By: Stephanie Margolin, Associate Professor/Librarian, Hunter College Libraries
Featured image: Screenshot of One Day at a Time season 5 opening credits.
As the pilot episode opens, before the credits have even rolled, a smiling Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) exits a suburban home with her suitcases in hand. As the upbeat, catchy theme song plays, Ann gives a little leap of excitement. Early in this episode, we learn that Ann is recently divorced and has moved to a small apartment in Indianapolis with her teenage daughters, Julie and Barbara. As the episode draws to a close, Ann tells her daughters (and the television audience): “Stick with me. We’ll make it.”1 Audiences did. One Day at a Time, a mid-season replacement, ran for nine seasons with consistently high ratings, despite frequent time-slot changes.2
In 1975, when One Day at a Time premiered on CBS, the divorce rate in America had been on the rise for over a decade.3 Over six million children were living in single-parent households with one of their divorced parents, usually their mothers.4 Single-parent families were not uncommon on television sitcoms at this time, though usually they were the result of death, rather than divorce. For this reason, One Day at a Time was revolutionary. As Mackenzie Phillips, the actor who played Julie on One Day (and was, herself, raised by divorced parents) pointed out in 1976 “There are millions of divorced families in America, but until now no TV show has ever dealt with what really goes on.”5
To be fair, family sitcoms (and scripted television broadly) were not representative of any sort of “demographic” reality. Two studies, one by Moore and the other by Skill and Robinson, compare the family structures depicted on television from roughly 1950-1980 to the demographics of American families as seen in the U.S. Census. These studies found that traditional nuclear families were also underrepresented. For entertainment’s sake, there was an oversized emphasis on single fathers and extended families sharing one home, for example My Three Sons, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Family Affair, and The Beverly Hillbillies.6
While we can’t believe what we see on TV, we can question why it took so long for us to see any kind of divorced families on network television. Stigma seems to be one likely reason; Americans have long put stock in a traditional nuclear family model. During the Second World War and in the immediate post-war period, as larger numbers of couples divorced, some Americans feared that divorce was a threat to the “institution of marriage.” Both stigma and a fear of divorce led many American institutions to “double-down” on the importance of marriage. A new field of marriage experts developed and they “reinforced the increasingly popular idea that a failed marriage was strong evidence of individual shortcomings, primarily on the part of the wife.”7
The stigma of divorce was very real on television. In 1970, even though Mary Tyler Moore (the actress) was divorced, CBS network executives demanded that her character, Mary Richards (played by Moore) was never married, rather than divorced, on her eponymous show.8 The stigma surrounding divorce was especially powerful for family shows. With this context in mind, it is especially interesting to consider that Bewitched, a series about a witch-led family, became a hit before the appearance of a divorced family on television. It seems, though, that we can’t blame any single group or institution for this exclusion. Both the television industry and their advertising sponsors catered to the perceived tastes of the broader public, and particularly their desired demographic audience.
In addition to the stigma of divorce, divorced mothers faced very real economic challenges. These challenges were potentially difficult to depict on television, both because of television’s consumerist goals and because these problems, while systemic, appeared more internal or personal than political. For example, legal and economic policies in the U.S. were built to support the experiences of white nuclear families with single breadwinners, who were always men. Writing in 1970, Verna Tomasson emphasized the shortcomings of American legal and economic policies and the ways they negatively affected women due to systemic inequality, noting that alimony “represents a concession to the fact that men and women do not have equal opportunities for employment and job training…[and] that the state does not provide adequate day care facilities so that the divorced woman can go back to work.”9 Unfortunately, due to these systemic problems, not individual failings, many households led by women in this era faced “downward economic mobility.”10 A significant number lived in poverty, the likelihood of which increased in families with younger children. Furthermore, there was a large gender pay gap (exacerbated further by race), Social Security penalized women without paid employment, and women couldn’t obtain credit in their own names until 1974.11 Alimony and child support proved false promises for many families as it was often too little money to adequately support the family and too hard to collect if the father refused or was unable to pay what he owed.12
One Day at a Time successfully reflected some of these realities, while skirting others. Economically speaking, the Romano-Cooper household had one big advantage: with teenagers rather than young children, Ann didn’t have to worry about childcare. Even so, Ann’s family experienced downward mobility, which was the societal norm for divorced mothers. They moved to a small apartment in Indianapolis, no longer able to afford their (married) family home in the suburbs. Money continued to be tight well into Season 2. When Ann received a promotion, daughter Julie cheered, “We’re lower middle class again,” indicating that it had taken two years (and a full year of Ann’s employment) for the family to catch up.13
In large part, the economic challenges centered on Ann’s struggle to find work. As a “displaced homemaker” lacking a college degree, Ann found few viable job opportunities when she attempted to join the workforce.14 However, her gender and her being a mother also significantly impeded her employment opportunities. In the pilot, Ann worked as an Avon representative, which was an exhausting and poorly compensated job.15 It took nearly the whole first season for her to find full-time work. In one episode, she fended off a lecherous potential employer, and still did not get the job.16 Once employed, we see her (almost) lose a promotion to a man whose better qualification is that he was a man. Ironically, this rival turned down the job because his wife didn’t want him traveling.17 Watching in 2022, in the years following the #MeToo movement, some of this behavior is shocking. However, One Day originally aired a mere decade after Title VII, the 1964 Civil Rights Act that aimed to end sex discrimination in the workplace, and a few years before Catharine McKinnon’s 1979 Sexual Harassment of Working Women framed sexual harassment, legally, as a form of discrimination.18
One Day attempted to present the realities of dating and love for a divorced mother and her two teenage daughters, but often muddied the water with hypocrisy and double-standards. One Day began during America’s so-called sexual revolution, but it did not extend into Ann’s household. Ann advocated for abstinence for her daughters and seemed ambivalent about her own sexuality. In “Chicago Rendezvous,” Ann “picked up” (her words) pilot Steve Blanchard, her first romantic interest since her divorce.19 While she passionately asserted, “I need a man,” she was conflicted when he invited her for a romantic weekend. Rather than exploring the complex ambivalence a newly divorced parent might be feeling, or allowing Ann to be overtly sexual, the writers created a conflict about Ann’s feelings of hypocrisy. She struggled with how she could enjoy a sexual relationship herself while encouraging her children’s abstinence. The next episode introduced Candy, Ann’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend. Candy was young, vivacious, and sexually attractive.20 This double-standard suggests that new sexual partners were more appropriate for divorced fathers than divorced mothers.
One Day successfully presented some of the realities of divorced households led by women, but there the show also had limitations. In Prime-Time Families, Ella Taylor notes, “Of course, Ann does win in ways that elude many of the women, particularly the single mothers, who watch her show.”21 One Day glossed over financial struggles, Ann quickly became quite successful at work, and had relationships with several different romantic partners. Specific problems were, for the most part, resolved within the half hour. By the end of the series, Ann and her daughters were married and Ann was a grandmother. For those who questioned how a divorced, single woman could raise two daughters, Ann and her fictional family did just fine.22 Ultimately, One Day introduced American audiences to a divorcee-headed household, and showed them that, for the most part, this household was very much like their own.
Stephanie Margolin (she/her/hers) is an Associate Professor and Librarian at Hunter College, CUNY in New York City. Her research has run the gamut from information literacy pedagogy to academic library bathrooms (yes, really). Her first (research) love is popular culture, particularly television. She has also presented on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend at the Popular Culture Association. Currently TV faves: Succession, Better Things, and Heartstopper.
- One Day at a Time, season 1, episode 1, “Ann’s Decision,” directed by Hal Cooper, written by Whitney Blake, Allan Manings, and Norman Lear, featuring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli, first aired December 16, 1975, in broadcast syndication, https://youtu.be/nD-dGtts_8M.
- Cobbett Steinberg, TV Facts (New York: Facts on File, 1985), 109-110.
- Kristin Celello, Making Marriage Work: A History of Marriage and Divorce in the Twentieth-Century United States (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 119-120.
- “Throwaway Marriages: Threat to the American Family,” US News & World Report, January 13, 1975, 43-46.
- Richard Trubo, “MacKenzie’s Break Came At Amateur Night Show,” Salina Journal (Kansas), May 23, 1976, 31.
- Marvin I. Moore, “The Family as Portrayed on Prime-Time Television, 1947-1990: Structure and Characteristics,” Sex Roles 26, no. 1–2 (1992): 41–61; and Thomas Skill and James D. Robinson, “Four Decades of Families on Television: A Demographic Profile, 1950-1989,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 38, no. 4 (1994): 449-464.
- Celello, Making Marriage Work, Chapter 2, especially p. 71.
- Allen Burns as told to Stephen Galloway, “The ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ Show That Wasn’t: How CBS Refused to Have the Actress Play a Divorcee,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 2, 2017.
- Verna Tomasson, “Women as Property,” The New Republic, 163, no. 12 (1970): 17.
- Cheryl A. Buehler and Janice Hogan, “Managerial Behavior and Stress in Families Headed by Divorced Women: A Proposed Framework,” Family Relations 29, no. 4 (1980): 526.
- Gender pay gap in Buehler and Hogan, “Managerial Behavior and Stress,” 527; and Janelle Jones, “5 Facts about the State of the Gender Pay Gap, ” U.S. Department of Labor Blog, March 19, 2021. Social Security in Tomasson, “Women as Property,” 17-18. Women’s credit in Rose Eveleth, “Forty Years Ago, Women Had a Hard Time Getting Credit Cards,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 8, 2014.
- Buehler and Hogan, “Managerial Behavior and Stress,” 527.
- One Day at a Time, season 2, episode 19, “The Traveling Salesperson,” directed by Herbert Kenwith, written by Alan Manings, Whitney Blake, and Norman Lear, featuring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli, first aired Feb 15, 1977, in broadcast syndication, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/amzn1.dv.gti.36aa5eb6-4388-496d-8672-2b6ede29fb9e?ref=imdb_web&autoplay=1&ref_=imdbref_tt_wbr_fdv&tag=imdbtag_tt_wbr_fdv-20.
- Ella Taylor. Prime-Time Families: Television Culture in Post-War America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 87.
- One Day at a Time, season 1, episode 1, “Ann’s Decision.”
- One Day at a Time, season 1, episode 4, “How to Succeed Without Trying,” directed by Gloria Monty & Noam Pitlik, written by Whitney Blake, Alan Manings, and Norman Lear, featuring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli, first aired Jan 6, 1976, in broadcast syndication, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/amzn1.dv.gti.ab1c81a8-73d7-4169-946a-a7359a116295?ref=imdb_web&autoplay=1&ref_=imdbref_tt_wbr_fdv&tag=imdbtag_tt_wbr_fdv-20.
- One Day at a Time, season 1, episode 14, “Dad Comes Back: Part 1” directed by Sandy Kenyon, written by Whitney Blake, Alan Manings, and Norman Lear, featuring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli, first aired March 23, 1976, in broadcast syndication, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/amzn1.dv.gti.937b7445-961c-4645-a126-74e736d5861b?ref=imdb_web&autoplay=1&ref_=imdbref_tt_wbr_fdv&tag=imdbtag_tt_wbr_fdv-20.
- Kimberly Hamlin, “A Primer on the History of Sexual Harassment–And Why It Deserves A Place in Diversity Training,” Fast Company, March 8, 2021.
- One Day at a Time, season 1, episode 2, “Chicago Rendezvous,” directed by Don Richardson, written by Whitney Blake, Alan Manings, and Norman Lear, featuring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli, first aired Dec 23, 1975, in broadcast syndication, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/amzn1.dv.gti.9430a7fe-860a-48b1-a1b9-99579411731c?ref=imdb_web&autoplay=1&ref_=imdbref_tt_wbr_fdv&tag=imdbtag_tt_wbr_fdv-20.
- One Day at a Time, season 1, episode 3, “Jealousy,” directed by Noam Pitlik, written by Whitney Blake, Alan Manings, and Norman Lear, featuring Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli, first aired Dec 30, 1975, in broadcast syndication, https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/amzn1.dv.gti.707318d8-5f77-4596-b32a-27ea4644a416?ref=imdb_web&autoplay=1&ref_=imdbref_tt_wbr_fdv&tag=imdbtag_tt_wbr_fdv-20.
- Taylor, Prime-Time Families, 88.
- Reality for Mackenzie Phillips was much rougher at this time. She was fired from the show due to unreliable behavior because of drug and alcohol addiction. Howard Breuer, “Mackenzie Phillips: An Addict’s Redemption,” People, April 7, 2014, 75.