Interviewee: Jean Stapleton
Interviewer: Constance Ashton Myers
Constance Ashton Myers: Would you tell me what your name is please, ma’am?
Jean Stapleton: My name is Jean Stapleton.
CM: And where do you live, Ms. Stapleton?
JS: I live in Los Angeles and I am a member of the International Women’s Year Commission.
CM: Can you tell, Ms. Stapleton, yes, I believe you are a National Commissioner so you really have to be in the plenary sessions but how did you first become aware that there was a question of justice for women in our United States?
JS: Well, I can’t think of the day or the time.
CM: It wasn’t a specific consciousness-raising event?
JS: I must say that I had been a passive observer of it all as I went about my life, and I suppose that Eleanor Roosevelt was the focus for me. I admired her. I was aware that she was the first presiding officer of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women formed in 1962 because I was an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, but I wasn’t too aware of why this commission was formed to tell you the truth.
When I was cast in All in the Family in 1971, well actually in 1969 because we made the first pilot then, ‘68, I joined the Tandem Productions Inc. headed by Norman Lear, noted for his social conscience. So finally two years or three years later in 1971 All in the Family went on the air and in Mr. Lear’s organization was a very outstanding woman named Virginia Carter who was a former president of the Southern California chapter of NOW, but Virginia is the first active feminist that I really became friendly with and so through that association I learned a lot.
Also, I was invited to a dinner which Frances Lear, Norman Lear’s wife held in California, a dinner where outstanding women in the press, in business and the media gathered, and also a congresswoman and a judge were there, and I suddenly saw all this talent and realized where women were and they were all gathered to examine how they could help in the unratified states of ERA. So I asked myself how could I help, and we all agreed that Jean could help by doing some ads in magazines and newspapers, principally in Florida and Illinois, and that’s how it all began.
Now, these ads reached the attention of the president and his people because in June 1976 I was called and asked to be a member of this commission. I didn’t know a lot about the commission but I said, “Does this commission support ERA?” And they said, “Yes,” and I said, “Well, I guess I can be helpful.” Because I don’t join or give my name to anything unless I can be personally committed and involved, and I’m grateful to say I could be and I wouldn’t have missed this historic experience.
CM: It is an historic experience, but what I was probing for is a specific event in your life, maybe as a young adult or perhaps even as a child, or something that you may have read, or perhaps differential treatment within your family; any kind of experience that bore in upon you that women were treated differently and perhaps less well than men.
JS: All right, I will. And it’s a very profound question that not many people ask. In fact, you’re the first person that has.
CM: Well, this is for the historical record. We are historians all of us and we’re probing for this kind of thing.
JS: Well, I can’t remember any childhood experience that affected me this way, but as I grew all of the traditional beliefs concerning marriage in which the thought kept coming to me from sources was compromise, give, give a little, or more than a little. The wife must give up some cherished activity or whatever in order to make a successful marriage. It was always coming to me from all kinds of sources. It had never been laid on me too heavily until this time, but you read about it. You read about it in books; it comes at you. And I thought to myself, well, it just felt wrong and I couldn’t quite accept it or believe it and knew that I could not give up my greatest happiness which was acting, my career.
Well, this very conviction to myself, that I didn’t have to give it up because it was something good and right for me helped me go into marriage with trust in the future, trust in that to me a principle which is justice, it’s a principle, and I thought if that principle is a reality then I can trust. You’re going into the unknown, naturally. You can’t have your future life mapped out. Of course I had the good fortune of being engaged and marrying a man who was greatly supportive and very understanding, because I suppose I would have met an immediate wall if he wasn’t.
CM: Did your career continue then?
JS: Yes, it certainly did.
CM: To the same degree as it had been going before?
JS: Oh yes. However, we did move out of New York City.
CM: Were you born and raised in New York?
JS: Yes. Now, New York at that time was the center of theater. It would appear that I would have been handicapped by leaving the city after our children were–
CM: What years are we talking about?
JS: We’re talking about the late sixties that we made this move. The children by then were kindergarten age and a little younger, nursery school age. But I moved out again with this trust.
CM: Did you have children between performances, between commitments?
JS: Just about.
CM: And how many did you have?
JS: Two. But what I’m trying to bring out is of course we talked before we were married, but getting back to your initial question, if I had accepted those traditional beliefs and myths about submission to a husband’s career and life totally and giving up my own I would have been stopped. I would have had to give up the idea of marriage, you see. But trusting the principle of justice, it’s an inner thing. I mean, I didn’t find it outside of me anywhere. I found it within myself, trusting that principle and–
CM: You also had trust your spouse to honor that principle.
JS: Yes, I did, yes, that’s right. That gave me the freedom to enter into marriage, but that was the most profound effect of all these myths about role playing of male and female.
CM: It was a matter of deep self inquiry I suppose, before you took this step, knowing that you also had a life of your own to pursue. What did he do? Did your career conflict with his at all?
JS: No. We worked it out. The thing is you got to go in with that trust and not be afraid of having to lose something. All I can say is it’s a matter of faith.
CM: This is the first time that the question really bore in upon you then, entering marriage. There was no experience in childhood that made you notice that you were treated somewhat differently as a girl?
JS: I can remember now, and this whole weekend and this whole movement stir those memories, resenting the priority–
CM: Given a brother maybe?
JS: I had a brother whom I really respected and loved, but I resented priorities. It’s hard to separate those priorities from just your own being the younger sibling and resenting the older’s privileges, but I’m sure part of that resentment was due to the boy’s privileges in areas where the girl was not even expected to be.
CM: Were you parents supportive of your pursuing something independent on your own? Were they supportive of your ambitions?
JS: Oh very, yes. I feel that they exemplify what I try to practice with my children and that is, give them freedom of choice and let their own ambition and desires grow independently. Just encourage growth, but don’t outline it. You see what I’m saying? That’s what my parents practiced. They didn’t lay on me you must get married and have children; you must do this and that. It wasn’t pointed out as my mission. They let my mission unfold within my own consciousness and desires, which I think is very wise and sound thinking.
CM: What do you think may be the consequences in your personal life of your having participated in this conference?
JS: Well, I’ve learned so much this weekend, as I’ve learned since I joined the IWY Commission, and I suppose that my conviction of this equality of the sexes will merely deepen as a result of this, and it’s strengthened already by the presence of all of these marvelous women.
CM: Seventeen thousand and more. The biggest such convention ever held of women.
CM: What do you think will be the consequences in the larger social context? What about short range and long range, what are your anticipations?
JS: Well of course I’m very optimistic and feel that if the president and Congress take it seriously that perhaps it will affect the unratified states for ERA and perhaps help it to be ratified.
CM: But the women’s movement has gotten rather unhappy press.
JS: Yes, well it’s been very good this weekend.
CM: It’s improved as a consequence of this meeting.
JS: I don’t see how it can help but improve. I think they’ve been excellent, their coverage. The disruption which was feared did not occur and so there was nothing for the press to grab onto in terms of extraordinary controversy, so that’s a plus for us.
CM: What do you anticipate as the long range social consequence of such a meeting?
JS: Well, I feel it will continue to raise the consciousness and help to destroy the myth of prejudice in terms of the sexes.
CM: There is a myth that women cannot bond for a purpose.
JS: Oh, is that so? Of course there is, yes. Of course it should destroy that right away. You know, Eleanor Roosevelt said in the early sixties when the President’s Commission on the Status of Women was formed that someday women would come together and talk. She said it would not be in her lifetime but it would come, and I think all that’s being realized today.
CM: She was in a sense an immediate foremother of this movement, as was Amelia Earhart, Pearl Buck and others.
JS: The ultimate result, heaven knows when, will be [that] men’s consciousness will be raised and then we won’t need a conference like this. We will all be meeting together, men and women on every level, and we won’t think about whether you’re a woman or a man; we’ll just be talking on an equal basis.
CM: What about the position of women in your area of endeavor, the performing arts I guess, and in the media, that popular media. Women don’t appear as directors and producers to the extent that men do. Have you been conscious of this particularly?
JS: Yes. It’s improving but not rapidly.
CM: Would you like to enter this kind of thing?
JS: No, I don’t think so, no, but I think there’s a great need for women to be in policy making decisions in the networks on that level. They’re just not there and they’re greatly needed.
CM: Caroline Bird believes that this is a watershed meeting in the women’s movement; it’s a turning point veritably. Do you believe this? Because I’ve heard the opposite, I’ve heard it argued that this is simply a means of getting women to spin wheels another way. How do you answer such a charge?
JS: Well, my husband and I were sitting on Friday night still—having taped, I couldn’t come Friday—at home and watching the first news about it and I said, you know, just the very presence of all those women in Houston this weekend should make a difference, should reach and touch people. I’m very positive about it. I agree with Caroline Bird, but you see I’m a novice in the women’s movement and probably naive. I’m not particularly smart or knowledgeable so I’m looking at it with very, very naive eyes.
CM: But some of your performances, the role that you’ve taken in All in the Family has been consciousness raising politically for you then?
JS: I don’t understand how it would be.
CM: Well political and social issues have been so much a part of All in the Family.
JS: That’s right, you’re quite right.
CM: And if you were politically naive then the role in which you have been cast has made you aware.
JS: Yes. I’ll tell you, I attribute that to Norman Lear who is so terribly aware, and I’ve been so grateful and proud to be in a show that makes a social statement, subordinately of course to its prime purpose which is entertainment, but yes. I’m tremendously more aware. This is our eighth year, and it’s been eight years of development and growth not only in the craft of what we do there—and that involves playwriting as well because we contribute to the show. We don’t write whole scripts but when the scripts come to us we have tremendous artistic freedom and we can collaborate and make suggestions of change, but aside from that yes, he and his staff and the writers are so in tune with the times and bring all that to us and I have become much more in tune and much more aware.
CM: Has this conference met your every expectation?
CM: Has there been any way in which it has fallen short, in any way whatsoever?
JS: Right at the moment I can’t think of any way it has fallen short.
CM: All your hopes have been realized through the process of getting these women together and the meeting being carried on according to plan and the rules and so forth has met your every hope.
CM: Do you have anything to add to this interview for the library records?
JS: Well, of course it seems that I’m speaking in a very personal way but after all that may be the best way for me. I’m not a political person really, and I don’t feel this is political. It transcends politics. And this is the first conference in my whole life that I have ever attended of this nature and quite frankly I wouldn’t go to a political conference if I could avoid it I think even now, but this is different. And I hate crowds. I’m pointing out all these factors, but they haven’t bothered me. There’s been such joy and such unity, such grace from all of the delegates whom I have met out on the floor at the conference, and affection and coming together so that the crowd element and the noise and all of that hasn’t bothered me one iota, nor have I been bothered a lot as a celebrity. But on Saturday when the resolution regarding ERA was passed I felt like I was being a part of history and I cherish that experience.
CM: Did you join in the jubilation?
JS: Oh yes. I was on the platform at the time, but I was right with it. I must say that I didn’t think that could be topped, but on Sunday that feeling was topped when the passage of the substitute resolution for minority women was passed. I was on the floor then and I joined in this wonderful celebration where all the minority women and the majority women joined hands and moved about the auditorium and sang. I can’t describe–
CM: It was thrilling.
JS: Thrilling; it was a real and spontaneous coming together. It was true sisterhood, and I’m grateful and it was a privilege to just let that wash over me and experience that; an incredible feeling.
CM: Were you at the California IWY conference?
JS: No, I was at no state meeting because I was working in the theater and I couldn’t.
CM: A meeting is anticipated on an international level in 1979. Would you plan to be there? Are you still caught up in the movement now that you would be there?
JS: I can’t know how I’ll feel then, but right now the idea is intriguing.
CM: Well I thank you very much for your time, Ms. Stapleton and this probably will be the most permanent part of the record you’ll leave, some of your comments here.
End of interview