My Feminists: Marlo Thomas

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marlothomasBy Jeri Asaro

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]A[/dropcap]nd the theme song announced "She's tinsel on a tree. She's everything that every girl should be. That Girl!"

Actress, and philanthropist, Marlo Thomas, starred as That Girl on ABC from 1966 until 1971. In 1971, I was a young and impressionable high school freshman, and I was finally allowed to have control over our television set on Tuesday evening from 9:00 to 9:30 P.M. We only had one small television in our home (a small screen; HUGE wooden box around it), and at that time, there were only five television stations and PBS. Normally at night, my hard-working father had the control, and I was sent off to bed.

Prior to freshman year, my bedtime was 9:00 P.M., and that's exactly when That Girl donned the television screen. But, during my first year of high school, one of my new privileges was having the chance to stay up after nine. So exciting! I never missed an episode of That Girl, and for years, I watched them in repeats, just so I could see all the back episodes. What an impact that show had on my life!

Simply put, the premise of the show is about a young, single, career-oriented woman (Ann), in her early 20s, moving out of her suburban family home and finding an apartment on her own in New York City. Her goal is to be an actress and model, but she is a working woman taking on many other odd jobs, while she pursues her dream. Yes, she has a boyfriend (Don), and he is supportive of her lifestyle and has a life of his own as a journalist; they are friends and respectful of each other. In my heart of hearts, That Girl was who I hoped to be someday.

It was likely one of the very first shows to focus on the life of a single woman. She was not a wife, not a nurse, not a teacher, not a secretary, not dependent on a man! Now, please do not misunderstand. I'm a teacher now, so my comments aren't meant to offend those professions; they are needed and wonderful professions. It's about choice. Marlo Thomas made me realize there was a choice. She won the hearts of many women my age, and she changed our views of what we thought the future held for us. It was like the trap door opened for me.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]I[/dropcap]n the 1970s, I knew few women – other than teachers, secretaries, or nurses – who had careers. The women I respected were all married women and basically their jobs and careers revolved around their homes. It all seemed rather tedious to me, and I felt like I wanted something different for my life, but at the same time, I had no idea how to make it all happen. I was a teenager, testing the waters. I had no model to follow for a different type of life, and no one in my life to ask. Living during the tumultuous years of the 1970s had me questioning what my future held. Assuming my fate would be the same as the women in my life, I taught myself to sew and to knit, and I even learned how to cook and to iron, but the truth is that none of those traditional hobbies or activities were of any interest to me. My role models were from a different era, and the times had drastically during my youth.

Watching Marlo Thomas perform as Ann was inspiring to me. She was so believable in her role, and I feel that might be because in her real life, she was That Girl. She demonstrated to all women growing up in the late '60s and early '70s that we could live the dream of interesting careers and living on our own in the big city! Forty-five years ago, that idea was life changing and even revolutionary for me, and for many others like me. That show, about That Girl, helped to change the view of women on television. For us viewers, it helped us to see that life could move away from what was expected, and forward into the unexpected.

From that point forward, my course direction in high school changed. I moved to college preparatory classes. I had always loves reading magazines and studying how each page was set up. I loved to write. I realized that I could study high school journalism, and I became the youngest editor-in-chief of our high school paper. I set my sights on continuing my studies at a college far from home with the idea that I would learn my craft while being single and independent, and without my parents watching my every move. Of course, life throws curve balls, but at the young age of 19, I did leave the safety net of my parent's home for good. I found an apartment in a New Jersey city, just outside of New York. I paid my own way while attending a state college and working 35-hours a week. I loved it! I worked hard, but life was in my control. Eventually, I found my way into the publishing world with a pre-press job, and I worked on national magazines like Family Circle, Billboard, and Business Week. It was both cutting edge and exciting.

I spent many years single and dating, and loving it. Truthfully, I didn't think I would ever marry, until I met a man who accepted me for me. Then and now, one of his most admirable qualities is that he treats everyone with the same mutual respect, and does not see the genders of people, just the minds and hearts. I fell in love then, and I still feel that way now. Like Don and Ann, we're friends. With one television show, Marlo Thomas opened my eyes to what could be.

What I found out about Ms. Thomas later made her even more of a hero to me. Thomas was an executive producer of The Girl, at the young age of 24, and she fought tirelessly to portray the life of a single woman. She wasn't just an actress playing a part. The premise of the show was her own idea. She struggled with people, especially men, respecting her when she needed to give the orders, just like I did when I began my management career in publishing.[divider type="short" spacing="10"]

[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]A[/dropcap]fter That Girl came to an end by Thomas's own choice, she went on to follow a different path through the entertainment world with an award winning book, album, and television special entitled Free to Be You and Me. Its premise was to demonstrate to children that gender norms were not a necessity, and you could grow up to be whomever you wanted to be. It was the mid-70s, but it sounds very much like some of the messages we still see on television and in movies today. The show celebrated diversity and was well ahead of its time. It became a model to me when I raised my own son. And, if you watch television, you already know her philanthropy work with St. Jude Research Hospital. Thomas is the National Outreach Director for the organization founded by her father, Danny Thomas, and raises millions each year for cancer research.

From a young age, Marlo Thomas lived life her own way, and she still does today. "Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them – that there is always time to start a new dream." Without That Girl offering a model of what life could be if I had to nerve to pursue it, I am not sure where my life would be today. What I know for sure is that I can continue to reinvent myself. I have choice. Through her creative inspiration and then production of That Girl, Marlo Thomas taught me to forge my own path.