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8 Times Patty Duke Was The Ultimate Feminist Film Icon

Actress, advocate, and all-around awesome lady Patty Duke died at age 69 due to sepsis from a ruptured intestine. The news came on Tuesday and left fans reeling. Her son, actor Sean Astin, shared that his mother had been in pain recently. The actress gained notoriety in her teens, playing Helen Keller in the stage and film versions of The Miracle Worker, which won her not only awards, but critical acclaim. But that's wasn't all Duke accomplished. Though it wasn't talked about as much, Patty Duke's made many contributions to intersectional feminism.

Duke's early life was rather tragic. Raised by dysfunctional parents, she was eventually sent to live with her managers, John and Ethel Ross, who were controlling and abusive. Duke told Newsweek that she was forbidden from watching herself on The Patty Duke Show, and was so isolated that the show had to hire teenagers to teach her how to act like a regular kid. Duke's early life was also plagued by undiagnosed mental illness, which she said (for better or for worse) informed her role in the critically panned cult classic Valley of the Dolls.

But Duke made it out of those early years intact and stronger for it. Fans who only know her from The Patty Duke Show might be surprised by some of the more subversive roles she later took on, both on and off the screen. Patty Duke did a lot more for feminism than most people realize. A few examples of her varied achievements:

That Oscar

In 1963, when she was just 16, Duke won the Academy award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, setting a new record as the youngest actress ever to do so at the time. Before Duke, teens and children winning Oscars was unheard of, and, to this day, Duke, Tatum O'Neal, and Anna Paquin are the only child actors to do so. And it wasn't a lack of competition that led to her win; she was up against Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. Girl's got chops!

'The Patty Duke Show'

At a time when most sitcoms featured a male lead, the idea of a teenage girl headlining a show was revolutionary. On The Patty Duke Show, Duke played both of the lead roles — identical cousins Patty and Cathy Lane. The show was specifically created as a vehicle for Duke by TV legend Sidney Sheldon after Duke won her Oscar.


The 1965 film Billie, billed as a light-hearted teen musical, covered some surprisingly modern topics. Short-haired high school track star Billie Carol, played by Duke, is described as a "tomboy," but, looking at the trailer through a 2016 lens, viewers are left wondering if this movie's about something more than just sports. Billie repeatedly expresses her desire to be a boy, and when she refers to herself as an "in-between," one can't help but wonder if that's just because the term "genderqueer" hadn't been invented yet. At the very least, it's a refreshingly modern exploration of traditional gender roles.

'By Design'

In the 1982 Canadian film By Design, Duke plays Helen, a lesbian fashion designer who wants to have a baby. "So what?" ask my 2016 readers. Well, this was in 1982, when such a concept was shocking to many. Turned down by the adoption agency, Helen and her partner, Angie, devise a scheme to get Helen knocked up during a one night stand. The movie didn't fare well with the critics, but it was through no fault of Duke's (the director and the supporting cast were blamed for turning what could have been a "sophisticated adult comedy" into a "misbegotten mess").

'Hail to the Chief'

It only lasted for seven episodes, but 1985's Hail to the Chief is no doubt popular in the Clinton household – Duke played Julia Mansfield, the first woman president of the United States in ABC's soap opera spoof. Interestingly enough, her TV husband was a lot more like Donald Trump than Bill Clinton (fast forward to the 50-second mark for a prime example, but do not watch at work or around kids, trust me). Also worth noting: President Mansfield's Secret Service agent, Randy, was one of the first recurring gay characters on TV at the time.

President of the Screen Actors Guild

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In the Screen Actors Guild's 83-year history, only four of its 29 presidents have been women (big surprise, I know). The first was Kathleen Nolan in 1975, and, 10 years later, Duke served as president. SAG's website noted that, during Duke's presidency, the Guild brokered an agreement "giving advantages to productions that hire more women, minorities, seniors, and disabled performers."

Mental Health Advocate

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Throughout her teens and young adulthood, Duke suffered from severe manic and depressive episodes, which led to out-of-control behavior and multiple suicide attempts. At age 35, prompted by the encouragement of her then-husband, John Astin, Duke finally sought treatment and was diagnosed with "manic-depressive illness," which we now know as bipolar disorder. Medication and therapy worked wonders for her, and after publishing her memoir, Call Me Anna, in 1988, she began speaking publicly on mental health issues. In 2005, she created The Patty Duke Online Center for Mental Wellness. In a 2008 interview with Psychiatric News (an American Psychiatric Association publication), she discussed her passion for mental health advocacy: “Acting was a means to advocacy for me,” she said. “This is where my heart is.”

Same-Sex Wedding Officient

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In 2014, Duke was ordained through the Universal Life Church, and soon after, she reportedly tweeted at President Obama that she did so in order to "marry all the gay couples in our beloved country." A friend of hers shared that "she can’t wait to unite as many gay couples as possible now that same-sex marriage has become legal in so many states." Incredible though it may seem, Duke actually posted on her own website that she "is also a Minister and open to performing weddings." She'll be sorely missed.