The Stealthy Feminism of Olivia Walton

I’m still enraptured by the notions of “Stealthy Freedom,” and even “Stealthy Protest.” In this country, ingrained as we are to believe that we have fundamental freedoms of thought and expression, we are not accustomed to practicing the kind of covert creativity necessary in protest in other parts of the world. I can at least say that for myself. So, maybe we – or I – are unprepared as elements of our country become increasingly intrusive, and individual citizens develop a sense of reflexive condemnation that can lead to everything from bullying to abuse of power, slander or libel that results in irreparable harm to individuals and families.  When that happens, and institutions or individuals nominate and elect themselves as the “thought police,” and government institutions may take on the baton of prosecution, how do we speak out? How do we protest, when the act of protest, or even an alternative thought or idea becomes grounds for action?

We must then look to other countries, other artists for guidance on the art of protest without confrontation, or how to say something without saying it.

I’m at a loss. Most of the time, I’m a steamroller on Red Bull – full throttle, full steam ahead and no looking back. I can’t afford that form of dissention now.

Another place we can look is other art. I got this idea from watching The Waltons. Yes, The Waltons. Stop laughing. I know you are; don’t deny it and pull yourself together now. The zombie-lover loves The Waltons. But stay with me, and I might just convert you. I managed to work zombies and parenting together, so trust me.

Believe it or not, the episode I watched last night, and a few others, made an impression on me for their bold subtlety, and their ability to say something without saying it.

For Example: the episode “The Hero,” about a memorial to the county’s soldiers lost in WWI. As what they call Plot B in screenwriting, there was the story of separated war-time lovers: the town Sherriff is reunited with his young love, a female ambulance driver. Jim Bob becomes fascinated with this woman war-time ambulance driver.  She’s a friend of Olivia Walton’s, and they discuss the woman’s wartime experiences, friends lost, the danger they experienced. It was a beautiful way to bring attention to the many women who served and sacrificed in that war, but done with subtlety and poetry – without being confrontational about the very neglect of that subject that continues even today.  Even the “good-night” conversation at the close mentioned the first woman to drive across the continental U.S.

So, I’ve thought of all the other topics The Waltons took on at a time when those topics could have been considered too hot-potato for a family show: interracial adoption when Olivia took in an African American child she adored but led him to an African American family to be adopted. The challenges of educated women of color when trying to enter the job market. The reality of adoption for Cora Beth and Ike Godsey when they adopt a young girl. Economic survival without losing your soul. Our own country’s role in the years preceding World War II, and our reluctance to recognize Nazi Germany for the evil it was. Post-war trauma. Atheism. Illiteracy. Menopause. The Waltons were clearly not The Brady Bunch.

I can look back and now see a subtle feminism, a true feminism that appreciates all women’s goals and dreams in its storylines, but also brings out the complexity of the situations the characters face.

First, one must be clear about all the Walton women: they are not shrinking violets. Olivia Walton speaks her mind clearly enough on many occasions, and Esther’s cantankerousness is a mainstay of the show. Just watch ten minutes of Olivia Walton in “The Innocents,” where she decided that a war-time factory’s new tavern will be a daytime daycare center for the women employed at the factory, and you will not confuse Ms. Walton with any subjugated female.

None of the Walton women are passive-aggressive, manipulative little trophies with a veneer of compliance and an underlying current of narcissism. They say what they think. In one episode, John Boy comes across a very manipulative, “pretty girl,” who uses her veneer of compliance to get what she wants. He sends her packing and doesn’t look back.

There are two episodes that come immediately to mind as I make my case. In “The Quilting”, Mary Ellen has come to “courting age,” where the older women of the community come together to make her a quilt. This signals to the community she is ready for wooing. She fights this, passionately speaking her resistance based on her ambitions to work, to accomplish something. The last thing she wants is to be shuffled off into a marriage and motherhood before she’s had a taste of the world. However, in the process of her own protest, she damages her relationship with her grandmother. In the end however, she learns that she can accept the loving act this quilt symbolizes, and the community of women’s ritual that welcomes her into womanhood, without accepting their vision for her future.

In the series, we find out Olivia Walton had tremendous artistic talent. Mary Ellen is puzzled that her mother chose life as a country mother rather than as a successful artist. Before children, such a decision would have baffled me too. After children, I totally get it. It’s about living the life you love and that brings you love. The show makes no judgments, except to embrace that all women should have the freedom to choose that life of love.

In “The Test”, Olivia Walton has been making dresses for a local boutique to fill an economic gap for the family. They are beautiful. She has the opportunity to go to New York with the boutique owner but declines. There are sacrifices she has made for that job that she decides she no longer wants to make. Again, after children, I totally get it.

In more than one episode, Erin Walton stands up to her employer, the owner of a war-time factory, over issues such as equal hiring for a minority, overwork and pay.[i]

As the series came to its final seasons, Mary Ellen becomes a nurse, mother and widow. She contemplates medical school, and her father cautions her on the tremendous workload that would be for a single mother. Her pre-med advisor advises her against it. I don’t remember the outcome: but her ambitions are validated, but the drawbacks are honestly presented.

With these stories, The Waltons achieves a very powerful “stealthy” feminism: all visions of success for women are embraced: professionalism, community activism, love, parenthood, family. None are patronized or diminished. All visions honor family and community and the quest for a life that brings love and fulfillment, in whatever form that may be.

The Waltons aired from 1971 to 1981, a decade not known for its wholesomeness, more affectionately known as the Me Decade. Interestingly, the show ran during the period that Wikipedia recognizes as the second wave of feminism: the 1960’s to the 1980’s. In looking at the list of American shows from 1972 on a Wikipedia list, I see no memorable night-time dramas about a family. If I’m wrong, I hope a reader will comment and correct me. Whereas my beloved M*A*S*H could be decadent and a bit in-your-face, other shows were just vapid (Love American Style), and the comedies were wonderful and intelligent (Laugh-In), The Waltons may have stood alone in its message and presentation. It tackled the equally controversial topics that a M*A*S*H episode might, but with a very different ethos. Its female characters were more traditional than a Mary Richards, but no less outspoken or independent.[ii]

In this way The Waltons succeeded at doing something I am only now beginning to hope to accomplish: stealthy protest. Positive protest without complaint. For the show’s creators and actors, the show may have been a subtle protest against a Me Generation of conflict and confrontation best demonstrated in All in the Family (the acrimony in that show always bothered me). And yet, it was never didactic or self-righteous.

I should be so lucky.


[i] “The Illusion”, “The Home Front (1)”, “The Home Front (2)”, “The Move”

[ii] If you have any doubt, watch any few episodes throughout the series’ run with Mary Ellen Walton. If you’re not willing to place all your money on Ms. Walton in a ring-match with Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, let me know. Don’t even begin to doubt Esther and her broom.

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