childless. “The point [of the show] was more about her job and her own life,” explains Armstrong. Mary Richards embodied and articulated what many women were demanding– agency. After all, as she pointedly states in one episode, “A woman doesn't have to have a baby if she doesn't want to.”

Richards’ agency only increased over the course of the show. Her wardrobe was a significant marker of this evolution, especially as her professional status changed. “From the assistant in the newsroom who wears miniskirts and boots to the executive who wears pantsuits – she wears a lot of pantsuits by the end,” observes Armstrong. Pants and pantsuits were equated to power – a uniform for the professional woman who demanded equality (in one episode Richards’ literally does so by asking for equal pay) and respect.

At its crux, The Mary Tyler Moore Show forever transformed the television landscape. Today, we may take for granted the presence of the wry and witty women who grace our screens. Yet it was Moore who helped pave the way for women such as Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling. She showed that women can be powerful and funny. They could be smart and vulnerable. They were multifaceted and complex. And, dammit, they had (safe) sex!*

Behind the camera, Moore also left her mark. She served as a producer for The Mary Tyler Moore show and was instrumental in hiring female staff. From writers to producers, Moore nurtured women who, like Mary Richards, had decided to enter a career in television. As Lena Dunham, the creator of Girls acknowledged, “Mary Tyler Moore’s humour, style and vulnerability have had a profound influence on me as a television creator and on every woman I know working in television to upend expectations of traditional femininity.”

Indeed, when Mary Tyler Moore passed away aged 80 earlier this year a wave of adulation and respect poured in from women of all ages. Moore was credited as an inspiration for young women, a pioneer for women working in media, and a trailblazer for the single, working woman. Writer, producer, and actress Mindy Kaling succinctly captured the popularity and lasting influence of Moore when she simply tweeted:  “Relatable”.

It was, and is, important for women to see themselves represented in a ‘relatable’ way. And what’s more relatable than wanting to move with ease, to be comfortable in one’s own body? Pants, it just so happens, are emblematic of a rebellion of comfort; they are a garment that reflected women’s egalitarian ambition.

Today, when we think of a strong-willed professional woman who has championed the power of pants, we think of Hillary Clinton. She’s the woman whose fondness for pantsuits inspired “Pantsuit Nation”, a pro-Clinton Facebook group that aimed to support the 2016 Democratic Presidential nominee by encouraging women to wear a pantsuit to the polls. (Remarkable when you consider that it’s only been 14 years since women were “allowed” to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor.)

Speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, Clinton acknowledged the power of her pants(uit), as a symbol of hope and solidarity for women: “To my supporters, to my champions — to my sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits — from the bottom of my heart: Thank you.”

Recognizing the power of women to make their own choices through clothing isn’t exactly a revelatory concept. But it’s important not to understate the strength of women united rather than divided. A shared enthusiasm for the achievements of women – small or great – is the message that binds together the Pantsuit Nation. It was in the stitching of Laura Petrie’s capri pants and the fabric of Mary Richards’ own pantsuits. It is an attitude that must be upheld and carried forward. One means of doing so is for women today, and future generations of women, to step into the pants of those who came before her. Only then can we remold them to suit and support the shapes, and journeys, of women to come.

Of course, Moore’s legacy cannot be reduced to a single item of clothing. The rationale behind her insistence on wearing them, however, speaks to the importance of female agency. Recently, at the 2017 Golden Globes, actress Evan Rachel Wood spoke out about eschewing the gowns women traditionally wear on the red carpet in favor of a pantsuit. Wood echoed Moore when she explained that her outfit signaled to young girls and women that, “it’s all about choice.”

Moore might not have broken the glass ceiling, but she did show girls that it was ok to to want something other than dresses and children, to pursue a dream that didn't end at the altar. It could end at the White House. Or at least, nearly.

With heart, hard work, humor and spunk (pussy hats, anyone?) women will continue to fight – to be the heroine of their own show, their own lives. They will march for equality. They will wear the pants. This International Women’s Day let Moore’s wisdom inspire you to persist: “Having a dream is what keeps you alive. Overcoming the challenges makes life worth living.”

*Yes, wholesome Mary Richards was on the pill! She was the first television character to openly be using hormonal birth control, which meant she had sex even though – gasp! – she was single.