What We Learned from Edith Bunker

Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton in "All In The Family," public domain photograph

Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in “All In The Family,” public domain photograph

Edith Bunker explained to her family that the accident began with a can of cling peaches in heavy syrup that jumped out of her grocery cart and dented a parked car.

Her husband, every-man Archie Bunker, glared at her, and her daughter Gloria Bunker Stivic said, “But, Ma, you don’t even drive.”

With liberal son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic also listening, Edith explained laboriously how she pushed a cart out of the supermarket and stopped to admire a baby.  When she couldn’t see the baby, she closed in and her cart lunged forward, down a hill, and hit a car.

Archie demanded the bottom line. “Don’t say cling peaches no more,” he exhorted at his wife with his usual crass reproach.

Edith continued her deliberate storytelling, substituting, “mmmmm, mmm mmm” each time she wanted to say “cling peaches.”  With heavy syrup.

Half of the comic partnership that gave “All in the Family” its evergreen appeal was Jean Stapleton who played Edith Bunker as a befuddled New York housefrau, whose main concern was taking care of her husband, Archie.

The death of  Stapleton on Friday at the age of 90 reminded me how we can learn about ourselves, reflected in the smiles and tears of others. We didn’t laugh at Edith; we laughed with Edith.  We watched her grow in tempered understanding of the changing world as the series progressed.

As a child of the sixties, I noted that the 1971 premiere of “All in the Family” was different from the sitcom pablum the three networks force-fed us.  This was no “Beverly Hillbillies” or “Car 54.”  This invention of Norman Lear called us out, warts and all.

Early in the series, broadcast in my town in the half-hour before the late news (apparently a way to please the censors and overly-zealous parents), something happened off screen that was new to television.  And it drew multiple laughs from the live audience at CBS Studios.

A toilet flushed. Or as Archie would say, “a torlet.”

Television viewers today– for whom there are few boundaries–cannot imagine how groundbreaking that was in 1971.  Just a few years prior, the married Rob and Laura Petrie slept in twin beds on “The Dick van Dyke Show.” Bedrooms barely existed on the small screen, let alone bathrooms with–God forbid–toilets.

While the show tackled big topics not usually sitcom fare–Vietnam, Watergate, miscarriage, homosexuality, racism– the character Edith Bunker gave a generation of women nuanced, smaller lessons in her eight seasons on the show.  During the show’s tenure, I grew from age 14 to 22.  This series made a huge impression on me, and  many of my generation.

Bob Dylan had predicted in song a few years earlier, “The times, they are a changin’.”

Weezie and Edith

Louise Jefferson was a neighbor to the Bunkers.  Later, the Jeffersons would “move on up to the East Side” when Mr. Jefferson’s Dry Cleaners expanded.  For me, a white Protestant girl in the middle of the country, seeing the easy, loving rapport between the two women —  black and white  — was new.  There were no African-Americans living within 20 miles of my home.  My town actually had “blue laws” at one time that no African-American could sleep in the town.

Weezie and Edith had similar problems — they both had stubborn, combative husbands, financial problems, and child-rearing issues.  They both demonstrated the skill in holding a family together, with more challenges than most.  For me, to see these women with those common denominators was a wonderful lesson in humanity.  Their kitchen talks were no different from those I witnessed with my mother and her friends.

Without “All in the Family,” there would have been no spin-off of “The Jeffersons,” another ground-breaking show.  While the plots of episodes of “The Jeffersons” were often lame, the show was a first.  African-Americans could have the same inane sitcoms as their Caucasian brothers, and their wacky neighbors Tom and Helen Willis.  Just like Fred and Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy” before them, the Willis’ got into scrapes with the Jeffersons.  What was different was that Tom and Helen were an interracial couple.  To date, only the big screen tackled it in the drama “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

The Change

Archie often called his wife, “Dingbat.” But the character of Edith Bunker was warm and loving.  While appearing daft sometimes, her reactions to situations schooled viewers in kindness and compassion.  When Edith raged at her family, they knew something was up.  For the first time, a television program — albeit a comedy — dealt with something all women of the day spoke of euphemistically as “the change.” Forty years ago, there was no constant stream of commercial information covering everything from remedies for hot flashes to vaginal dryness. Like many things, it just wasn’t discussed.

For women, this was a real breakthrough. If Edith could go through the change, other women could talk about it. As I suggested, we may have gone too far in the other direction, but bringing this issue “out of the closet” was important.

She even told Archie to “stifle,” which was his usual put down for her.

And Then There’s Maude

Edith’s cousin Maude came to care for the Bunkers when the family all came down with the flu.  Maude Findlay was the post-menopausal, suburban female version of “Meathead,” and presented Archie with another foil.  Just a few months after this episode CBS gave Maude a spin-off.

I did not like the show “Maude.”  I found Bea Arthur’s character Maude too acerbic and unrelatable.  However, Maude spoke for a generation of woman who were often denied a place at society’s table. In the most controversial episode of “Maude”— just weeks before the passage of Roe vs. Wade–the 40-something Maude finds out she is pregnant.  Her adult daughter suggests an abortion.

“Maude” was groundbreaking work, telling for possibly the first time the personal stories around this public and controversial topic.

Without “All in the Family” and Edith Bunker’s cousin, there would have been no “Maude.”

Those Were The Days

Whether seeing the episode where Edith’s growing understanding that the woman whose life Archie saved was actually a man, or watching her pride in her new grandson Joey, we saw in Edith Bunker a woman like many women we knew in 1971.  For me, I saw a little of my own mother, who never swore and often didn’t get the joke but was kind and compassionate.

Jean Stapleton was truly a remarkable woman, as she played Edith Bunker against many of her own instincts.  A talented singer from a musical family, Stapleton earned her Broadway chops in the original versions of “Damn Yankees” and “Bells Are Ringing.”  She reprised her “Bells Are Ringing” role in the movie, as the foil of the dingy Judy Holliday.  Later, Stapleton played a worldly-wise employee of Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail.”

For me, she will forever be the hilarious housewife on Hauser Street, huddled forward, arms tightly clasp against her side, running through the house to meet Archie at the door, a mother and wife who loved her family but who was open to growing as a woman.

Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana writer whose column “The Raven Lunatic” runs in a dozen newspapers and magazines. Amy specializes in health writing, with a passion for rehabilitation and disability issues. She also enjoys writing about politics, travel and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at@ravenonhealth, at her website, www.amyabbottwrites.com or as  Bernadine Spitzsnogel on Open Salon.  She likes to hear from readers at amy@amyabbottwrites.com.

 Photo from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.

  • Jeanne

    I don’t think many people who lived through the seventies can forget that ground breaking Saturday line-up. It was nearly a whole decade of not minding not having a date on Saturday night. Nice piece.

  • I loved this column. Thanks! My pale complement is here:
    http://blog.nj.com/njv_linda_stamato/2013/06/jean_stapleton_veteran_actress.html

    • Amy McVay Abbott

      Thank you, Linda. I love the approach that you took, talking about the wider life of Jean Stapleton as a feminist.

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