PASADENA, Calif. — Though she’s been married for 32 years, actress-activist Marlo Thomas says she’s not sure she believes in marriage.
The woman who graced living rooms with her popular TV series, “That Girl,” and went on to star in dozens of television shows, both fictional and factual, has always spoken her mind, even when it wasn’t popular.
A forerunner in the women’s movement, she says, “I never wanted to be married. To this day I’m not sure I believe in marriage. I believe in MY marriage, but I don’t believe in marriage as an institution. I’m not sure it isn’t rigged against the woman. I’ve always seen marriages as an arrangement between 11/2 persons. The one person is the one with the dream, and everybody else scurries to support that dream and put all their time — and time is the most important thing they’ve got — all their time and all their energy and everything into that person’s pot, marked HIS dream.”
So when she decided to marry talk-show host Phil Donahue three decades ago, it wasn’t easy. “It was a very big thing for me to see that marriage could be a roomy enough place for my dream and his dream. I had to meet the right kind of man, and the world had to change a lot and I had to change a lot. A lot of things had to happen for me to get to a place where I thought that marriage was possible.”
All those elements collided at precisely the right time for Thomas, but not for everybody. That’s why Thomas is still talking about feminism and the women’s movement as she does in PBS’ special “Makers: Women Who Make America” premiering Tuesday. The documentary chronicles the changes women have espoused over the last 50 years and their effects on society.
“It’s like being in the Army really when you work on a project,” she says, seated at a walnut table in a conference room at a hotel here. “It’s kind of like the women’s movement, we were a little army. And when you do that together and create something together and get someplace together you’ve really been to a battle. That’s why this show is so important because when people see it they’ll see the real face of what feminism is and was, as opposed to the myths about what it was. These were not angry, ugly women who hated men. These were not bra-burners. It’s not about women who wanted to divorce their husbands and leave their children and all this other stuff. This was about women who wanted to be free and do what they wanted to do with their lives, express themselves.”
Expressing herself was a challenge even for Thomas early on. “My big struggle as a young person was finding my own identity away from my father, who was famous and away from my mother who was dominating, and finding my own way,” she says.
Her father was noted comedian Danny Thomas, beloved by a nation for his family series “Make Room for Daddy.”
Marlo escaped by being cast in the London production of “Barefoot in the Park” and moving there when she was 20. “I lived there for a year and that really changed my life,” she nods.
“Because I was away from the pressure of being the child of a famous person, I was away from my mother saying, not that she was a bad person, ‘Put on your sweater,’ and ‘Don’t eat this,’ and ‘Don’t do that,’ and ‘You can’t drive after dark’ and all that stuff.”
That experience changed everything. “Being away for a year, working like that, work became the place I could be myself. I could be me. It was a place that I wasn’t overtired or over reacting or overexcited or over heated or all those things your mother says. I was absolutely free to be me.”
She went on to produce TV specials and a book on the subject of being free to be yourself. She’s also starred on Broadway, written several books, earned four Emmys, continued her father’s work supporting St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and maintained a healthy marriage.
One of the secrets to that, she says, is “Being as invested in your spouse’s dream as you are in your own and being willing to be inconvenienced, which is what it is for many people. It’s inconvenient for you to have a dream when I’ve already got a dream. So to be able to live with that inconvenience and to embrace it and find joy in it (is crucial).”