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Susan Miller

Did you know that March is Women’s History Month? A news release described the 25th annual observance as a celebration of the “critical economic, cultural and social roles” women play in America.

The word “role” intrigued me, perhaps because I enjoy working with the media. It prompted me to think about roles that women have played on television over the past half-century — and perhaps we haven’t evolved as far as we think. Join me for a trip down TV memory lane: how women at work have been portrayed:

  • 1950s — “In Leave It to Beaver,” Barbara Billingsley epitomized the ideal of managing a home like a well-run business, and every family drama found a happy ending in 30 minutes.
  • 1960s — On “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Mary Tyler Moore was a housewife but pushed boundaries by wearing slacks. Many real-world businesses required female employees to wear skirts or dresses even two decades later.
  • 1970s — On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Mary had traded in her vacuum for a news desk, typewriter and even some pantsuits. But her office clout came at the expense of matrimony, as Mary was a single working woman.
  • 1980s — Women wore power suits and held prestigious positions while tending to perfect husbands and kids. On “The Cosby Show,” Mrs. Huxtable was an attorney and attentive mother of four, while Elyse Keaton on “Family Ties” was an architect and doting mom to three. Maybe women really could have it all?
  • 1990s — The family dynamic became smaller as “Murphy Brown” dominated the airwaves. This high-charging, brash boss-of-all became the first TV mom who defied the husband-first, kids-second standard.
  • 21st century — What a difference a millennium makes! Or does it? The pendulum appears to have swung back to an earlier period in the 20th century, portraying women with a level of respect far lower than that afforded to Mrs. Cleaver.

Consider the number of shows with “Housewives” in the title. You won’t find them holding a casserole dish but rather dieting at bars while peppering their speech with expletives. Similarly, each season of “The Bachelor” attracts a crop of women content to leave professional aspirations behind in hopes of finding Mr. Right — even when he has the trappings of Mr. Wrong.

Fortunately, life isn’t always as it appears on TV. Whether we work at home or outside it, today’s women have found ways to make it all work while defying the conventions portrayed by media. We’re one example of how “reality TV” is as fake as many of those desperate housewives.

Happy Women’s History Month to all women!

Susan Miller is owner of Ewing Miller Communications, an Anderson-based marketing and public relations firm. Her column appears in the Herald Bulletin on Thursdays. Write to her at susan@ewingmiller.com.