I was in second grade when this show began airing. I didn’t understand it, but watched it because it was part of the Tuesday night line up. Although my mother was an immigrant woman with conservative old world values I recall her tuning into a few serious episodes–namely the psychiatrist visit and the abortion stories–and was unceremoniously shooed away from the TV room. Four decades later I’ve discovered dinner time reruns on Antenna TV.
On the landscape of early 70’s TV, if Mary Richards was America’s sweetheart then Maude Findlay was the bullhorn. Maude came to to represent the middle-class White women who identified themselves as women’s libbers. It was a raucous time in our country.
Let’s jump into the most famous storyline, “Maude’s Dilemma”. The two part abortion story was originally aired in the first season, before Roe V. Wade was decided, when a woman’s right to choose was the key issue, not the rights of the baby. (Note: I use “baby” because it is the term used on the show.) During the original broadcast abortion was legal in New York, Maude’s home state. It was the reruns of this story that started the firestorm of debates with Catholic groups. You can read online about the protests. Four decades later we’re still fighting over reproductive rights and women’s right to choose. What Maude and her family discussed is still relevant today.
I want to highlight two quotes from the show that crystallize the complex issue and broadcast message of freedom of choice. These few lines reveal the brilliance of the writers:
Carol (Maude’s grown daughter): We’re free…It’s a simple operation now, but when you were growing up it was illegal, and it was dangerous and it was sinister and you’ve never gotten over that…It’s not your fault. When you were young abortion was a dirty word. It’s not anymore.”
Walter (Maude’s husband who assures her about her final decision to not have the baby): “For you Maude, for me, in the privacy of our own lives you’re doing the right thing.”
Another standout episode is “Maude Meets Florida”, which can be viewed on YouTube. Here Maude Findlay in her attempts to show she is an equal rights, sensitive liberal makes a jackass of herself–she is a Democrat–by fawning over Florida, her Black housekeeper. In refusing to let Florida do her household tasks, insisting that they are equals and be on first name basis, determined to find the origin of Florida’s unique name, but not accepting the true simple explanation, therefore exoticizing her. Worst of all, tells Florida she knows the meaning of Black American’s anguish because she too has suffered. What? All that’s missing is the shedding of White Woman’s tears.
Anything that was in the air was covered between Maude and her parent show, All in the Family. Politics, social issues, civil rights, race relations, and sex; nothing was off limits. There were a few episodes I caught on the Antenna TV network which had gay characters written into the show. What surprised me is they were all played straight, (pun intended) without stereotyped mannerisms or vocal affectations. They were depicted as dignified everyday people, a revolutionary attitude for its time.
Besides the social and political aspects of the show that have been well explored. The key to the show’s success was its core, Maude Findlay’s family. What I observed was:
* Maude and Carol’s relationship as mother and daughter. They were worlds away from any other mothers. Both were divorced women’s libbers. And in true 70’s form Carol often called Maude by her name, not just “Mother”. Despite being the younger woman, the child, it is Carol who often acts as Maude’s moral guide, dispensing wisdom, boosts of confidence, and declarations of filial love. I don’t know that there is another mother/daughter couple that reveals such depth, complexity, struggle, and sweetness.
* Maude’s four marriages are a running joke in the show, down to the last season. The love between Walter and Maude is remarkable for its mature depiction. This is a middle-aged couple that are made for each other which is expressed in their frequent snuggling, passionate embraces. STOP, you read that right. A middle-aged couple that kissed and hugged in earnest. No, not like the comically frisky times of Howard and Marion Cunnigham (“Happy Days”) or once in a blue moon pecks shared between Archie and Edith. Fall down on the couch, arms around each other and long lip locks. Heh, my elementary school eyes did not notice that during the original airings. Maybe that’s a good thing?
Season 1 is available on Netflix. A few episodes from later seasons are on YouTube. It’s a time capsule for the current events of the day and the artistry of its performers, writers, and producers, that reflect a golden time in American television. If Archie Bunker’s chair sits in the Smithsonian, then one of Maude’s long vests should be draped over it. Maude is one of our national treasures.