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12 Amazing Women Who Changed TV Forever

From Patty Duke to Roseanne Barr, these pioneering actresses reflected the booming power and influence of boomer women

Amazing Women Who Changed TV

En español | From the 1960s to the 1990s, these pathbreakers tackled lead roles in series television, reflecting a culture quake in the making. Take a look at a dozen of our favorite actresses who led the charge to shatter stereotypes — and glass ceilings.

Patty Duke

The Patty Duke Show 1963-66       

Duke delighted boomer tweens and teens as both Patty (who had “only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights”) and her “identical cousin,” Cathy, a sophisticated diplomat’s daughter. Now married to a firefighter in Idaho, Duke, 67, occasionally appears on TV series such as Glee and Hawaii Five-0.

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Marlo Thomas

That Girl 1966-71

Ann Marie, the wide-eyed character Thomas played on That Girl, was a single working woman, but the star nixed a CBS plan to end the series with her wedding to fiancé Donald. (The duo attended a gathering of newly minted feminists instead.) At 76, Thomas continues to advocate for women through her active writing and acting career.

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Diahann Carroll

Julia 1968-71

Widely credited as the first African American woman to anchor her own series, Carroll entranced viewers as a single mother — a nurse widowed by the Vietnam War — trying to raise her young son, Corey (Marc Copage). Now 78, Carroll has a fun recurring role as June Ellington, con man Neal Caffrey’s landlord on White Collar.

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Mary Tyler Moore

The Mary Tyler Moore Show 1970-77

This cultural-watershed sitcom brought us the unsinkable Mary Richards, a single career woman over 30 who didn’t need a man to support her. Demure but sexy, Mary was one of TV’s first women to let a boyfriend sleep over. Now 77, Moore, who has diabetes, is an activist for research to find a cure.

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Bea Arthur

Maude 1972-78

The actress born Bernice Frankel was nearly 50 when she took the lead role in Norman Lear’s daring comedy, which explored topics taboo then and dicey even now. No one laughed, though, when Maude and screen husband Walter took the agonizing step of terminating a pregnancy. Though epochal for prime time, abortion had in fact been a story element as early as 1964 on the soap opera Another World. Arthur died at 86 in 2009.

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Esther Rolle

Good Times 1974-79

After playing Florida Evans as a housekeeper on Maude, Rolle stepped into the meatier role of playing her as a housewife struggling to move her family out of the Chicago projects on the spinoff Good Times. One of 18 children — and once a student at Yale — Rolle lobbied producer Norman Lear to make Good Times reflect real times. She died at 78 in 1998.

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Angie Dickinson

Police Woman 1974–78

A woman in uniform was a rarity when Dickinson donned the stripes of Sgt. “Pepper” Anderson in this cop drama that became a template for the flood of female-centric crime shows to follow. Don’t bet against Dickinson: Now 82, the ace poker player appeared on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown in 2004.

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Lynda Carter

Wonder Woman 1975-79

It’s all in the stance: Beauty queen Lynda Carter, TV’s first female superhero, played the DC Comics Amazonian warrior princess with a mix of hearty athleticism and healthy irony. Now 62 and married for 30 years to Washington, D.C., lawyer Robert Altman, Carter left showbiz after the series to start a family. She recently revived her career as a singer.

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Bonnie Franklin

One Day at a Time 1975-84

Franklin was not the first divorced mother on TV, but she was among the most realistic. As Ann Romano, she battled her ex for child support, scrimped and saved, and discussed virginity with her teen daughters (future stars Valerie Bertinelli and Mackenzie Phillips). Franklin died of complications from pancreatic cancer last year at 69.

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Susan Saint James and Jane Curtin

Kate & Allie 1984-89

Divorce was no biggie by the time best friends and divorced moms Kate and Allie moved in together, but the notion of a blended household was: Kate worked full-time, while Allie looked after both women’s children. Sherry Coben has said she created the series to showcase the strength of female friendships. Now 67, Saint James most recently appeared on Law & Order: SVU. The 66-year-old Curtin, a Saturday Night Live alum who went on to star in 3rd Rock From the Sun, returned to TV in 2012 as Dr. Joanne Webster on the crime drama Unforgettable.

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Roseanne Barr

Roseanne 1988-97

After starting out doing stand-up about a hard-boiled housewife, Barr landed this series celebrating the daily life of a working-class family in the Chicago suburbs. The show never dodged the very real conflicts between parents and children, often settled with laughter. Now 61, Barr had her own short-lived talk show, then — in a plot twist too rich to be televised — ran for president of the United States in 2012.

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