How Betty White Broke Barriers for Women in Television

A Smithsonian curator reflects on the legacy of the beloved “Golden Girls” actress

White, a white woman with curly white hair, smiles at the camera in a bright white suit with a heart shaped necklace
Actress and comedian Betty White, pictured here in 2015, died last week at the age of 99. Photo by Amanda Edwards / WireImage / Getty Images

American actress and comedian Betty White died on Friday of natural causes at the age of 99, reports People magazine.

White died in her home in Brentwood, California, just three weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

Celebrities and public figures took to social media to mourn White’s death. “Betty White brought a smile to the lips of generations of Americans. She’s a cultural icon who will be sorely missed,” President Joe Biden wrote on Twitter. Smithsonian secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III likewise expressed his condolences on Twitter, noting that the actress will be remembered for her “charm, comedy and many accomplishments over an impressive career.”

White had one of the longest careers in television history, breaking barriers as the first woman to navigate the medium. She brought iconic characters to life on the small screen as the roguish Sue Ann Nevins of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the naïve widow Rose Nylund of “The Golden Girls” and the adorable-but-mischievous Elka Ostrovsky in “Hot in Cleveland.” Her roles were marked by her bright demeanor, winning smile and irreverent wit. She delighted audiences as the host of several reality shows and accrued many memorable movie credits, including a role in the 2009 rom-com The Proposal (not to mention a playful mock-feud with the film’s male lead, Ryan Reynolds). She had planned to celebrate with the theatrical release of a retrospective documentary, “Betty White: 100 Years Young – A Birthday Celebration.” Producers told the Los Angeles Times that the feature film will debut as scheduled, but with a new title.

The actress worked steadily in television for seven decades but experienced a late-in-life resurgence in 2010, when a viral Facebook campaign inspired by a Super Bowl commercial landed White a spot as the host of “Saturday Night Live.” As the show’s oldest host ever at 88, White drew blockbuster ratings and earned an Emmy for her performance—one of five Primetime Emmy awards and 16 nominations that the actress received throughout her prolific career.

Betty White Monologue: Facebook - Saturday Night Live

White was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on January 17, 1922, to traveling salesman and electrical engineer Horace White and homemaker Tess Curts White, reports Stephen M. Silverman for People. The young family moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression when White was a toddler.

The budding actress starred in several high school theater productions before graduating and joining the American Woman’s Voluntary Services during World War II, report Richard Severo and Peter Keepnews for the New York Times.

After a brief stint in radio, White launched her on-screen career in the 1950s, during the early years of broadcast television. It was the medium’s so-called “golden age,” notes Smithsonian National Museum of American History curator Ryan Lintelman, who specializes in American entertainment history. “The early years of broadcast television were full of innovation as American entertainers and producers adapted existing radio and stage formats to the new medium,” writes Lintelman in an email to Smithsonian magazine.

White broke into television as the host of “Hollywood on Television” (1949-53), a five-hour-long daily talk show. She is considered the first woman to host a talk show, reports Matt Zoller Seitz for Variety, and she would go on to break several other barriers for women in the television industry throughout her lifetime. As Zoller Seitz points out, “[a]fter [White] glided past 40, a milestone that often marked the beginning of the end of a woman’s stardom, her fame only grew.” White’s breakout role—on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show”—didn’t arrive until the 1970s, when the comedian was nearly 50.

Yet White’s talents and winning smile were apparent even in “Life With Elizabeth,” a sitcom in which she starred from 1953 to 1955. Similar to its contemporary show “I Love Lucy,” “Life With Elizabeth” recounted the goofy mishaps of the error-prone Elizabeth and her new husband.

Life with Elizabeth - Season 1 - Episode 3 - Daylight Saving Time/Meteorite/Anniversary Gifts

In her role, “White broadened the typical range and role of the ditzy housewife character with a winking self-awareness and proto-feminist irreverence,” says Lintelman. At the end of each skit, a male narrator would pose a question: “Elizabeth, aren’t you ashamed?” White would pause, then respond with a shake of her head and a devilish grin—not in the least.

White was married twice before meeting her third husband and the “love of [her] life,” game show host Allen Ludden. Married in 1963, the pair were together until Ludden’s death in 1981. White took on the role of widowed Rose in “Golden Girls” a few years later.

As Rose, the actress earned praise for her ability to punctuate heartfelt monologues about her character’s own belated husband with expert comedic timing. White often kept a straight face through improvised riffs, even as her co-stars burst out laughing.

“White was a groundbreaking television comedienne, bringing the inner lives of American women to the forefront in popular sitcoms across seven decades,” Lintelman says. “[She] paved the way for female comedians to express themselves fully, tackle unexpected roles, [as well as] take on production roles, as she did beginning in the early 1950s.”

In her personal life, White was also an outspoken advocate for animal welfare who championed zoos’ efforts to conserve endangered species. She served as a trustee of the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association for decades and published Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo, a scrapbook about her love for animals and zoos, in 2012.

The actress visited the Smithsonian National Zoo the same year. Speaking with Megan Gambino of Smithsonian magazine in advance of that visit, White recalled that her dream as a child was to become either a zookeeper or a forest ranger.

“Both my mother and father were tremendous animal lovers,” White said. “They imbued in me the fact that, to me, there isn’t an animal on the planet that I don’t find fascinating and want to learn more about.”

White has written three memoirs: Betty White in Person (1987), Here We Go Again (1995) and If You Ask Me (And Of Course You Won’t) (2011). As Timothy Bella reports for the Washington Post, the actress wrote in Betty White in Person that “[f]ear of death is not one of my problems.”

“I figure I will improvise when the time comes … some things are better without rehearsal,” White quipped.

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