Working Moms Take it One Day at a Time.
As soon as you say the words, "One Day at a Time," two things pop into my mind: That boppy theme song and the 70s hair and clothes worn by the teenaged daughters Julie and Barbara (played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli). That was what I recalled from the show I used to watch as a girl . . . plus the episode where Julie ran away with her boyfriend Chuck.
But when I recently sat down to watch the first season DVDs of the Bonnie Franklin-divorced-mom-of-two-sitcom from a brand new perspective -- that of a working mom of three -- two other words came to mind: Lorelai Gilmore. Yes, Lorelai Gilmore, the single mom of a teenaged girl from the "Gilmore Girls," who graced the small screen 30 years after "One Day at a Time’s" Ann Romano (Franklin). After several hours of watching Romano’s antics, it became was clear that today’s single and divorced working TV moms owe a debt of gratitude to the ground-breaking "One Day at a Time."
"One Day at a Time," which debuted in 1975, surprised me for its cutting edge storylines and bold assertions from a burgeoning working woman. The series commenced with Romano -- who married at age 17 and had a baby nine months later – leaving her husband, piling her 14-year-old and 16-year-old daughters into her paneled station wagon and heading to Indianapolis to start her life anew. In fact, the first scene shows Romano, suitcases at her sides, literally leaping for joy on the front steps of her ex-husband’s house.
"You don’t have to worry about my mom, she’s a liberated woman," 16-year-old Julie told a friend over the phone in the pilot episode. And Romano, who took back her maiden name after the divorce, indeed was liberated, but that liberation was a rocky one. When her work as an Avon Lady and doing odd jobs didn’t earn her sufficient money to feed her family, she aggressively sought full-time employment even though she had little workplace experience and refused to compromise her dignity or depend on anyone else in order to get a job. She seemed more like a woman of today than of the 1970s.
What brought to my mind the modern-day incarnation of the TV single mom -- Lorelai Gilmore -- was Romano’s refusal to get married when the opportunity presented itself. In the premiere season of the award-winning show which ran for nine seasons, Romano, 34, was dating her divorce attorney David Kane, who asked her to marry him. And, even though she and her daughters loved him, as well as the fact that he dangled before them the opportunity for financial security while they were barely scraping by, Romano repeatedly declined his proposal. "For the first 17 years of my life, my father made decisions for me," she said. "For the second 17 years, my husband made the decisions. Now, for the first time, I’m making my own decisions." During another episode, Romano told her boyfriend that she no longer wanted to be dependent on anyone and had to test her wings.
Meanwhile Romano struggled financially (as did Gilmore, though Romano differed from Gilmore in that she didn’t accept or borrow money). However her daughters were unsympathetic, blaming their lack of money, sparse wardrobe and paucity of food on her. They also griped about having to do housework after school while Romano was pounding the pavement looking for a job. Romano finally did land a job near the end of season one, as a personal assistant to the vice president of a public relations firm. And after accepting the offer, she was oozing with pride and relief, clearly pleased that she was setting a self-sufficient example for her daughters. "We all have to make it on our own," she told the girls, who’d been pleading with her to reconcile with her ex-husband.
In a 2005 interview  with some of the cast members from "One Day at a Time" that was included in the season 1 DVD collection, Franklin said that over the years, women have thanked her for portraying a flawed, divorced working mom, something that wasn’t seen much on TV in the 70s. Franklin said she was pleased that not only did her Ann Romano character get the chance to develop a career, but her character never married her lawyer boyfriend "because she wanted to be on her own" . . . just like Gilmore, who, by the end of her show’s run was still a single mom.
What smacked distinctly of the 70s, however, was the manner in which female employees were treated: With obvious intellectual disdain, as though women were mere sex toys with which male bosses could play. In one episode, cash-strapped Romano had a real opportunity to be hired as an assistant to an account executive at a public relations firm. After that account executive leered at Romano’s rear, he suggested that, while he mulled over whether to hire her, perhaps he should stop by her apartment that night to discuss it further. (He later showed up with champagne, ready for some action.) When Romano figured out what he had in mind, she panicked, saying she didn’t want to play his sexist game, despite the urging of her daughters (who wanted her to get the job and money despite the harassment) and her lawyer boyfriend. "When women have all the rights they deserve and everything is equal they are still going to be women," her boyfriend said. ". . . and between men and women, there’s always going to be a kind of sexual presence . . . and you have to learn to deal with that." Romano ignored all the advice and stood up to the employer, telling him she wanted to be treated fairly, not as simply a pair of legs. He thanked her for her honesty. And then didn’t hire her. Instead, he chased after a tall, leggy blonde applicant.
Though the fictional Ann Romano was 34 in 1975, she remains distinctly contemporary in her strength and determination to be self-reliant. Thirty-two years later – cultural, political and fashion references notwithstanding – "One Day at a Time" holds up well to the test of time, as a model of a strong, working mom.
Season one of "One Day at a Time" is available at Amazon  and other retailers.
Meredith O'Brien is the author of A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum , a collection of humor columns, and the mother of three. She writes the Boston Mommy  blog about parenting for the Boston Herald's web site and teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.