How Edith informed Jean Stapleton's real-life views
Sometimes, a bolt of inspiration can strike out of nowhere and change us forever. Other times, that same encouragement can stare us in the face for years, and it's up to us to make room for growth within. In the case of TV's Jean Stapleton, her on-air persona may have been the least likely source for profound personal change.
Stapleton, of course, played one of television's most memorable, if often one-note, housewives in Edith Bunker. While some episodes pointed towards a real woman beneath the shrill affectation, most of the time, Edith was underfoot, a foil for Archie with little agency of her own. Edith was Archie's metaphorical punching bag, the vessel into which he dumped all of his awful opinions. She was his sounding board and contradicted Archie only when that served a comedic purpose.
In real life though, as we all are, Jean Stapleton was a whole person with thoughts and feelings not crafted by a television writers' room. Her life informed her opinions. People change, and so do their feelings. Stapleton, in keeping with the times, was radicalized by what she learned on All in The Family.
One episode in particular, season nine's eighth episode, "Edith vs. The Bank," changed Jean Stapleton forever, and may have even had real-world reverberations. In that story, Stapleton's Edith wants to buy Archie a new TV. However, she's unable to take out a line of credit by herself, because she's a woman. Further, Edith fails in convincing a bank to provide her a loan, again because she'd need a man to co-sign. Stapleton learned that this wasn't just a plot point devised by the show's writers. At the time, there were real-life laws that would've prevented Edith, or any married woman, from attaining the financial independence she deserved.
The story stayed with Stapleton long after production wrapped. Rather than put what she'd learned away with the script, she did what Edith rarely could. Jean Stapleton spoke up.
"There's an obligation that fame puts on you to participate and do some good," Stapleton told The Charlotte Observer in 1984, "because it seems that people listen to the person they've invited into their home every week. When fame struck, I had no idea it would bring upon me all these offers to participate in society." Those offers included participation in a Presidential commission on the status of women.
"I found it easy to embrace the women's movement [...] because I'm a woman. Equal rights to me was natural, a simple matter of justice."
Stapleton noted that she rarely felt discriminated against early in her show business career, as she was a woman playing women's roles. However, years later, she entered what she called her "age of enlightenment," and began seeing the world differently.
"What's so interesting to me is the sometimes slow—I know it was for me—and sometimes faster discovery of one's own capabilities, which are always greater than our limited sense of them," said Stapleton. "So I am in wonderment about this discovery: that what you have personally, in terms of your character and talent and psychology, is what determines your contribution, It isn't something that comes from 'out there,' It's not a question of intellect and scholarship. I didn't have to go and learn it out of a book. It's thrilling to realize that because of my experience in a TV series, I can be supportive in Washington in the halls of power—and perhaps persuasive."
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