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Words of wisdom from "All in the Family"'s dingbat: The graduation and life advice of Jean Stapleton

February 2018 marks the 70th Anniversary of  the professional debut of Jean Stapleton (1923 to 2013) at the Equity Library Theater in New York City. This month, the museum received a donation from the actress's family that showcases her career. You can learn more about the donation here.

During its run between 1971 and 1979, the groundbreaking sitcom All in the Family captivated Americans by using the strikingly different members of the Bunker family to bring national issues to the small screen. At this same time, a similarly groundbreaking Constitutional amendment was traveling down the long road to ratification: the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s easy to imagine Archie Bunker, the conservative protagonist of the hit show, dismissing the amendment and its revolutionary take on gender equality. His wife Edith, on the other hand, would have wanted to carefully consider the amendment and its effect on women, including her daughter Gloria. Edith’s thoughtful, empathetic challenge to Archie’s reactionary bigotry mirrored political debates occurring around the nation in the 1970s. Whereas Edith, whom the New York Times called “Archie Bunker’s Better Angel,” held her progressive views quietly, the actress who portrayed her, Jean Stapleton, was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights.

Jean Stapleton stands in college graduation robes as a university official places an honorary stole on her shoulders
Stapleton celebrating the reception of her honorary degree from Wilson College, 1997. Archives Center, AC1424-0000003

One of my first tasks as an intern with the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History was helping to process the collection of Jean Stapleton’s papers acquired by the museum in May 2017. Stapleton, a native of New York City, was best known for her role as Edith on All in the Family. Yet her decision to take on such an iconic role has often led individuals to overlook not only her prolific career as a stage actress but also her involvement in various organizations on behalf of human rights and women’s rights in particular. When not in costume, Stapleton spoke in favor of the ERA and devoted herself to furthering the mission of the Women’s Research and Education Institute. She even traveled with other members of the Actors’ Equity Association to the Soviet Union in order to promote “cultural exchange” between artists living in the two nations.

In recognition of her tireless work on and off stage, Stapleton received honorary degrees from several distinguished universities throughout her life. One of these was Wilson College, a traditionally all-women institution in southern Pennsylvania not far from the Totem Pole Playhouse, where Stapleton appeared in many productions alongside her husband, William Putch. She was also given the honor of delivering the commencement address at the college in 1983.

Jean Stapleton, in costume, shrugs while sitting in a chair and talking on the phone
Stapleton appearing as Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady admired for her similar dedication to issues surrounding women’s rights. Archives Center, AC1424-0000005

Graduation is still many months away for the members of the Class of 2018, and the commencement address they will hear is probably far from their minds. Yet if Stapleton were to address graduating students today, her message might still resonate with them, even though her use of the ERA to illustrate some of her points is no longer as immediate or compelling.

Perhaps the most pervasive theme found in Stapleton’s speech is that of individuality, and she reminded the graduates, “Your very own intelligence…that you were born with and which has been developing in you through your experience…will sustain you and impel you to solutions that lead to a better quality of life.” For Stapleton, individuality involved holding oneself accountable for one’s decisions. She believed that it is the responsibility of each person to ensure that those decisions promote justice in our world for men and women alike.

When speaking to students, Stapleton often shared an anecdote about being denied a part that she hoped for, to illustrate her view that disappointments, when perceived as opportunities for growth, can help individuals to become the best versions of themselves. A firm believer that we are not one another’s adversaries, Stapleton would likely remind us that the sentiment can be difficult to remember if we allow ourselves to harbor the kind of “resentment or envy” that she had sometimes experienced. Young people still take this message to heart by resolving that past setbacks will not prevent them from striving to become the person they ultimately hope to be. With this self-awareness, students can inform themselves about contemporary issues and help bring about the change they believe to be necessary—something Stapleton encouraged the Wilson College Class of 1983 to do. To me, Stapleton’s message is just as resonant today as it was almost 35 years ago.

Jean Stapleton stands at a podium addressing the crowd wearing a banner that says "Honored." A sign behind her reads: "ERA Yes"
Stapleton addressing a crowd on Women’s Equality Day, August 26, 1982. Archives Center, AC1424-0000004

On September 27, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was ratified by the state of Pennsylvania, a place that Stapleton held dear to her heart. Although the amendment ultimately would not become part of the U.S. Constitution, Stapleton continued to encourage the graduates she addressed and many others not to be passive. And while she did explicitly acknowledged the “simple justice” of the ERA in her address and assured the graduating class that she regarded as inevitable the recognition of “equal personhood,” her rousing words could encompass any perceived injustice that might inspire a person to strive for change.

Stapleton would have applauded the decision made in Pennsylvania on this day just as she applauded the graduates of Wilson College over a decade later.

If you are interested in learning more, set up an appointment with the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History to browse the Stapleton Papers. The documents, newspaper articles, photographs, and numerous awards in this collection provide unparalleled insight into the life and career of the actress who portrayed Edith Bunker.

Katherine DeFonzo completed a summer 2017 internship in the Archives Center. She is a senior at Fordham University Rose Hill.