Rita Braver: I was Mary Richards

How Mary Tyler Moore inspired

Many young women in the 1970s saw themselves in the TV character played by Mary Tyler Moore. Among them, our Rita Braver:

Of course, we all loved Mary Tyler Moore, but I was her alter-ego, Mary Richards, the first “girl” (and yes, they called me “girl producer”) in my local newsroom. 

It wasn’t Minneapolis, like Mary, but New Orleans, WWL-TV.  I was 23 years old, a year out of college, and the news director who interviewed me had the same response that Lou Grant did: “I think I might hire a man for it. But we can talk about it.”

In fact, Phil Johnson -- more refined, but just as tough and kind-hearted as Lou Grant -- ultimately told me that I got the job because they couldn’t find a guy to take it for the money they were paying. $72 a week, to be exact; $56 take-home. Even in 1971, that was a pittance. 

But women my age still remember a time when bosses would openly pay women less than men. It was called “getting your foot in the door.”

Candid photos from Rita Braver’s early days in TV journalism. Rita Braver

Still, like Mary Richards, I loved my job.  Making decisions about what would get on our news broadcasts; reading reporters’ copy and having them sometimes actually take my suggestions; and then, of course, having them ask me to gift wrap their wives’ anniversary presents.

But here’s the thing: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” really helped women in newsrooms.  Seeing her on TV made them realize we were here to stay. 

Yes, they would ask me to go charm the grouchy old guy in graphics. But they’d also take me on dangerous assignments, like going into New Orleans Parish Prison.  When I would argue for more Vietnam War coverage, in lieu of a lighter feature, I’d often win.

And I honestly believe that the character of Mary Richards helped demonstrate that you could be a team player, get ahead, and not have to become “one of the boys.”  

It was a proud moment when I left to join CBS, and my boss told me he wanted to hire “more women.”  

He didn’t say “girls.”