Remembering Jean Stapleton and “Edith’s” Compassion in “All in the Family”

June 7, 2013

Edith Bunker attends the funeral of her lesbian cousin Liz (short video clip)
Actress Jean Stapleton died last Friday (May 31, 2013) at the age of 90. Stapleton will always be remembered for her role in the 1970s situation comedy, “All in the Family,” where she played Edith Bunker, the loving, dutiful, submissive wife of Archie, a pompous, opinionated bigot (with a soft spot that sometimes showed up). They were a working-class couple with limited education, living in the New York City borough of Queens and trying to cope with all the societal changes taking place as minorities and women were gaining rights. Other new situations that complicated their understanding of the world kept arising constantly.

In this short clip from a 1977 episode that I’ve chosen as today’s Link of the Day, Edith’s cousin Liz has died. Edith and Archie had always thought of Cousin Liz as a “spinster schoolteacher” sharing an apartment with another teacher, Veronica. After the funeral, Archie and Edith expected to take home a family heirloom, a silver tea set.  When Veronica told Edith privately how much that tea set meant to her as a symbol of her relationship with Liz and their talks over tea together, she revealed the two had been a lesbian couple. Empathic, compassionate Edith was startled by the revelation but saw the relationship for what it was—a kind of marriage, built on love. Edith wanted Veronica to have the tea set.  But when Archie heard about it, he threatened to go to court to get the tea set.  Yet, if he took that route, Veronica would lose her job. Click on the link and watch what happened next.

What is significant about this episode is its appearance in the social climate of the times.  It demonstrated the risk-taking, groundbreaking, courageous nature of “All in the Family” in its handling of social issues through humor and satire.  It’s important to keep in mind that this particular episode is from the program’s eighth  season and aired in October, 1977 —the same year that Anita Bryant launched her successful anti-gay campaign to protect children from “homosexual recruitment” by overturning the nondiscrimation ordinance in Dade County, Florida, and the same year that California state senator John Briggs introduced Proposition 6 (known as “the Briggs initiative”) which would have banned all gay and lesbian school teachers and their supporters from teaching in California schools. I remember, ever so vividly, watching this episode of “All in the Family,” because the fall of 1977 was also the year Virginia Ramey Mollenkott and I were working with our publisher on the finishing details of our coauthored book, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian Response which was published the following spring.

In its obituary for Jean Stapleton, the New York Times called her “not only one of the foremost women in television comedy in the 1970s but a symbol of emergent feminism in American popular culture.” Stapleton told the media more than once that surely the fictional Edith would have supported the Equal Rights Amendment “because it is a matter of simple justice —and Edith is the soul of Justice.”  The Times article pointed out the way Stapleton chose to play Edith: “In Edith, Ms. Stapleton also found vast wells of compassion and kindness, a natural delight in the company of other people, and a sense of fairness and justice that irritated her husband to no end and also put him to shame.” Today’s Link of the Day episode demonstrates that.  Bonus:  As a bit of nostalgia for those of you who remember “All in the Family,” you might enjoy again hearing the theme song, “Those Were the Days”— and maybe connect it with some attitudes today, too!

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

4 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this Link of the Day! ! In 1977, when I watched this episode, I, too, was a closeted public school educator and concerned about the possibility of losing my job as a School Psychologist. I remember marching with a brave group of other educators in a gay pride parade in Seattle where we were totally disguised with pillow cases over our heads with only eye holes cut out. We wore signs that read “Educators with Pride.” Watching this clip brought back many memories of living closeted, with fear and apprehension, from 1947 through 1995 when i finally retired. Thankfully, in 1985 I met the love of my life, and we have been together for 28 years.

  2. Jeanne, I cannot even begin to imagine what you experienced! It’s rather ironic that you had signs saying “Educators with Pride” all while wearing pillow cases over your heads. I am so glad that SOME things have changed.

    At the same time, though, so much has NOT changed. It is hard to believe how many Archie Bunkers we still have in this world of ours. The conversation between Edith and Archie could be on any show today and many people would still resonate with it. Very, very sad.

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