Scripted television in America has a complex history, especially when it comes to the endless portrayals of the “everyday” family. Now when we tune in, we’re able to enter the lives of wider variety of households than back when I Love Lucy premiered in 1951 — and looking at the role of motherhood specifically makes for a fascinating study in the evolution of our culture. Thanks to a bunch of groundbreaking TV mom firsts, small screen mothers have progressed from that Suzy Homemaker sidekick in black and white, the poster mom that no one could live up to, always well dressed, perfectly groomed, with a clean house and a hot meal on the table the second her family needed it.
Now? We have Dr. Rainbow Johnson on Black-ish, a certified anesthesiologist who graduated from Brown University and a mother of four. We have Jane Villanueva on Jane The Virgin, a single mother who accomplishes her dream of writing and publishing a book, Modern Family’s Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, an immigrant mother from Colombia, and Jessica Huang from Fresh Off The Boat, a Chinese-American wife and mother who becomes a realtor after realizing her husband isn’t making enough money to support their family’s needs. Thanks to these modern day portrayals, feminism and diversity seem to finally have a place on our small screens, even if we still have a long way to go when it comes to truly inclusive representation.
But who paved the way for the modern slate of moms who live life on their own terms, and not just as a background character or a foil?
To answer that question, I took a deep dive into the timeline of motherhood firsts on television, and though some of what I found wasn't that surprising — a lot of it was. A lot. No spoilers, but a good example is that it took 17 years for family sitcoms to deliver their first black mom. Or how about that it took 10 years from the debut of I Love Lucy for a mom on TV to be able to wear pants as part of her everyday attire?
So grab a cup of hot tea or glass of wine, get cozy, and prepare yourself for a walk through television history.
1947: The First TV Mom, Mary Kay Stearns in 'Mary Kay and Johnny'
It has long been believed that 1951's I Love Lucy was the first sitcom to feature a mom, but the truth is that it was 1947's Mary Kay and Johnny, according to Deadline. In fact, in 1948 Mary Kay's real-life pregnancy was written into the show, which also makes her the first TV mom to portray pregnancy on the small screen. But the firsts don't end there! Mary Kay was the first TV mom to — gasp! — sleep in the same bed as her husband, Johnny, the San Diego Reader reported in 2002. Though unconfirmed, many TV buffs believe the next couple to be seen sleeping in the same bed on the small screen were Darrin and Samantha in 1964's Bewitched. (Quick math: That's 17 years of TV couples not sleeping together.)
1960: The First Dead Mom, 'My Three Sons'
If you watch as much TV as I do, you might have noticed a recurring theme: the trope of the dead or missing mom. Though our generation might remember shows like Full House, Charmed, and Game of Thrones, it all started with the late wife of Steven Douglas from My Three Sons in 1960, according to TV Tropes. Steven’s wife died before the series picked up, leaving him to raise this (you guessed it!) three sons all alone. Sitcoms like Bonanza and The Andy Griffith Show also featured dead moms in the following years.
1961: The First TV Mom To Wear Pants, Laura Petrie in 'The Dick Van Dyke Show'
Long before Mary Tyler Moore was, well, Mary Tyler Moore, she was Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1961, Laura was another stay at home mom being depicted on television, BUT Moore refused to give viewers another inaccurate and/or unrelatable portrayal of being a housewife — and she did that by wearing capri pants. A lot. “I had Laura wear pants, because I said, ‘Women don't wear full-skirted dresses to vacuum in,'" Moore told TV Guide in a 2004 interview. But it wasn’t that easy. CBS made Carl Reiner, the show’s creator, promise not to let Moore wear pants in more than one scene per episode, according to Moore. “We went along with that for about three episodes, and then finally, I was just wearing the pants.”
1964: The First Detached TV Mom, Morticia Addams in ‘The Addams Family’
Kooky, spooky, and detached — the best three words to describe Morticia Addams. In 1964's The Addams Family, long before Angelica Huston immortalized the role on the big screen, Morticia was the level-headed but somewhat apathetic matriarch of the family that lived at 0001 Cemetery Lane. When it came to the children, it was Morticia's husband, Gomez, who always seemed to be the more emotional parent. For example, in an episode uploaded to YouTube, Wednesday and Pugsley are forced to go to school like the "normal" children, Gomez can hardly stand waiting for them to return. Meanwhile, Morticia appears completely unphased by the fact they are gone, and even less concerned when both children return and her daughter, Wednesday, storms into the house crying. If you listen closely, you can hear June Cleaver's horrified gasp in the distance.
1968: The First Black TV Mom, Julia Baker in 'Julia'
Nearly two decades after I Love Lucy, the world was introduced to its first black TV mom, as reported by Black Then. Julia premiered in 1968, the same year the civil rights movement came to a head. In many ways, Julia Baker pushed the envelope of convention just like her predecessors — she was a widowed working mom who often left her 4-year-old son home alone so that she could make a living. To boot, she even dated occasionally on the show, as The Smithsonian recalls.
The most “controversial” plot point about Julia? She was an upper middle class black woman who was extremely successful in her nursing career. But, that doesn’t mean her life was easy. For example, in one episode which can be seen on YouTube, Julia is given the cold shoulder by a white man for a job despite the fact she is more than qualified for it. (Spoiler alert: Eventually Julia gets the job, because she’s fierce AF and refuses to back down to discrimination.)
FYI: Julia also featured the first widowed mom on TV.
1969: The First Remarried Mom, Carol Brady in 'The Brady Bunch'
Though it’s still to this day unclear exactly what happened to Carol Brady’s first husband, 1969’s The Brady Bunch introduced her as the first “remarried” mom to television. According to popular fan site Brady World, creator and executive producer Sherwood Schwartz originally wanted Carol to be a divorcee — but ABC refused to let her first marriage be a part of the story in any way, shape, or form. Instead, Carol’s three daughters — Marcia, Jan, and Cindy — called their stepdad, Mike, “dad” on the show. Which is just about as questionable as the mystery of Carol’s first husband.
1970: The First TV Momager, Shirley Partridge in ‘The Partridge Family’
Do you think Kris Jenner was a fan of The Partridge Family? I'm only asking because it was the first scripted sitcom to feature a "momager" in the form of Shirley Jones, and when I think "momager" I always think Kris Jenner. As Logo's New Now Next puts it, Shirley wasn't about to sit at home and be sad for the rest of her life after her husband's death. Instead, she created a wholesome family band with her children and took them all on tour. I think I love that!
1977: The First Latin TV Mom, Juana Peña in '¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?'
In another sitcom that was well ahead of its time, ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? featured a bilingual Cuban-American family trying to adapt to life in America, as NPR reported. The series premiered on PBS in 1977, and featured a matriarch named Juana, a Cuban immigrant and mother to American-born daughter, Claudia. The show was originally intended to be an “after school special” type of series to help first generation American children and their immigrant families adapt to life in America, as the Miami Herald states, but instead became the first bilingual family sitcom on television.
1982: The First Career TV Mom, Elyse Keaton in 'Family Ties'
It’s 2019, so of course plenty of the fictional moms we see portrayed on the small screen today are career women. But I like to give credit where credit is due, and in this case all credit goes to the one and only Elyse Keating from 1982’s Family Ties. As the suburban housewife trend slowly trickled off into oblivion, Elyse took the stage as a college graduate, professional architect, and mother of four, according to Working Mother. To add to that, Elyse was also a liberal, along with her husband, Steven, and the pair were part of the Peace Corps long before they were keeping their Republican son, Alex Keaton, in check.
1983: The First TV Mom To Adopt, Katherine Papadopolis in 'Webster'
Webster has always been known more for its quippy one liners and the contagious giggle of its star, Emmanuel Lewis, but the 1983 series brought adoption to the forefront of television. Due to the comedy aspect of the series, it was pretty easy to forget that Webster actually had a pretty heartbreaking foundation: 5- year-old Webster himself is adopted only after both of his parents die in a car accident, as reported by Fox News. Though his adoptive mother, Katherine, is a wealthy socialite with zero homemaking skills, she forms a strong bond with Webster once he’s under her care. As IMDb states, Webster eventually started calling Katherine “ma’am” and later explained it was because that was as close as he could get to calling her “mom” without disrespecting his birth mother. Anyone else need a tissue?
1984: The First TV Mom To Hire A Manny, Angela Bower in ‘ Who’s The Boss?’
The gender tables took a major turn on network television when Andrea Bower, an advertising executive, divorcee and mother, hired a "manny" to help around the house. Tony might have started out as Andrea's housekeeper on the show, but he also changed her life — helping her become less "rigid" and a little more carefree, just like he was.
1988: The First Blue Collar TV Mom, Roseanne Conner in 'Roseanne'
The actress behind the role of Roseanne might be draped in controversy today, but that doesn't mean the show didn't make history in terms of inclusivity. A specific type of family that wasn’t properly represented until 1988’s Roseanne was a tried and true working class family. The Conners' financial struggle was a focal point for the series in which parents Roseanne and Dan often discussed (and joked) about being able to make ends meet for their family of five. Even in the show’s 2018 revival, The Conners, Roseanne and Dan’s daughter, Darlene, was forced to move back home with her kids after splitting from her husband while she searched for full-time work. Relatable.
1992: The First Single Mom By Choice, Murphy Brown in 'Murphy Brown'
In one of TV’s most controversial moments, a very single but career-focused Murphy Brown became pregnant accidentally — and decided to keep the baby and raise him alone. As Market Watch recalls, this storyline made headlines not because of Murphy’s decision to become a single mom, but because the vice president at the time, Dan Quayle, openly criticized the storyline by accusing the show of “mocking the importance of fathers.” How did Murphy Brown respond? By incorporating the VP’s comments into an episode in which Murphy herself addresses Quayle directly during a news broadcast by suggesting he expand his idea of the average American family. “Unfortunately it seems that for him the only acceptable definition of a family is a mother, a father, and children,” Murphy stated in a clip that can also be seen on Market Watch. “And in a country where millions of children grow up in non-traditional families, that definition seems painfully unfair.” As usual, Murphy Brown wasn’t wrong.
1994: The First Asian TV Mom, Katherine Kim in 'All-American Girl'
You might know Margaret Cho best as a stand up comedienne, but before doing comedy she both created and starred in a 1994 sitcom called All-American Girl. Jodi Long played her mom on the show, which was about the rebellious daughter of a Korean-American family. As IMDb explains, the series focused on the endless clashes between Margaret and her mother. The show only ran for one season, but it made history thanks to the fictional portrayal of a Korean-American family trying to get by in the states.
1994: The First Gay TV Mom... This One Is Tricky
When I think back to who I remember being the “first” lesbian mom on television, my mind immediately directs to Carol and Susan on Friends. The couple appeared together on the series for the first time in September 1994, according to Friends Wiki, and even though their storyline was extremely important, they weren’t considered main characters. If you want to get technical about the “first” lesbian mom(s) in a starring role, that title would go to Tina and Bette on The L Word in 2005. Tina’s struggle to get pregnant via artificial insemination is a focal point of the show’s first season, eventually leading to a successful pregnancy in Season 2, according to Pride.com. Either way you look at it, both storylines were extremely important for television history.
The First Muslim TV Mom: TBD
While scripted television is slowly but surely making progress in terms of giving people of different ethnicities a platform, there’s a gap when it comes to muslim moms. A big gap. Though a small handful of television shows like Superstore and The Bold Type do feature Muslim characters, as a report by IndieWire points out, it’s disappointing to see the lack of muslim mothers (and Muslim parents and families in general) being represented. Especially in a format where they aren't being side-eyed for their race by the starring white family of another sitcom (ahem, Roseanne, via The Washington Post).
The First TV Mom With A Disability: Also TBD
It appears a proper portrayal of a fictional mother with a disability has yet to exist in the history of scripted television. Though scripted TV is seeing more and more inclusion when it comes to people with disabilities — see Very Well Family’s list of characters over the years — not one of them have been a mother. While that definitely isn't exciting to hear, the good news is that scripted television and it's portrayal of women (mothers or not) is still evolving.
TV has made great strides in representing more realistic portrayals of mothers in ways that are not only limited to diversity, or their ability to wear pants and go to work every day. That leaves viewers with high hopes that we are going to see more and more portrayals of moms we all are.
They made endless sandwiches and kept us occupied after school, but, like our own mothers, we simply did not see them until we became moms ourselves. Now that we’re dishing up Concerned Faces to our own kids, we're looking back at their patented life advice and appreciating how they have changed after seven decades on the small screen: these are The TV Moms Who Raised Us.