12 trailblazing women who forever changed the TV landscape

These women opened doors and broke down barriers.

In an industry dominated by men, these 12 women fearlessly broke new ground. Some of them were the first of their kind, some put a spotlight on taboo subjects, and some worked tirelessly behind the scenes to create new and exciting programs. 

We salute these 12 women for being strong, courageous trailblazers who changed the TV landscape for the better. We couldn't imagine what our favorite shows, or the television industry, would be like without them. 

1. Lucille Ball


Not only was Ball a comedic genius, she was also one of the most successful television executives of all time. The actress helped invent syndication by having I Love Lucy filmed on quality tape instead of broadcast live. In 1962, she became the first woman to run a major television studio after buying her ex-husband, Desi Arnaz, out of Desilu Productions. The company went on to produce hits like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek. Without Ball, what would the industry look like today?

Image: GIPHY

2. Mary Tyler Moore


Moore flipped the script for women on television. Her award-winning, eponymous show was one of the first to portray smart, sophisticated and career-oriented women who didn't rely on men. The show also had the ratings and critical praise to make the subject matter successful. At a time when large numbers of women entered the workforce, Mary Richards proved to be a vital role model. 

Image: GIPHY

3. Diahann Carroll


If we're talking about successful working women on television, we can't forget about Diahann Carroll. Carroll's character on Julia works as a nurse while raising a son on her own. The actress broke ground for single mothers on television and black actresses looking to break free from playing stereotypical roles. Julia was the first show to feature a black female lead in a role that wasn't a servant. 

Image: GIPHY

4. Bea Arthur


Arthur was one of the most unapologetic feminists on television, with leading roles on two groundbreaking series. The breakout hit Maude tackled the decade's most taboo subjects, some of which are still risky today. On The Golden Girls in the 1980s, Arthur, along with her costars, proved there is no expiration date for women in Hollywood. 

Image: GIPHY

See more: Why Mary Tyler Moore's pants were such a big deal


The sitcom star broke ground long before The Mary Tyler More Show. Read more

Image: CBS

5. Nichelle Nichols


Who's the first black actress you can remember seeing on television? For many people, the answer is Nichelle Nichols. Instead of portraying a maid or a slave, the actress played communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, breaking the typecast for black actresses onscreen. The role won the admiration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and influenced actresses like Whoopi Goldberg. 

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6. Carol Burnett


In an era when men like Bob Hope and Milton Berle dominated comedy, Burnett broke through with her wildly popular and critically acclaimed sketch comedy series. The Carol Burnett Show made millions of people laugh every week and raked in numerous Emmy Awards. Additionally, Burnett herself inspired countless comedians — male and female — to break away from gender norms in the world of comedy. 

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7. Barbara Walters


Walters battled sexism in the TV news industry to become the first female co-anchor of The Today Show. After that, she became the first female network anchor on the ABC Evening News, eventually becoming the network's most respected journalist until her retirement in 2014. Every woman in the industry owes their success to Walters, from Oprah Winfrey to Diane Sawyer. 

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8. Oprah Winfrey


This one goes without saying. Winfrey is arguably the most successful woman on television, taking her tawdry local talk show and creating a media empire over the course of two decades. A true rags-to-riches story, Winfrey became the first black woman billionaire in world history and is the richest self-made woman in the United States. 

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9. Donna Reed


Reed was already an Academy Award–winning actress when she received her own TV show in 1958. But what made The Donna Reed Show groundbreaking was that it was the first family sitcom to focus on the mother rather than the father. The concept was unheard of in the 1950s, and it's still somewhat rare on major broadcast networks today. 

Image: GIPHY

10. Peggy Charren


You probably don't know who Charren was, but you're certainly familiar with the shows she helped create. In the late 1960s, Charren formed the Action for Children's Television when she became troubled by the abundance of children's programming used for marketing. The group successfully lobbied Congress to create educational programming, which spawned shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. 

Image: The Boston Globe

11. Rita Moreno


"HEY, YOU GUYS!" Did you know Moreno, who yelled that famous line on The Electric Company, is an Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Academy Award winner? She was one of the most prominent Latina women on television in the 1970s, and opened the door for actresses like American Ferrera and Gina Rodriguez today. 

Image: GIPHY

12. Irna Phillips


Last but not least, we have Irna Phillips. Chances are, you've seen one of the programs she helped create. In addition to being an actress, Phillips created and co-created classic soap operas like Guiding Light, As The World Turns and Another World. Her early program Woman in White was one of the first pieces of entertainment set in a hospital. In the late 1960s, she worked on the soap Love is Many Splendored Thing, which turned the focus to young modern women.

Image: Wikipedia

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pioneergrrrl 30 months ago
And you left out Ball successfully fought the networks when they did not want an 'interracial marriage' or when they were upset re showing her pregnancy on screen.
BRUCE27365 30 months ago
To be precise, Diahann Carroll's character "Julia" was not a single mom, but a widow- that is a big difference; the story line is that her husband died in Viet Nam. The show did not "break ground" on single-motherhood, nor should it or any other show; instead it shows a few things:
1. the perseverance of a young RN who was left alone to raise her and her late-husband's only child.
2. It shows no matter what type of unmentionable tragedy women can suffer, such as the death of their husband, they still can persevere alone.
3. As the article mentions, it shows how "black actresses" need not be "pigeon-holed" to only play stereotypical roles such as servants or uneducated laborers.
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