The 10 Baddest Women of Classic TV
These strong, amazing characters were not to be messed with
En español | Some of TV's baddest women weren't born yesterday. They can be found all over classic TV, from Star Trek to All in the Family, Batman to Xena: Warrior Princess. They're supercharged mortals capable of slaying mythic gods like the muscular Xena, suburban mothers like Maude who make it clear with every sharp takedown that they're not the weaker sex and sci-fi officers commanding the bridge of the USS Enterprise like Lieutenant Uhura. Some kick. Some bite. Some just whittle their adversaries down to size with a well-chosen retort. Roll over? Never!
Meet ten top TV ladies whose sparks burn bright as ever.
Agnes Moorehead's Endora
The show: Bewitched
The era: 1964-72
The swagger: Stage, radio, film and TV actress Moorehead's relentlessly scheming mother-in-law-from-hell is a triumph in typecasting, and it's a tribute to Moorehead's chops as a scene-stealer. Endora may enjoy making her son-in-law's life miserable, but she also constantly shakes up her daughter Samantha's feeble attempts to pass as a typical suburban housewife. That's a feminist, badass wink, if ever there was one.
Where to watch: Bewitched, on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play
Diana Rigg's Mrs. Emma Peel
The show: The Avengers
The era: 1965-8
The swagger: Sleek, sexy ‘60s style icon Rigg was delicious, delightful – and deadly. She was so much more than Patrick Macnee's secret agent John Steed's sidekick. Sharp as a tack, the feminist role model could rock a cat-suit, launch a deadly karate kick and speed a classic British sports car through many windy spy-versus-spy adventures. Self-possessed and perennially amused, Peel was as tough as TV actresses ever got in the ‘60s. And Rigg also earned four Emmy nominations for her role as major player Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones.
Where to watch: The Avengers, on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Reelgood, VUDU, britbox
Barbara Stanwyck's Victoria Barkley
The show: The Big Valley
The era: 1965-9
The swagger: Brooklyn-tough Stanwyck's bigger-than-life platinum-haired Western matriarch had the distinction of being the only one in her two-fisted frontier family who didn't get shot. Maybe it helped that she knew her way around both a rifle and a derringer. Over the course of the show she let her wig out, eased her corset and exchanged prairie dresses for jeans and leather jackets. Over 103 out of 112 episodes, Stanwyck did her own stunts. Not bad for a four-time Oscar nominated movie star who was the highest paid woman of 1944.
Where to watch: The Big Valley, on Starz
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Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Nyota Uhura
The show: Star Trek
The era: 1966-9
The swagger: Nichols, 87, made history when she filmed the first interracial Black-white kiss on American national TV opposite her boss Captain Kirk, played by William Shatner. It wasn't all kisses and roses as the Enterprise officer comanned the communication systems and stood toe-to-toe with Kirk, Spock, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy and Hikaru Sulu. She did everything the guys did — but with pointy nails and a micro mini. Given how fabulously put-together she always looked, what deck on the Enterprise housed the high-end salon? Added bonus: Uhura wasn't afraid to stand up to Spock's incessant rationalism.
Where to watch: Star Trek, on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, CBS All Access, VUDU
Eartha Kitt's Catwoman
The show: Batman
The era: 1967-8
The swagger: In the era of the Tom Jones 1965 hit “What's New, Pussycat,” seductive Kitt was purrfect as the sensual supervixen Catwoman, opposite Adam West's Caped Crusader. In the show's third and final season, singer Kitt stepped into the paws of series’ favorite Julie Newmar, who left to star in Mackenna's Gold opposite Gregory Peck. Kitt, less a love interest than a gleeful arch rival, brought style, rhythm, ruthlessness and a hepcat's quick reactions to her skintight leather onesie. This kitten has claws and she's not afraid to use them.
Where to watch: Batman, on iTunes, VUDU, YouTube, Google Play
Bea Arthur's Maude Findlay
The shows: All in the Family, Maude
The era: 1971-8
The swagger: Brassy stage actress Arthur brought a bigger-than-life, independent, educated suburban presence to the character of Cousin Maude Findlay on Norman Lear's All in the Family and divinely helmed her self-named spin-off. In those days, she might have been called a women's libber by Carroll O'Connor's cranky conservative patriarch, Archie Bunker. But if being feminist is being true to one's nature, never suffering fools and letting zingers fly, that's Maude in a pantsuit.
Where to watch: Maude, on Amazon Prime, iTunes
Isabel Sanford's Louise Jefferson
The shows: All in the Family, The Jeffersons
The era: 1971-85
The swagger: Over a decade from 1975 to 1985, and 252 episodes, Sanford embodied another in a string of strong Norman Lear matriarchs. In this popular All in the Family sitcom spin-off, she plays the better half of a well-to-do African American couple. When they move on up and integrate a fancy apartment building, Louise “Weezy'’ Jefferson refuses to let anyone cut her down to size. She recognizes her worth and holds on to it despite cultural headwinds. And when it comes to Sherman Hemsley's testy Mr. Jefferson, it's the warm-hearted and wise Louise that ultimately wears the pants in the family and, often and comically, sets her husband straight.
Where to watch: The Jeffersons, on Starz, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Hulu
Sian Phillips’ Livia
The show: I, Claudius
The era: 1976
The swagger: The enduring BBC Roman Empire classic based on Robert Graves’ novels delivered the scheming murderous matriarch to put Medea – or Game of Thrones' Cersei Lannister – to shame. Intent on maintaining the succession from her husband Augustus Caesar to her son Tiberius, Livia goes the distance, poisoning her stepdaughter's husband, hiring assassins for other rivals to the throne and masterminding a murderous spree to maintain power without breaking a nail. This mama's a real killer, and Phillips makes her utterly absorbing to watch throughout.
Where to watch: I, Claudius, on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Acorn TV
Lucy Lawless’ Xena
The show: Xena: Warrior Princess
The era: 1995-2001
The swagger: Almost always dressed for a fight with her razor-sharp circular chakram and shield and leather bustier, this fierce, mythical warrior princess battles everyone from Julius Caesar to Mephistopheles. With right on her side along with her bard and bestie Gabrielle (Renee O'Connor) singing her praises, and a mad pair of muscular thighs to rival Tina Turner's, Lawless brings order wherever she goes. Today's crop of kick-butt warrior women currently very hot in film owe Xena a debt of gratitude.
Where to watch: Xena: Warrior Princess, on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, syfy, NBC.com
Sara Ramirez's Calliope Iphegenia Torres, M.D.
The show: Grey's Anatomy
The era: 2006-16
The swagger: Broadway star Ramirez (Spamalot) busts stereotypes as a bisexual orthopedic surgeon who marries her pediatric surgeon girlfriend Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw) among other badassery: juggling a demanding career, hospital busybodies, same-sex marriage, a car accident and becoming the mother of a preemie without losing her head. Torres is the longest-running LGBTQ character in American TV history with 239 episodes in the can.
Where to watch: Grey's Anatomy, on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube