Bea Arthur "changed the perception of a woman's role"

Rue McClanahan talks about her late costar, who could tell a dirty joke and sing a classy ditty with Rock Hudson.

Published April 27, 2009 2:05PM (EDT)

One speck of light in a grim news weekend was the tributes that continued to roll in honoring Bea Arthur. The actress who helped redefine women's roles on television died on Saturday, at 86, and since then, it's given us all an excuse to talk about her long, surprising life. For instance, did you know that Bea Arthur was a Marine? She volunteered as a medical technician before WWII, becoming one of the first female recruits. (Thanks, Neatorama.) She, of course, had a fabled theater career. And, as her costar Rue McClanahan put it to Entertainment Weekly, "Boy she could tell a dirty joke." In that interview, McClanahan went on to talk about how Arthur's television roles shifted the way women saw themselves.

I think, in both of those shows ["Maude" and "The Golden Girls"] we really did change the perception of a woman's role. I don't think anybody thought that it was okay to be a feminist back when she was doing "Maude." And I'm sure that [show] released a lot of inhibitions. I know "The Golden Girls" certainly did because I've got fan mail saying "Thank you for allowing me to act and dress like I feel." Because in those days, when you were over 50, you were supposed to be wearing certain types of clothes and behaving a certain way. And women were writing saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you for the freedom, for the release, for the permission." And I'm sure Bea got that same kind of fan mail, too.

Not to quibble with McClanahan, but I suspect some people considered it OK to be a feminist prior to "Maude." Still, the point is how revolutionary it was to see such a character on TV, as Rebecca Traister pointed out in her post on Saturday. "Compromising, enterprising, anything-but-tranquilizing, right-on Maude was my first feminist hero," Broadsheet contributor Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in an e-mail exchange about Arthur this weekend, pointing out that her 5-year-old daughter is, in fact, named Bea.

For me, the best part of these Bea Arthur tributes, however, has been an excuse to watch Bea Arthur perform. As Arthur once told McClanahan, "All I want to do is sing in front of an orchestra." So let's take another break from those grim headlines and enjoy her doing just that in a duet with Rock Hudson from a bygone era. This video was posted in the comments section of Traister's earlier post, but we thought it deserved to have a spotlight all its own.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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