Can we express two opposing thoughts? Thank God for Edith Bunker and thank God that today we don’t have more Edith Bunkers. Edith Bunker was of course the wife of bigot Archie Bunker on the hit 70s show All in the Family. As played by Jean Stapleton, her metamorphosis over nine seasons reflected the dawning, then the mainstreaming of the women’s movement.
Many women looked at her character as the wife we didn’t want to be.
Edith Bunker started as a meek, ditzy housewife who would put up with Archie’s bullying and calls for her to stifle herself. Yes, it might have seemed funny at the time, but it was also revealing, demonstrating the unfairness of the subservient role so many women had to take in their marriage. In the early 70s, ERA supporters used Edith Bunker’s picture in magazine ads with the caption reading “Second Class Citizen.”
We cringed for her and wanted her to take a stand. Many of us looked at her character as the wife we didn’t want to be. And now there are so many fewer women who think they have to put up with the verbal abuse and degradation in a marriage.
The Evolution of Edith Bunker
Later, as if Edith was absorbing the tenants of the women’s movement that was gaining strength in the real world, she became a woman who was more aware of her place. When All in the Family premiered, Edith was a housewife. In 1974 Edith got a part-time job as a caretaker at the Sunshine Home. She even asserted herself on occasion, telling Archie to stifle himself or asking the family to “Leave me alone, dammit.”
In the fourth-season episode “Archie the Gambler,” Edith reveals that her father was addicted to gambling and almost ruined her family. This memory prompted Edith to put her foot down twice regarding Archie’s similar gambling problem and even slap him. Toward the end of the show’s run, she became a partner in Archie’s business, Archie’s Place, the tavern he purchased in 1977–a huge step toward equalizing power in the marriage (even though women were never equal in Archie’s eyes.)
All in the Family by the Book
A new book All in the Family: The Show that Changed Television marks the 50th anniversary of the show’s debut by looking at the cultural impact of the show and the characters, including Edith. The book includes interviews with cast and crew members, including Lear’s take on fifty essential episodes that exemplify why the show remains relevant.
The Edith Bunker character led Stapleton to changes in her own life.
“She was developed to respond to any situation in life the way the most decent good person, the way the most Jesus-like, if you will, person would respond,” Lear recently told NPR. “It was absolutely wonderful the talent Jean Stapleton brought to that character.”
The author of the book, Jim Colucci, thinks that the Edith Bunker character led Stapleton to changes in her own life. “She was from the Christian Science background, so she had a religious background that was very specific. And I think that she herself had a very quiet life in Pennsylvania in the theater,” he said. “And I think only through exposure to All in the Family and the wider world of Hollywood did she become awakened to some of the women’s issues that were happening in her time and really grew as a person.”
Despite–or maybe because of–her role as Edith, Stapleton became a prominent activist for women’s rights, at one point leading a national woman’s convention in Texas. “That’s when I met all these fabulous women, strong supporters of the women’s movement: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and more, just wonderful people from all the states,” she said in a 2000 interview. “It was very inspiring. And all of that happened just because of the series, because fame struck. Zap, like that.”