TIME women

Women and the Myth of the American West

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

The frontier offered opportunities for land ownership and artistic inspiration—but life there wasn’t without struggle

In the American imagination, the rugged, vast landscapes of the West are dotted with solitary men on horseback—cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs. But the frontier was also home to women whose stories don’t match the standard Hollywood Western script. What brought women to places like California and Wyoming, and what lives could they lead there? Did Western women experience the same freedoms and adventures as their male counterparts?

In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” launch event “The Women of the West,” we asked historians: What opportunities did the American West offer women that they may not have had back East?

A land of contradictions as well as opportunity — Virginia Scharff

Let’s begin with one of those invisible, obvious facts of history: Women had been living in what became “the West” centuries before anyone arrived from “back East.” We have plenty of evidence of the ways they claimed homes and made communities, from the remnants of the Cahokia Mounds to the majestic ruins of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, where archaeologist Patricia Crown has found evidence of chocolate and macaws from the 12th century. With the advent of European contact, Spanish and Mexican and indigenous women lived in—and came from—all directions.

So we’re really talking about those recent immigrants who came from the eastern U.S. and from across the globe, particularly in the 19th century. In the years after the Civil War, those women found plenty of opportunities in the West that were not available in the East: everything from the right to vote to equal pay for women teachers to more liberal divorce laws. Wyoming Territory passed a series of such laws in 1869, partly in an effort to attract more white settlement, which, of course, was also intended to unsettle indigenous people. The West was the first home of women’s suffrage in the U.S., with nearly every western state or territory enfranchising women long before women won the right to vote in eastern states.

Is the West still a land of opportunity for women? I’d say it’s more a land of contradictions. We’ve got women in public offices and CEO suites throughout the region. But here in the West, women continue to lag behind men in too many areas to declare the “Woman Problem” solved.

Virginia Scharff is distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico.

The chance to be a landowner — Vicki L. Ruiz

Under colonial Spain and newly independent Mexico, married women living in the borderlands of what is now the American Southwest had certain legal advantages not afforded their European-American peers. Under English common law, women, when they married, became feme covert (effectively dead in the eyes of the legal system) and thus unable to own property separately from their husbands. Conversely, Spanish-Mexican women retained control of their land after marriage and held one-half interest in the community property they shared with their spouses.

As I tell my students, imagine you are a woman on the Illinois prairie, the only child of a prosperous farmer. Your parents die, and you inherit the family homestead. You marry, raise crops, and rear several children. But if your husband has a mind to sell the farm and travel west, you cannot stop the sale, and up on the buckboard you go. However, if you grew up near Albuquerque, your husband could not sell the property you had brought to the marriage, thus giving you significant leverage in household decisions. So you might not end up on that buckboard after all.

There were numerous landed women of note in the West. For example, María Rita Valdez operated Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, now better known as a center of affluence and glamour: Beverly Hills. (Rodeo Drive takes its name from Rancho Rodeo.) After the U.S.-Mexican War, the del Valle family of Southern California held on to Rancho Camulos, and when Ygnacio, the patriarch, died, his widow Isabel and daughter Josefa successfully took over the ranch’s operations. Other successful entrepreneurs and property holders, who defended their interests in court when necessary, included San Francisco’s Juana Briones, Santa Fe’s Gertrudis Barceló, San Antonio-born María del Carmen Calvillo, and Phoenix’s Trinidad Escalante Swilling. In a frontier environment, they utilized the legal system to their advantage as women unafraid to exert their own authority.

Vicki L. Ruiz is distinguished professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and president-elect of the American Historical Association, she is the author of From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America.

Writerly inspiration — Cathryn Halverson

The West gave women special opportunities as authors. Aspiring writers saw literary “material” in the stuff of their daily lives in frontier, rural, and urban western spaces. They shaped that material into letters, journals, sketches, essays, and stories for eastern magazines and presses—and received popular acclaim.

For readers outside the West, the settings these women described were exotic: California gold camps and desert outposts, northwestern logging and mining communities, Rocky Mountain and Great Plains homesteads. Elinore Pruitt Stewart, writing from Wyoming in 1913, placed a series of letters about her homesteading experience in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. She reported on the letters of thanks she received from appreciative readers, like the elderly woman who told her “the Letters satisfied her every wish. She said she had only to shut her eyes to see it all, to smell the pines and the sage.” Through its association with romantic national mythologies of sublime landscape and heroic endeavor, an ordinary woman’s life on a ranch in Wyoming seemed to mean more—and to reveal more—than one on a farm in Wisconsin or Connecticut.

Yet women writers were just as likely to revise as support these mythologies, which centered on male endeavor, and they frequently portrayed western sites as not wild and liberating, but provincial and claustrophobic. The Story of Mary MacLane, for example, one of the most notorious books of 1902, depicted the 19-year-old author’s desperation to escape her middle-class home in the copper boomtown of Butte: “Can I be possessed of a peculiar rare genius,” she demands, “and yet drag my life out in obscurity in this uncouth, warped, Montana town!” Nevertheless, the city MacLane denounced was key to her literary success: Readers would have been far less intrigued by the thoughts and experience of a girl hailing from a more familiar place.

Cathryn Halverson is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. She is the author most recently of Playing House in the American West: Western Women’s Life Narratives.

It depends on which women, and where — Laura Woodworth-Ney

The answer depends on which women, and the geography of their circumstances. During the post-Civil War period in the American West (1865-1910), middle-class and upper-class white women often did enjoy more flexibility and more freedom—to travel, to own land in their name, to exercise control over their children.

Minority women—particularly Chinese and Native American—did not experience greater freedoms. For these groups, the idea of an American “West” was meaningless. For Chinese women who immigrated during the late-19th century to work in the laundries, saloons, and grimy inns of mining camps scattered throughout California and the Rocky Mountain interior, the West was not west at all but rather east, and it was often not a voyage of choice. Impoverished families in China were encouraged to sell their daughters, who were shipped to San Francisco, held in “pens,” and taken to mining camps. Even though slavery had been outlawed after the Civil War, the isolation of these camps—in places like Warrens, Idaho—meant that slavery existed in fact if not in law.

For the West’s native women of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the American West represented a battleground of culture, conquest, and hunger. Non-Indian settlement destroyed the food sources and lifeways for the tribes of the western United States, while U.S. government policy forced them onto federally managed reservations. With their peoples ravaged by disease and forced assimilation, many tribal women faced crippling poverty and cultural genocide as the 20th century dawned. The survival and success of tribes in 21st-century America is due to the ability of these native women to hold their families together during the era of the “American West.”

Laura Woodworth-Ney is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University. Formerly the chair of the department of history, she has published more than 30 articles and books on topics in history, humanities, and higher education. She is currently at work on a history of women and irrigation settlement in the American West.

Mobility—but not necessarily upward — Judy Tzu-Chun Wu

When we talk about “the American West” and the women who made it their home, what do we really mean? Often, the term conjures images of those who migrated east to west, specifically from the East Coast of the United States. However, the region understood as the “West” was home to indigenous and Mexican women who lived here before Anglo-American and African-American settlers. Some of these women who already resided in the West experienced forced physical, cultural, economic, and political dislocation to make space for “pioneers.” Women also migrated from the “East,” meaning Asia and other parts of the Eastern hemisphere. They also came “North” and “South” within the western hemisphere.

Asking about distinct opportunities for women in the West also assumes that these opportunities didn’t exist elsewhere. This is a long-standing belief in U.S. society that the West epitomizes the American dream and the basis of American identity. This region of presumably “free land” provided opportunities for economic mobility and self-reinvention.

But not all women could participate in these opportunities. State policies throughout much of the Western states denied Asians the right to own land as well as interracially marry. Furthermore, some women were forced to migrate to work in the sex industry, one of the few jobs allocated for women in the male-dominated western “frontier.”

Certainly, many people, including women, relocated to the West based on the belief that opportunity awaited them. For example, Margaret Chung, the subject of a biography I wrote, became the first American-born Chinese female physician. Her mother had been sold into servitude and prostitution, and her father struggled to make ends meet through most of their family’s lives. However, Margaret found religious and educational allies to obtain a medical education. During World War II, she served as an adopted “mother” to over 1,000 “sons”—Anglo-American soldiers, entertainers, and politicians.

On the surface, this appears to be a success story. However, Chung’s economic and social rise also depended upon her manipulation of her identity, including strategically performing a projected role of foreign womanhood. At times, despite her status as a professional woman, Chung played the role of an Oriental mammy. Her story, like others of women in the West, was not a simple one of upward mobility.

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu is a professor of Asian American studies and history at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Dr. Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity and Radicals on the Road: Internationalism, Orientalism, and Feminism during the Vietnam Era. She is working with Gwendolyn Mink on a political biography of Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color to be elected congressional representative.

The opportunity to learn from one another — Jane Simonsen

The American West presented opportunities for some 19th-century Anglo-American women to cultivate a stronger sense of authority by positioning their domestic work as part of nation-building. Middle-class white women reformers interested in promoting Native American assimilation, for example, worked to define the well-kept single-family home—and the woman at its center—as a key marker of civilization. Their widely recognized power as moral guardians of the home justified their action and work outside of the narrow domestic realm, and these reformers carved out a niche for themselves among the politicians, scientists, and field workers who sought to “civilize” the western tribes in the latter half of the 19th century.

Yet working among Native Americans in western locations, from the Nez Perce in northern Idaho to the Cahuilla of Southern California, gave these women the opportunity to measure themselves against their indigenous counterparts—and at least some found their own civilization lacking. Close contact with indigenous women sometimes held up a harsh mirror to “civilized” society, which devalued the very work these women sought to promote. For their part, indigenous women took advantage of new resources on their reservations when they could, and were cannily selective in what they chose to adopt of the lessons and models of conduct offered by Anglo reformers.

The reservation system, land allotment, and reform movements disrupted many social ties and work patterns. Still, resourceful indigenous women sought opportunities to earn seasonal income, own property, and provide health care to their families. By maintaining some familiar forms of work, such as farming, foraging, and needlework, women helped to mitigate new economic realities on the reservation. Remaining at the margins of the new economy, indigenous women used new trade opportunities to maintain some of the very systems that reformers had hoped to destroy.

Jane Simonsen is associate professor of history and women’s and gender studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. She is the author of Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860-1919.

Room to invent new identities — Maria Raquel Casas

On December 23, 1868, a Native American woman died in Los Angeles, and Anglo-Americans paid no attention to her passage. Within the new racial and social order established by Americans after the Mexican American war, Victoria Bartolomea Comicrabit was an Indian, but what 19th-century Americans failed to recognize was that this woman had survived two colonization efforts and lived a uniquely Californian life.

Born in 1808, Victoria was a member of the San Gabriel people and fully hispanicized by the Spanish friars to the point that she and her “Indian” husband, Pablo Maria, were given mission lands once they married and became fully Catholic. As a property owner and hispanicized woman, Victoria interacted and was socially accepted by the other local elite Californio families. When her husband died, she inherited all the lands granted to the couple. If she had remained a widow, Victoria would have continued to work her lands, take care of her four children, and be a respected member of her community. She was an “Indian,” but in the Spanish colonial system race was more fluid. Victoria, however, did not remain a widow, and in September 1836 she married the Scottish trader Hugo Reid, who eventually squandered Victoria’s lands. After his death, Victoria was left destitute, treated as “just another Indian.”

As Victoria Reid’s story shows, women’s lives in the American West have to be understood through complicated categories of race, class, religion, marriage, and legal standing that did not remain static during the 19th century. If we see women’s contributions to settling the West as nothing more than dependent mates to men, we fail to see the complex woman that Victoria represents.

Maria Raquel Casas is an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and author of Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820-1880.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 8

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The same features that make cities hubs for innovation may spur inequality. Smart policies can strike a balance.

By Richard Florida in CityLab

2. Solar power can provide hot meals for the masses.

By José Andrés in National Geographic’s The Plate

3. A simple way to make a huge difference in the lives of foster kids: college scholarships for youth ‘aging out’ of the system.

By Jennifer Guerra at National Public Radio

4. When we include women in post-conflict peacekeeping, they do a better job of managing resources to prevent future war.

By Priya Kamdar in New Security Beat

5. It’s time to build a more secure internet.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME women

Russell Crowe Doesn’t Seem to Have a Clue About Hollywood’s Sexism

TURKEY-AUSTRALIA-FILM-CROWE
Russell Crowe is seen during a press conference at Turkish the premiere of "The Water Diviner", on December 5, 2014 in Istanbul. OZAN KOSE—AFP/Getty Images

Brian Moylan is a writer and pop culture junkie.

The actor thinks women in Hollywood should 'act their age'

Russell Crowe, a man who once threw a phone at a hotel employee, has some thoughts about actresses in Hollywood, namely that they need to “act their age.” He has no idea how wrong and sexist his remarks are.

When shilling for his latest film (and directorial debut), The Water Diviner, the 50-year-old actor told Australian Women’s Weekly, “The best thing about the industry I’m in – movies – is that there are roles for people in all different stages of life… To be honest, I think you’ll find that the woman who is saying that (the roles have dried up) is the woman who at 40, 45, 48, still wants to play the ingénue, and can’t understand why she’s not being cast as the 21 year old.” Remember, he said this to a women’s magazine. I have a feeling Russell Crowe is one of those guys who does something really jerky to his wife and when she gets angry he doesn’t know why and when she won’t tell him, he throws his hands up in the air and says, “Ugh, women,” and then sits down to have a beer and watch a rugby match like he never did anything wrong even one second of his life.

Anyway, he uses Meryl Streep to prove his point. “Meryl Streep will give you 10,000 examples and arguments as to why that’s bullshit, so will Helen Mirren, or whoever it happens to be,” he said. “If you are willing to live in your own skin, you can work as an actor. If you are trying to pretend that you’re still the young buck when you’re my age, it just doesn’t work.”

Strangely enough, Meryl Streep agrees with Russell Crowe. She told The Telegraph, “I agree with him. It’s good to live in the place where you are,” pointing out thatCrowe even said that he couldn’t play his Gladiator character now at age 50. She tells the reporter that when she turned 40 she was offered three different roles of witches and turned them all down. Now, at 65, she is playing one in Into the Woods. Why the change of heart? “Because I felt it was age appropriate. I felt it was time, and it was not time at 40.”

Because I love Meryl Streep, I would like to believe that she didn’t quite understand what Crowe said, or it was given to her in an odd context. I would like to believe that if you ask Meryl Streep about roles for women in Hollywood, she would say that there are not nearly enough, especially for women her age. The fact that Streep, generally considered the greatest actor of this entire generation, is the one exception to this rule shows just how bad it is for women of that age. Of course Meryl Streep can play whatever part she wants, and of course she’s still getting offered roles at 65. She’s Meryl Goddamned Streep! What about all the other actresses out there who do not have three Oscars?

Now let’s try to be sympathetic to Mr. Crowe for a minute. I understand what he’s saying about women not being comfortable in their own skin. There are several actresses (Meg Ryan, for instance) who have done such damage to their faces with plastic surgery that it is hard for them to get work. I agree that this is a problem, and I bet Meryl thinks this is a problem too. And I have a feeling that is what she is responding to.

However, it is a problem because there aren’t enough roles for women over 40, so of course actresses need to continue to look younger longer than someone like, let’s say, Russell Crowe, who can get wrinkles and gray hair and look “distinguished.” These actresses inject and lift and burnish their faces so that they can extend their working lives as long as possible. If there were more roles for mature women, maybe they won’t have to go through such horrible facial mutilations to try to maximize their earning potential.

Earning is part of the problem. A study of the top 265 film actors by the Journal of Management Inquiry showed that actresses’ salaries plummet after the age of 34. However, men make their most money at the age of 51. Let’s ask Crowe how he feels about how much he makes in 20 years, when he’ll finally be on par with the actresses who are his age now.

A look at the winners of Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars also shows that men peak older than women. The average age for Best Actress winners is 36 and the average age for Best Supporting Actress winners is 40. The comparable male winners ring in at 44 and 50, a full decade older than women in similar categories.

And it’s not just the age of available roles, it’s the availability of roles in general for women. Only 15% of the top movies in 2013 featured women in leading roles. A study of movies made the same year shows that only 31% of speaking roles were for women.

Let’s get this straight: there are fewer roles for women and when those roles are available, they only get paid for them until their mid-30s. No wonder women always want to play the ingénue. I would only write for teen magazines if they were the only ones paying me too! Then Crowe goes and blames this all on the women, as if they are somehow creating the problem for themselves. Maybe if they could go to all the female studio heads and complain about it. Oh wait, most Hollywood executives are men. Never mind.

The problem is not that Crowe said what he said about actresses. At least he was being honest and we finally can see the sexism of the institution laid bare. No, the problem is that Crowe doesn’t even realize what he said was wrong. He thinks that everything is fine and dandy for women in films and the problem is that they want younger roles or are getting too much plastic surgery. It doesn’t occur to him that the problem might be, hmm, that the Hollywood system is inherently broken and only values women when they are young and beautiful and can pair 50-year-old male stars with 20-year-old romantic interests without anyone batting an eyelash.

Brian Moylan is a writer and pop culture junkie who lives in New York. His work has appeared in Gawker, VICE, New Yorkmagazine, and a few other safe-for-work publications.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY technology

Intel’s $300 Million Tech Diversity Plan

CEO Brian Krzanich announced an initiative to bring more women and minorities into the tech industry.

TIME Tech

Intel Pledges $300 Million to Increase Workforce Diversity

Inside The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show
Brian Krzanich, chief executive officer of Intel Corp., during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. (Patrick T. Fallon--Bloomberg via Getty Images) Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Only 24% of 2013 employees were female

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich pledged $300 million to increase the company’s workforce diversity during his keynote address at the Computer Electronics Show (CES) Tuesday.

“It’s time to step up and do more,” Krzanich said, acknowledging that the task of achieving “full representation” of women and minorities by 2020 will be “difficult to achieve.” Seventy-six percent of Intel’s employee were male in 2013. And the company’s diversity filings from the same year showed Intel’s workforce was only 24% female, 8% Hispanic and 4% black, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s not good enough to say we value diversity and then underrepresent women and minorities, Krzanich said, “Intel wants to lead by example.”

Krzanich did not set any specific quotas, but noted that the money would be used to fund programs that could help get more diverse candidates into jobs at Intel, while attracting talented and diverse job candidates.

Silicon Valley has long been considered a boy’s club, with major tech companies like Twitter and Google revealing demographics that skew toward white, male workers.

TIME movies

Geena Davis Launches Film Festival to Boost Female Filmmakers, With Help From Natalie Portman and Shailene Woodley

National Women's History Museum's 3rd Annual Women Making History Event
Actress Geena Davis arrives at the National Women's History Museum's 3rd Annual Women Making History event at Skirball Cultural Center on Aug. 23, 2014 in Los Angeles. Gregg DeGuire—WireImage

Award winners will get guaranteed theatrical release

Geena Davis is starting the Bentonville Film Festival, a festival designed to promote women and minority filmmakers that will be the only competition in the world to guarantee theatrical distribution for the winners.

The BFF is being co-hosted by WalMart, AMC, Coca-Cola, and ARC Entertainment, and the advisory board contains big names like Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Shailene Woodley. The festival will screen about 75 films in competition, and the films that win the Audience, Jury Selection and Best Family Film Awards will get a distribution agreement with a guaranteed theatrical release in at least 25 AMC theaters.

“I have been an advocate for women for most of my adult life,” Geena Davis said in a statement. “The Bentonville Film Festival is a critical component of how we can directly impact the quantity and quality of females and minorities on screen and behind-the scenes.”

Submissions will be accepted starting Jan 15, and the selected films will be announced in March.

TIME India

Indian MP Says Every Hindu Woman ‘Must Produce’ Four Children

Indian Parliament Winter Session 2014
Sakshi Maharaj leaves after attending a Parliament board meeting at Library Hall in New Delhi on Dec. 16, 2014 Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sakshi Maharaj also wants cow slaughter and religious conversion to receive the death sentence

An Indian Member of Parliament with a history of controversial remarks caused another stir on Tuesday, saying in a speech that every Hindu woman should produce at least four children in order to “protect” the religion.

Addressing a gathering in the north Indian town of Meerut, MP Sakshi Maharaj told a crowd that “the concept of four wives and 40 children will not work in India and the time has come when a Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect Hindu religion,” the Times of India reported.

He also went on to warn that cow slaughter and religious conversion could soon be punished with the death sentence.

Maharaj has acquired a reputation for controversial statements, having had to apologize last month for calling Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a “patriot.”

[ToI]

TIME Companies

Intel Pledges $300 Million to Boost Diversity

Krzanich, CEO of Intel, talks about the company's RealSense camera technology at his keynote at the International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas
Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel, talks about the company's RealSense camera technology at his keynote at the International Consumer Electronics show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada January 6, 2015. Rick Wilking—REUTERS

The tech giant also aims to increase the minority population in its workforce by 14%

Intel announced Tuesday that it will set aside $300 million to promote diversity within its ranks, aimed at combating criticism often leveled at a technology industry mainly comprised of white and Asian men.

The computer chip manufacturer also announced a plan to raise the population of women, blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups by 14% over the next five years, the New York Times reported.

“This is the right time to make a bold statement,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich told the Times. Krzanich announced the plan at the ongoing International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

[NYT]

TIME Television

Like Your TV With Strong Female Characters? Thank Murphy Brown

Murphy Brown cover
The Sept. 21, 1992, cover of TIME Cover Credit: FIROOZ ZAHEDI

Gender issues on TV get lots of media attention, but we've forgotten to give credit where credit's due

This week brings the debut of ABC’s Marvel’s Agent Carter, an action series starring Hayley Atwell as a woman who’s underestimated by her male colleagues despite her incredible acumen as a spy. It’s a period piece, set in the 1940s, but one hardly needs to look back that far to find women on TV whose strength in the workplace and self-confidence defined them and befuddled critics.

Murphy Brown, the hardworking, single title character of a CBS sitcom starring Candice Bergen and the subject of a 1992 TIME cover, had been on-air for three seasons when, in 1991, she discovered she was pregnant and decided to keep the baby. It was a predicament not just for the character but for a TV show that, though unafraid of political controversy, was now going far beyond traditional parameters. TIME compared Bergen’s character to Lucille Ball’s on I Love Lucy after Murphy decided to keep the baby: “And to think, Lucy couldn’t even say pregnant on TV.” Even despite the electoral gains by women in the Senate that got 1992 dubbed “the Year of the Woman,” Brown may have been the most-talked-about female political figure of the year.

Murphy Brown’s televised pregnancy and her decision to raise her child as a single mother were a flashpoint in the 1992 election — and changed the role of women on TV. Today, from Scandal to The Good Wife, TV’s packed with strong and complex female characters; thanks, Murphy! Though Murphy Brown is rarely watched or invoked today, the high point of its relevance made a lasting impact on the way we talk about television, and about motherhood.

The show had made waves in the years before Murphy Brown’s pregnancy with, as TIME critic Richard Zoglin put it in May 1992, “the smarts and the moxie to take pokes at everything from gossip-mongering tabloids to the Anita Hill hearings.” Bergen’s character, a recovering alcoholic working for a Washington-based TV news magazine show, was unafraid to be unlikable; the show, and its dependence on sharp, pop-culture-centric comebacks, struck Zoglin as “cleverly written, but in a smug, soulless, metallic way.”

Viewers disagreed. Murphy Brown went into its big fourth-season pregnancy plot line in the Nielsen ratings top ten and with a shelf full of Emmys, including one for best comedy and two for Bergen’s performance. But while viewers and critics were accustomed to the show’s sharply political tone and its acidity, the pregnancy plot touched upon a third rail of sorts. The show foregrounded the question of working motherhood, with a fictional baby shower for Murphy attended by real-world TV news stars from Katie Couric to Joan Lunden. It was a pointed argument that work-life balance was possible (though Zoglin hastened to point out, in his May 1992 take, that more serious journalists like Diane Sawyer, the ones “who Murphy is really modeled after,” skipped the shower).

The fourth season ended with the birth of baby boy Avery — but the controversy was only beginning.

In a May 1992 speech about the breakdown of the American family in San Francisco, Vice President Dan Quayle decried Murphy Brown’s decision to raise her child alone: “It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another ‘life-style choice.’”

Quayle came in for more criticism from Hollywood — and from TIME. Zoglin characterized the treatment of the incumbent veep, up for re-election, at the 1992 Emmy Awards as “a Rodney King beating by the Hollywood elite,” noting that Bergen thanked Quayle sarcastically in her third best actress speech. The show’s creator, Diane English, told TIME that Murphy Brown was “a liberal Democrat because in fact that’s what I am” and lead actress Bergen described Quayle as “Bush’s buffoon” in the TIME cover package.

But this sort of rhetoric was nothing new: Earlier that year, President George H.W. Bush had urged American families to be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” But even The Simpsons were, at the end of each episode, a traditional nuclear family; they even went to church. Murphy Brown was making a reproductive and family decision that stood in opposition to far more than mere matters of taste: As Zoglin pointed out in a June 1992 piece responding to Quayle’s complaint, “prime-time TV these days is boosting family values more aggressively than it has in decades,” citing everything from Home Improvement to Roseanne. It turned out that Murphy Brown was worth highlighting in a Vice-Presidential speech not because it represented the state of television and the culture in general but because, in the particulars of Murphy’s choice, it was so far outside the mores of its day.

But — in a twist that did not go unremarked-upon at the time — once one got past the specifics of how baby Avery came into the world, Murphy Brown was not so outside the mainstream at all. It was a show that followed the vogue at the time in portraying the family bond, however one found it, as an ideal. “It took a Top 10 network series that will undoubtedly be around for years to grab the Vice President’s attention,” wrote Zoglin. “Now he needs to do some channel switching.”

There’s no question that Murphy Brown was attention-grabbing — but, decades later, the show is markedly absent from much of the discussion about great television of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps it was the ties to Quayle, and to Bush I-era Republicanism, that spelled a slow death for Murphy Brown, a show whose central mother-son relationship, after all, was as life-affirming as anything on Home Improvement. The show was hardly in immediate danger of cancellation. And yet Quayle’s speech, which TIME columnist Michael Kinsley called in 1994 “the best-remembered speech of the Bush presidency” may well have consigned Murphy Brown to be remembered within the context of the Bush presidency. The show lost some heat off its fastball once the President and Vice President left office in the middle of the fifth season. Every subsequent season fell lower and lower in the ratings — not shocking for a long-running TV series, but proof positive, perhaps, that Murphy Brown’s formula of explicit political discourse, something the series indulged more and more post-baby, was a turn-off for some.

It’s hard for pathbreakers. By the time it left the air, Murphy Brown was a footnote. But two months after its cancellation, Calista Flockhart appeared on the cover of TIME in service of her character Ally McBeal, a single woman whose pursuit of a career hardly stood in the way of her desire to be a mother. Indeed, Ally’s biological clock was the very text of Ally McBeal. And two years after that, the women of Sex and the City would be on TIME’s cover, asking “Who Needs a Husband?” (Soon enough, cover subject Cynthia Nixon’s character Miranda would carry a baby to term without the intention of getting married.) Today, the (anti?-)heroines of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder define themselves through their acuity at work, with the biological clock left entirely aside; Claire Underwood of House of Cards is the most fascinating character, male or female, on television, and one whose decision not to have a child is presented matter-of-factly and with little agonization.

Neither Ally McBeal nor Sex and the City – nor Desperate Housewives, whose star, Teri Hatcher, played a single mother and appeared on TIME’s cover in 2005– would end up becoming political talking points the way Murphy had. Carrie Bradshaw is the one who still makes news, but someone had to blaze a trail. Later series just learned that specific political references burn quickly – and benefited from Bergen’s character going through a political maelstrom so none of them had to.

TIME women

The Everyday Sexism of Women Waiting in Public Toilet Lines

Close up of bathroom symbol
Adam Gault—Getty Images

Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist.

Long lines for women's restrooms are the result of a history that favors men’s bodies

If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve a) spent time fidgeting in a long line waiting to use a public toilet, b) delayed a bodily function because you don’t want to or haven’t the time to waste standing in line to use a public toilet, c) considered sneaking into a men’s room—illegal in some places, or d) cursed loudly because of all of the above.

Faced with a long restroom line that spiraled up and around a circular stairwell at a recent museum visit, I opted not to wait. Why do we put up with this? This isn’t a minor pet peeve, but a serious question. Despite years of “potty parity” laws, women are still forced to stand in lines at malls, schools, stadiums, concerts, fair grounds, theme parks, and other crowded public spaces. This is frustrating, uncomfortable, and, in some circumstances, humiliating. It’s also a form of discrimination, as it disproportionately affects women.

After counting the women, I tweeted, “Dear @britishmuseum there are FIFTY women and girls standing in line for the loo while the men’s room has zero line #everydaysexism.” Immediately, people responded with the suggestion that women use the men’s room. But even more responses were defensive, along the lines of “How on god’s green earth did you arrive at the conclusion that this was sexist?”

Let me count the ways.

Women need to use bathrooms more often and for longer periods of time because: we sit to urinate (urinals effectively double the space in men’s rooms), we menstruate, we are responsible for reproducing the species (which makes us pee more), we continue to have greater responsibility for children (who have to use bathrooms with us), and we breastfeed (frequently in grotty bathroom stalls). Additionally, women tend to wear more binding and cumbersome clothes, whereas men’s clothing provides significantly speedier access. But in a classic example of the difference between surface “equality” and genuine equity, many public restrooms continue to be facilities that are equal in physical space, while favoring men’s bodies, experiences, and needs.

Legislation to address the design and provision of public restrooms in new construction often requires more space for women’s rooms. But that has hardly made a dent in many of our oldest and most used public spaces. This is especially true in powerful institutions, such as schools and government complexes, where old buildings, and their gendered legacies, dominate. In the United States, for example, women in the House of Representatives didn’t get a bathroom near the Speaker’s Lobby until 2011. Prior to that, the nearest women’s room was so far away that the time it took women to get to the bathroom and back exceeded session break times. The nearby men’s room, meanwhile, had a fireplace, a shoeshine stand, and televised floor proceedings.

Additionally, old building codes required more space for men, as women’s roles were restricted almost entirely to the private sphere. That reality has often confused the “is” with the “ought.” As scholar Judith Plaskow noted in a paper on toilets and social justice, “Not only does the absence of women’s bathrooms signify the exclusion of women from certain professions and halls of power, but it also has functioned as an explicit argument against hiring women or admitting them into previously all-male organizations.” She cites examples, including Yale Medical School and Harvard Law School, both of which claimed that a lack of public facilities made it impossible for women to be admitted as students. Schools like the Virginia Military Institute used this excuse as recently as 1996.

When spaces are changed so that everyone experiences equal waiting time, backlash has been quick. In 2004, for example, new rules resulted in men waiting in line to use the bathrooms at Soldier Field in Chicago. They complained until five women’s rooms were converted to men’s. The result was that, once again, women’s wait times doubled. No protests have yielded a commensurate response to reduce them. That women are socialized to quietly deal with physical discomfort, pain, and a casual disregard for their bodily needs is overlooked in the statements, “No one is making them wait,” or “Why don’t they demand changes?” Last year, when writer Jessica Valenti made the sensible argument that tampons should be free in public bathrooms, the way toilet paper is, it resulted in a misogynistic hate-fest.

In the meantime, the male-centeredness of our restroom standards can also be seen in the constant stream (no pun intended) of products cheerily encouraging women to expand their excreting options, by peeing, for example, “like a man.” On the other hand, attempts to encourage men to emulate women in equal measure, sitting to urinate, are seen as degrading assaults on masculinity. This growing trend, a more sanitary and less expensive option in public restrooms (because less cleaning is required), horrifies many people.

It matters that 83% of registered architects and an eerily similar percentage of legislators in the U.S. are the very people least likely to have to wait in lines. As urban planner Salma Samar Damluji put it during a 2013 discussion about why women’s input is so important to designing public space, effective urban planning is “not a luxury, it’s a basic need.” In the United States, laws are rapidly changing, largely due to effective LGTBQ advocacy and a generational sea change in how gender is understood. Organic solutions, particularly at high schools and colleges, include combinations of male/female facilities alongside gender-neutral ones. Single-stall designs that can be used by everyone, such as airplane bathrooms and family/handicapped facilities are the most space and time efficient, and least discriminatory. They are also philosophically palatable to a broad spectrum, as they represent not so much a contested segregations or de-gendering of restroom spaces, as much as a rethinking of privacy and the uses of public space.

Women aren’t standing in lines because we bond over toilet paper pattern or because we’re narcissistic and vain. We’re standing in line because our bodies, like those of trans and queer people, have been historically shamed, ignored, and deemed unworthy of care and acknowledgement. We shouldn’t have to wait or postpone having these needs fairly met in public space.

Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. Her work appears in Salon, CNN, Ms. Magazine, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, RHRealityCheck, Role Reboot and The Feminist Wire.

Read next: A Better Feminism for 2015

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