Lucille Ball: Feminist Icon
07/21/2023 | By Victoria Pedraza
Lucille Ball. The icon. The legend.
To be clear, Ball was not a vocal or politically driven feminist. Nonetheless, I feel confident in calling her a feminist icon. Her character broke the mold for female characters at the time, and Ball broke through the proverbial glass ceiling, which was so much lower in the 50s than it is now.
Whenever I think about a woman from the past and wonder whether I can call her a feminist icon with a straight face, I first look at the time she lived in, so let’s start there.
Lucille Ball was born in 1911 and died in 1989, aged 77. I’d say, the biggest feminist issue of the 20th century was the suffragette movement, the decades-long struggle through which women got the right to vote. In the US, this movement ran from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the adoption of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Here I’d like to point out that it was far more complicated for black women since many states passed laws that limited their rights. For them, the struggle didn’t end until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act passed. Some other time, I’d be happy to write more extensively about the history of women’s right to vote, but let’s focus on Lucille.
Women’s Portrayal in the 1950s
Just to name the three most important female TV characters of the era: Lucy from I Love Lucy, June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, and Donna Reed from The Donna Reed Show. Women were typically portrayed in a household setting, as housewives. More specifically, as perpetually happy, preppy, loving housewives. My source on women in the 1950s television says the following:
These characters were devoid of true feelings, emotions, and ambitions and unfortunately, this was reflected in the society of the time. Overall, men dominated television, with the most popular shows being “Bonanza,” “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman” and newscasts that featured solely male reporters. As a parallel, men also dominated almost every single workforce and certainly every household. (Mallon, 2014)
I Love Lucy was also one of the first TV shows to feature a pregnancy. They couldn’t use the word pregnant because CBS thought it was too vulgar. They instead had to say “expecting”. Then there’s the portrayal and celebration of a strong female friendship between Lucy and Ethel, with none of those infuriating tropes Hollywood often falls into.
Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz's friendship in "I Love Lucy" broke the norm in several ways, challenging traditional portrayals of female relationships on television during the 1950s. Here are some key aspects that set them apart:Lucy and Ethel's friendship is genuine and deep. They were not merely acquaintances or background characters; their bond was central to the show's narrative. They supported each other through thick and thin, sharing laughter, tears, and adventures.
Their friendship also emphasized the idea that women could be powerful when united. Together, they were able to tackle challenges, often getting involved in humorous misadventures. Despite their distinct personalities, Lucy and Ethel embraced each other's quirks and differences. They demonstrated that true friendship involves accepting one another for who they are, flaws, and all.The friendship between Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz remains iconic because it presents a positive and empowering portrayal of female friendship, promoting the idea that women can have strong, supportive bonds and be more than just side characters in a male-dominated narrative. Their relationship helped shape the portrayal of female friendships in popular culture and has continued to resonate with audiences for decades.
Lastly, this show had the very first televised biracial couple. Ball had to fight to get her Cuban-born husband the role of her television husband. CBS thought the public wouldn’t accept a white American girl being married to a Cuban immigrant. Ball wouldn’t do the show without Desi Arnaz, a pioneer in his own right as a Latino immigrant working in Hollywood at a time when representation wasn’t a high priority.
That’s Lucy Ricardo, but what about Lucille Ball?
We can see her impact on feminism and women's empowerment in various aspects of her life and career:
Let’s start with the fact that she became the first woman to run a production company when she, and her then-husband, established Desilu Productions in 1950. She, of course, didn’t stop there. After selling Desilu Productions, she established Lucille Ball Productions in 1968, making her the first woman to run a production company with no male help.Lucille Ball's successful career spanned several decades, challenging the notion that women in Hollywood have limited shelf lives. She continued to work and remained relevant in the industry well into her later years.
Throughout her career, she took on various roles that defied traditional gender stereotypes. She portrayed strong, independent women with agency, demonstrating that female characters could be complex, multidimensional, and not solely defined by their relationships with men.Lucille Ball was also vocal about supporting women's rights and equality. She used her platform to speak out about important issues, including advocating for equal pay and better working conditions for women in the entertainment industry.
Lucille Ball's contributions go beyond her iconic role as Lucy Ricardo. Her achievements as a businesswoman, her commitment to gender equality, and her influence on pop culture all contribute to her status as a feminist icon who left a lasting impact on society. Her influence extended far beyond her time, and her achievements still inspire women to pursue their dreams, challenge societal norms, and strive for equality in various industries.
Bailey, M., Dr. (n.d.). Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights. https://www.nps.gov/articles/black-women-and-the-fight-for-voting-rights.htm#:~:text=After%20the%20Nineteenth%20Amendment%20was,Americans%20and%20limited%20their%20freedoms
Schuessler, J. (2019, August 15). The Complex History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/15/arts/design/the-complex-history-of-the-womens-suffrage-movement.html#:~:text=That%20story%20began%20with%20the,voting%20rights%20in%20American%20history
Mallon, M. (2014, February 19). Women in Media: 1950s Television. Morganne's Civic Issues Blog. https://sites.psu.edu/civicissuesmallon/2014/02/19/women-in-media-1950s-television/
Tawney, R. (2022, January 4). Being Ricky Ricardo: Why Desi Arnaz matters. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2022/01/04/being-ricky-ricardo-why-desi-arnaz-matters-lucille-ball-entertainment-streaming-raj-tawney/