Edith Bunker, unlikely feminist

Jean Stapleton's character brought liberation home for average women

June 05, 2013|Susan Reimer

I think Edith Bunker did more to liberate the caged American housewife than Betty Friedan ever did.

The author of "The Feminine Mystique" is the one who identified the nameless dissatisfaction of women at home with the kids and the kitchen chores.

But it was Archie Bunker's wife, Edith — so memorably portrayed by Jean Stapleton, who died last week at 90 — who brought it home, literally.

"All in The Family" was the most popular show on network television for years in the 1970s — back in the days of appointment television, when families gathered together to watch their favorite shows. And Edith Bunker was Every Woman.

The feminist movement was catching fire in 1970, Ms. Stapleton recalled once, just as she arrived in Hollywood to begin her almost decade-long life as Edith. But the likes of Ms. Friedan and Gloria Steinem were brilliant — and in Ms. Steinem's case, beautiful.

Edith Bunker wasn't either one.

She was a ditz in a fog — Archie's "dingbat." And when he told her, "stifle yourself," she obediently stopped talking, often clamping her fingers over her lips.

Edith ran everywhere — most memorably to the fridge each evening to get Archie his beer — so no one in her family had to wait to be waited on. But when she stopped and stood her ground, she brought the fundamental lessons of feminism vividly to life.

"She became an emblem of all housewives who felt their problems pooh-poohed at home, as if nothing they ever suffered was worth the attention of their husbands and children," Bruce Weber wrote in The New York Times.

She defied Archie's demand that she give up her volunteer job at a home for the aging. "You get paid nothing," Archie told her. "Which is exactly what it is worth."

"No," she shrieked, flustered with anger. "I ain't getting dinner on the table until you take that back. My work ain't nothing."

She storms out before he can make his signature angry exit to Kelsey's Bar. "This time, I'm the slammer," she says as she does.

She leaves again when she finds out Archie is on the verge of an affair. "It meant nothing to me," Archie says. "It meant something to me," Edith replies.

When they tentatively reach across the divide, he asks her if she thought about him while she was away. No, she said, she realized there was so much more to think about.

"I used to think that you was the only thing I can count on, but that's not true," she says without rancor, almost wistfully. "There's something else I can count on. Me."

And when she asks Archie for money, making an elaborate mathematical case for her worth over 30 years of marriage — a dollar a week — he refuses. "I am not paying you for doing the work God gave you to do," he says.

And Edith loses it again. "You clear the table," she shrieks. "And I ain't paying you for it neither."

During the years of the series, Edith deals with menopause and a lump in her breast and a sexual assault, bringing those lessons into the American home, too, long before there were unashamed conversations about these things.

She had a feminist friend and an African-American friend, a transgender friend and lesbian cousin, and she treated them all with her childlike sense of fairness and her unrestrained affection for people. She moderated her daughter Gloria's strident feminism, and she gently held a mirror up to her son-in-law Michael's condescending intellect.

Edith did her best to keep the peace and to keep her family together during a time of enormous social change. She wasn't Mary Tyler Moore — a young woman pursuing a career and independence instead of marriage and children. She was a different kind of feminist icon in the 1970s, and "All in The Family" was a different kind of consciousness-raising session.

The housewives in the audience could see their family dynamics reflected (if sometimes cartoonishly) in the Bunker household and could quietly resolve not to endure what Edith did.

And to stand up for themselves just the way Edith did.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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