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10 Trailblazing Women Who Have Shaped Television History

Television has long been a powerful medium for storytelling, entertainment, and cultural influence. Throughout its history, numerous talented women have made significant contributions to the world of television, breaking barriers, challenging norms, and leaving an indelible mark on the industry. From on-screen talent to behind-the-scenes innovators, these women have influenced television in profound ways. Here are 10 trailblazing women who have shaped television history. We have included some of their television associated awards, as well as awards that extend beyond TV.

Lucille Ball

Lucille ball.
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Often regarded as one of the greatest comedic actresses of all time, Lucille Ball revolutionized television with her iconic sitcom “I Love Lucy.” As the star and producer of the show, Ball shattered gender norms and paved the way for future female comedians and producers. Ball was the first female studio head in Hollywood as president of Desilu Productions.

She starred in four shows: “I Love Lucy”, “The Lucy Show”, “Here’s Lucy”, and “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour”.

Lucille Ball’s Awards

Lucille Ball star.
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As far as awards, they are numerous. Some highlights:

  • 1987 American Comedy award winner for Lifetime Achievement
  • 1989 Governor’s Award bestowed by the Emmys
  • Numerous Emmy wins and nominations spanning 1952 the years 1952 – 1968
  • Notably she won for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series in 1968, 1967 1956 and 1953.
  • Ball won the Cecil B DeMille award from the Golden Globes in 1979
  • Television Critics Association award for Career Achievement in 1989
  • 1986 Kennedy Center Honors winner for her contributions in entertainment 
  • In 1989, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah.
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Oprah Winfrey is a media mogul whose influence extends far beyond the television screen. With “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which aired for 25 seasons, she became one of the most influential talk show hosts in history, tackling a wide range of topics and inspiring millions of viewers worldwide. She was the first Black American woman to own her own production company.

Oprah turned her production company, Harpo, Inc., into a multimedia empire, launching additional daytime talk shows, developed the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a film studio, and a publishing company in partnership with Hearst Communications. 

Oprah Winfrey’s Awards

Oprah.
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Just some of Oprah Winfrey’s awards:

  • Emmy for outstanding talk show host in 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1998
  • She won a Golden Globe in 1986 for Best Supporting Actress for The Color Purple and was nominated for an Oscar for the same role.
  • In 2018 the Golden Globes awarded her the Cecil B DeMille Award
  • Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show in 1989, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, and 1997
  • Oprah also won or was nominated for several People’s Choice Awards, and NAACP Image Awards
  • 1998 Emmy lifetime Achievement Award
  • In 1998 was awarded S. Roger Horchow Award for Greatest Public Service by a Private Citizen
  • Oprah received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013

Mary Tyler Moore

Tyler Moore.
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Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of an independent, career-driven woman on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” challenged stereotypes and became a symbol of female empowerment. Moore’s groundbreaking role as a producer also helped pave the way for greater representation of women in television production with her company MTM. 

Did you know that MTM produced “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-78), “Taxi” (1978-1982), “Hill Street Blues” (1981-87), “Remington Steele” (1982-87), “Cheers” (1982-1993), and spin-offs from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” including “Rhoda” (1974-78), “Phyllis” (1975-77), and “The Lou Grant Show” (1977-1982)?

She also starred in acclaimed “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, for which she won Emmys in 1964 and 1966. and made guest appearances in “Johnny Staccato”, “Bachelor Father”, “The Tab Hunter Show”, “77 Sunset Strip”, “Surfside 6”, “Hawaiian Eye”, and “Lock-Up”.

Mary Tyler Moore’s Awards

Mary Tyler moore.
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Some more of Mary Tyler Moore’s awards:

  • Emmy Award for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in 1973, 1974, and 1976 
  • Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012
  • Special Tony Award in 1980
  • Golden Globes Award for Best Actress in 1981 and Best performance in 1971
  • Golden Globe in 1965 for Best Female TV star
  • Various People’s Choice Awards
  • TCA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007
  • TV Land Groundbreaking Show Award in 2004

Ellen DeGeneres

Ellen DeGeneres.
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Ellen DeGeneres made history by coming out as gay both on and off-screen, reshaping perceptions of LGBTQ+ representation in television. Her sitcom “Ellen” and subsequent talk show “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” have had a profound impact on mainstream acceptance and visibility. The talk show earned over 34 Daytime Emmy Awards.

On April 30, 1997, Ellen DeGeneres publicly came out as gay on her ABC sitcom, “Ellen”, making her character, Ellen Morgan, the first gay or lesbian lead character on a U.S. network television show.

Ellen DeGeneres Awards

Ellen deGeneres.
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Ellen won many awards including:

  • Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Series Host in 2006, 2007, and 2008
  • Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Series in 2005, 2006 and 2007
  • Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Entertainment in 2014, 2015, and 2019
  • Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Award in 2013, 2014 and 2019, and 2022
  • The Carol Burnett Award in 2020
  • She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016
  • Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in 1997
  • Various kid’s, Teens, and People’s Choice Awards

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes.
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As a prolific television producer and showrunner, Shonda Rhimes has created some of the most successful and groundbreaking series of the 21st century, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” 

Rhimes’ work has pushed boundaries and increased diversity in television storytelling. She is the CEO of Shondaland, the global media company that encompasses brand partnerships, merchandise, theatrical and streaming content, as well as a digital division.

Shonda Rhimes Awards

Shonda Rhimes.
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Rhimes has several award nominations, wins, honors, and accolades under her belt:

  • Golden Globe for Outstanding Television Drama
  • Peabody Award
  • Television Producer of the Year award by the Producers Guild of America
  • Writers Guild Award for Best New Series
  • GLAAD Media Award
  • Two Television Academy Honors awards 
  • Numerous AFI Awards for Television Program of the Year
  • An unprecedented number of NAACP Image Awards
  • Twice included in TIME Magazine’s 100 list of the most influential people
  • Fortune Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business”
  • Lifetime Achievement |Awards from the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, and the Producers Guild of America
  • Recipient of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, The Hollywood Reporter’s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, the Human Rights Council’s Ally for Equality Award, and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Eleanor Roosevelt Global Women’s Rights Award. 
  • In 2017, Planned Parenthood awarded Rhimes the first ever Champion of Change Award for her commitment to issues of gender, sex, sexuality, and race. 
  • Internationally, Ms. Rhimes received the MIPCOM 2016 Personality of the Year Award as well as the International Emmy Founders Award for her contributions to the quality of global television production. 
  • Shonda Rhimes is the first woman to create three television dramas that have achieved the 100 episode milestone. 
  • She has been inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Broadcasting Hall of Fame and to the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. including winning the 2017 Hall of Fame Honoree.

Carol Burnett

Carol Burnett.
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Carol Burnett is a comedy legend known for her variety show “The Carol Burnett Show,” which earned critical acclaim and numerous awards during its run. Burnett’s comedic talent and influence continue to resonate in television comedy today, with many younger comics touting her influence, such as comedy television stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Burnett also guest-starred on several television shows, including “Magnum P.I.”, “All My Children”, “Touched By An Angel”, “Glee”, “Mad About You”, and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit”. Most recently she appeared on “Better Call Saul” at the age of 90.

A famous true story about her beginnings: An unidentified benefactor generously financed Burnett’s journey from California to New York to pursue her acting aspirations. Following a student performance at UCLA, this stranger approached her and provided $1000 to support her relocation to the Big Apple. The only condition was for Burnett to repay the loan within five years, without any interest, to extend the same kindness to others if she achieved success, and to uphold the benefactor’s anonymity.

Carol Burnett Awards

Carol Burnett.
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Here are some highlights:

  • Seven primetime Emmy Awards; 23 nominations
  • Seven Golden Globe Awards; 18 nominations
  • One Grammy Award; 3 nominations
  • One Tony Award; 3 nominations
  • Inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1985
  • Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from Screen Actors Guild in 2015
  • Mark Twain Prize for American Humor 2013
  • Kennedy Honors recipient
  • First recipient of the Golden GlobesCarol Burnett Lifetime Achievement Award for Television which was named in her honor in 2019

Bea Arthur

Bea Arthur.
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Bea Arthur’s portrayal of the sharp-witted and independent Dorothy Zbornak on “The Golden Girls” challenged ageist and sexist stereotypes, proving that women of all ages could be strong and vibrant characters on television. Before that she was a marine!  She also starred on “All In The Family” and “Maude”.

“Maude” cemented Arthur’s legacy in the women’s liberation movement by fearlessly addressing taboo sociopolitical topics. The series tackled issues such as the Vietnam War, Nixon Administration, divorce, menopause, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, women’s liberation, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, and spousal abuse. One standout episode, “Maude’s Dilemma” in 1972, confronted the controversial topic of abortion. Despite initial resistance from some network affiliates, the episode eventually reached a vast audience of 65 million viewers. Notably, it aired just before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which legalized abortion nationwide.

Bea Arthur’s Awards

Bea Arthur. Golden Girls.
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Arthur achieved numerous television accolades during her career. 

  • She garnered Emmy Awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 1977 for her role in “Maude” and in 1988 for her performance in “The Golden Girls.” 
  • With nine nominations, she holds the third-highest number of nods for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series (following Julia Louis-Dreyfus (11) and Mary Tyler Moore (10)).
  •  In recognition of her contributions to television, Arthur was inducted into the academy’s Television Hall of Fame in 2008.

Tina Fey

Tina Fey.
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Tina Fey has made significant contributions to television as both a writer and performer. As the creator and star of “30 Rock,” Fey brought her sharp wit and satire to the small screen, influencing a new generation of comedy writers and performers. Prior to that she was a writer and performer on SNL (Saturday Night Live). She was SNL’s first female head writer (1999–2006).

Fey also has been recognized for her work I film, including Mean Girls, Baby Mama, Date Night, Sisters, and others.

Tina Fey’s Awards

Tina Fey.
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Fey’s accolades include:

  • Nine Emmy Awards
  • Three Golden Globe Awards
  • Five Screen Actors Guild Awards
  • Seven Writers Guild of America Awards
  • She appeared on the Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world in both 2007 and 2009.
  • Additionally, she received a Grammy Award nomination for her autobiographical book “Bossypants,” which remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for five consecutive weeks. 
  • In 2008, Fey was honored with the AP Entertainer of the Year award by the Associated Press for her satirical portrayal of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in a guest appearance on SNL. 
  • Notably, in 2010, she became the youngest-ever recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Betty White

Betty White. Image credit Everett Collection via Shutterstock., Betty White.
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Betty White’s career in television spans decades, beginning in the 1950s as the co-host of “Hollywood on Television,” where White quickly became a household name. It was her iconic role as the sweet and loveable Rose Nylund in the hit sitcom “The Golden Girls”, which aired from 1985 to 1992, that solidified her status as a television icon. 

She made memorable guest appearances on shows such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Hot in Cleveland,” and famously hosted “Saturday Night Live” at the remarkable age of 88, becoming the oldest person ever to do so. She was a staple guest on game shows and talk shows from Password, What’s My Line, Match Game, To Tell the Truth, Pyramid, Jack Paar’s show, and Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, among others. NBC offered her an anchor job on their flagship breakfast television show Today in the 1960’s. (She turned the offer down as she didn’t want to relocate to NYC from California, and the job eventually went to Barbara Walters).

After her death, the legislative body in her home state of Illinois passed a resolution declaring January 17, 2022 to be Betty White Day.

Betty White’s Awards

Betty White.
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Throughout her career, Betty White was recognized with numerous accolades including:

  • Seven Emmy Award wins, 24 nominations
  • Daytime Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Four Golden Globe nominations
  • A Grammy Award
  • A Comedy Award
  • A Disney Legend Award
  • A Gracie Allen Award
  • A Women Film Critics Circle Award
  • Three American Comedy Awards, 4 nominations
  • People’s Choice Award for TV Icon in 2015
  • A Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010
  • Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy in 2010
  • In 2011 and 2012, she made history once again by becoming the oldest recipient of a SAG Award for her Outstanding Performance in “Hot in Cleveland.”

Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kahling.
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Mindy Kaling has broken barriers as a writer, actress, and producer, known for her work on “The Office” and “The Mindy Project.” Kaling’s unique voice and perspective have contributed to greater representation of women and people of color in television.

Taking cues from her personal experiences, Kaling went on to collaborate in the creation and writing of the Netflix series Never Have I Ever (2020–), which follows the journey of a first-generation Indian American teenager. Subsequently, she also spearheaded the creation and writing of The Sex Lives of College Girls (2021–), a comedic series focusing on four college roommates, which aired on HBO Max.

Mindy Kaling Awards

Mindy Kahling.
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She has been nominated for or won numerous awards including:

  • Six primetime Emmy Award nominations
  • Television Critics Association Awards nomination
  • Four NAACP Image Awards nominations
  • People’s Choice Awards nomination
  • Five Writers Guild of America nominations
  • The Norman Lear Achievement Award in Television in 2023
  • Glamour’s Woman of the Year in 2014
  • In 2013 Time magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world 2013
  • President Joe Biden bestowed the National Medal of the Arts to Kahling in 2022
  • She won a SAG award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series in 2007 and 2008, and has 4 additional nominations
  • A Writers Guild Award for Best Comedy Writing in 2007
  • And an award from People Magazine for TV Couple of the Year along with Chris Messina for The Mindy Project in 2014.

The Takeaway

Television Academy.
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These women have not only entertained audiences but also challenged societal norms, pushed boundaries, and paved the way for future generations of women in television. Their contributions continue to shape the landscape of television and inspire audiences around the world.

Author

  • Dede Wilson

    Dédé Wilson is a journalist with over 17 cookbooks to her name and is the co-founder and managing partner of the digital media partnership Shift Works Partners LLC, currently publishing through two online media brands, FODMAP Everyday® and The Queen Zone.

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