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Michelle Obama: Mary Tyler Moore showed women that "building your career is a viable option"

NBC's Betty White's 90th Birthday: A Tribute To America's Golden Girl Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The New York Times’s obituary of Mary Tyler Moore opens by saying that she “helped define a new vision of American womanhood.” That’s part of Moore’s legacy: America fell in love with her wide-eyed, sunny optimism, and by extension they fell in love with her Mary Tyler Moore Show character, a cheerfully unmarried career woman. Moore paved the way for characters like Murphy Brown and Liz Lemon, and she helped make it acceptable — even aspirational — to be a single woman in America who cares about her career.

Former first lady Michelle Obama counts herself as one of those who was profoundly influenced by Mary Tyler Moore. In an interview with Variety from last August, Obama recalls watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show every week over dessert with her family:

She was one of the few single working women depicted on television at the time. She wasn’t married. She wasn’t looking to get married. At no point did the series end in a happy ending with her finding a husband — which seemed to be the course you had to take as a woman. But she sort of bucked that. She worked in a newsroom, she had a tough boss, and she stood up to him. She had close friends, never bemoaning the fact that she was a single. She was very proud and comfortable in that role.

I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw that, and sort of started thinking, “You know what? Marriage is an option. Having a family is an option. And going to school and getting your education and building your career is another really viable option that can lead to happiness and fulfillment.”

Obama, who famously out-earned her husband throughout their marriage until he became president, seems to have found a way to split the difference, but you can see Moore’s influence in her insistence on setting her own agenda as first lady. Michelle Obama’s accomplishments are her own — and Mary Tyler Moore is part of the reason.

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