25 Most Memorable Working Mothers in TV History
These small-screen working moms all successfully balance work and family.
Working mothers on television have undeniably evolved over the years. To put today’s roles into proper perspective, we decided to reflect back and give proper credit to 25 of the most memorable working mothers in TV history.
The characters on this list run the gamut from blue-collar factory workers to high-powered lawyers, divorced mothers, moms managing blended families, and even a few “traditional” moms (but what is traditional anyway?). Regardless of career or family situation, all of the moms on our list impacted or are impacting the next generation of working moms. These characters have brought the ongoing working mom struggle to balance work, family and self into our living rooms and into our lives, spurring laughs, serious discussion and even a little controversy. At times they look like superwomen, and at times they remind us of the reality that life can be a struggle, as rewarding as it is challenging.
25. Shirley Partridge
For four years, Shirley Jones played Shirley Partridge, momager and band member of her family of five’s singing group, The Partridge Family. Shirley, a widow in the ’70s, took the reins of her family’s musical talents and made business decisions alongside the group’s well-known manager, Reuben Kincaid, which catapulted the family to fame. The show often contrasted suburban life with the adventures of a show-business family on the road in their old school bus. After the first season, more of the show’s action takes place in their hometown than on tour, as the family navigates typical issues of that time period. In 1972, The Partridge Family deservingly won a Golden Globe for Best TV Show Musical/Comedy. Life lesson: Never underestimate the powerful combination of talented kids, an ambitious mom and hard work.
24. Elyse Keaton
Elyse Keaton, played by Meredith Baxter, was one of TV’s first workaholic mothers, playing a hip, independent architect with four children, married to a Columbus, OH, public-radio station manager on the ’80s sitcom Family Ties. Much like today’s working mom, Elyse gets caught up in overtime projects and, in turn, deals with guilt about keeping up with family commitments. The series refreshingly shows the family pulling together and working as a team to take on responsibilities to relieve the pressure from Elyse. Besides juggling life as a working mom, Elyse is a former hippie who often falls into heated debates with her conservative oldest son, Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox. Although the political conversations prove humorous and playful, they were reflective of the societal cultural switch from ’60s and ’70s liberalism to the ultraconservatism of the ’80s. And you thought Family Ties was just a way to pass 30 minutes on a Thursday evening.
Meredith Baxter (center) as Elyse Keaton in the ‘80’s sitcom Family Ties
23. Vivian Banks
While we didn’t see Vivian Banks working regularly on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show touted her role as a retired doctor who had gone back to school earning her Ph.D. at UCLA. Vivian, portrayed by Janet Hubert and Daphne Maxwell Reid, eventually showed up as a substitute teacher at Bel-Air Academy, the upscale preparatory high school attended by her nephew, Will, and children, Carlton and Ashley. Bonus points for this working mom for taking her sister’s troubled son, Will, played by Will Smith, under her wing to help him off the streets of Philadelphia and onto a path for success. Music and movie fans the world over are glad she did.
(left) Chris Cuffaio / NBCU Photo Bank, (right) Chris Haston / NBC / NBCU Photo Bank
Janet Hubert (left) and Daphne Reid (right) each portrayed Vivian Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
22. Ann Romano
The mom in the late ’70s sitcom One Day at Time, Ann Romano was ahead of her time, featured as a recently divorced working mother of two teenage girls, played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli. Played by Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Bonnie Franklin, Ann Romano’s character was the first glimpse society had into the divorced life of a working woman in the mid-’70s. Fortunately, this time period was cheering the second wave of feminism in the U.S., and it was easy for women viewers to rally around Ann as she started a new career and new life for her family in Indianapolis. Some touchy and not commonly talked about subjects included in the series did stir some controversy, such as rape and menopause. Ann owned her status as a single, working mother, which in turn opened the door for more women to do the same. Loud round of real applause for Ann and the early path she blazed.
Bonnie Franklin starred as recently divorced mom Ann Romano in One Day at a Time
21. Elizabeth McCord
The wildly popular political drama, Madam Secretary, looks into the life of Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord as she tries to balance work and family. A college professor and an extraordinary former CIA analyst, Elizabeth accepts the Secretary of State role at the request of the President. Elizabeth’s character, played by Téa Leoni, is a soft-spoken but effective, no-nonsense problem solver navigating the top-level political waters in Washington while mothering her three children and being a supportive wife to her husband, Henry. Sounds like a breeze, right?
Teá Leoni as Elizabeth McCord in Madam Secretary
20. Maggie Seaver
Maggie Seaver, played by Joanna Kerns, is a mom, reporter and wife on Growing Pains —one of the longest-running TV sitcoms of the ’80s. In a bit of a nontraditional twist, Maggie’s husband, Dr. Jason Seaver, agrees to work from home and look after their often high-maintenance brood in order for her to go back to work as a reporter. Jason is left to balance a home-based psychology practice while dealing with their girl-crazy and troublemaking teenager, Mike, played by Kirk Cameron; a perfectionist teenage daughter, Carol Anne; a goofy, wisecracking adolescent son, Ben; and later, Chrissy, the baby girl of the family. Not only was Maggie the ultimate mom boss chasing her reporter dream, but her hubby Jason deserves applause for supporting her dream and taking on the role of dad at home.
Joanna Kerns (middle right) as Maggie Seaver in Growing Pains, one of the longest-running TV sitcoms of the ‘80s
19. Dr. Miranda Bailey
Dr. Miranda Bailey is known as the tough-love attending general surgeon at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital on Grey’s Anatomy. Dr. Bailey, played by Emmy nominee Chandra Wilson, appears to always have things under control, unlike many of the tumultuous characters on the show. Like many working moms, despite her tough personality and blunt attitude, Dr. Bailey struggles to maintain personal relationships and time with her son. Every devoted Grey’s Anatomy fan can remember the memorable working mom moment when Dr. Bailey sneaks in a late-night call home to sing her son his favorite lullaby before bed. Don’t let Dr. Bailey’s nickname “Nazi” fool you. This doctor has a heart of gold, looking after her brood at home and her workplace family as well.
Chandra Wilson portrays attending general surgeon Dr. Miranda Bailey in Grey’s Anatomy
18. Jill Taylor
Jill Taylor was definitely more than “Tim the Tool Man’s” wife on the hit ’90s sitcom Home Improvement. Jill, mom of three boys, was a hardworking woman who often argued with her husband about a “woman’s place” as she struggled to find a job, ultimately returning to school to get a degree in psychology. Patricia Richardson, who played Jill, showed her commitment to the role early when she insisted to writers of the show that her character be imperfect and make mistakes, in hopes of showing other women that women—and moms—don’t have to be perfect beings to run a happy and healthy home. This she did well, earning four Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations for the role, thanks to her near-perfect comedic timing against the foolhardy exploits of husband Tim, played by Tim Allen.
The Walt Disney Co.
Patricia Richardson as Jill Taylor, “Tim the Tool Man’s” wife, in Home Improvement
17. Joan Harris
The path of a career woman—let alone a working mother—in the advertising era of the late ’60s was not an easy one. Between seasons four and five of Mad Men, Joan Harris, played by six-time Emmy nominee, Christina Hendricks, welcomes her new baby, the secret illegitimate love child she conceived with Roger Sterling—partner at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. By midseason, tensions lead to divorce with her husband, and she is left to raise Kevin by herself, with the help of her mother as a live-in nanny. Untraditionally, especially for the time, Joan’s professional trajectory soars after having Kevin. Joan makes some questionable decisions to secure her son’s financial future, but really, who are we to judge a single working mom in this era of advertising men? The series ends with Joan opening her own company. Joan is a forward thinker and a reminder that the future is ultimately in our control.
Michael Yarish/AMC, TheDailyBeast.com
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in Mad Men
16. Roseanne Conner
Definitely not your most glamorous of TV working moms, Roseanne Conner was by far one of the strongest. This leading lady on the ’90s sitcom Roseanne was one of the first to portray a mother in a blue-collar American family where both mom and dad worked. Roseanne Conner, played by Roseanne Barr, was far from your stereotypical housewife with her candid, outspoken attitude and less-than-perfect appearance. Roseanne is often depicted as having control over the household while her husband, Dan, takes a back seat. She consistently tries to control the lives of her husband, children and friends. Roseanne Barr pushed for the show to introduce gay characters into the series and eventually succeeded with the character Nancy. Roseanne won an Emmy and Globe Globe for the role in 1993, along with seven other nominations.
Roseanne Barr (center) portrayed the matriarch of the blue-collar Conner family in Roseanne
15. Rachel Green
Rachel Green, a beloved household name in ’90s life and Friends icon, rocked the new-mom scene, keeping her Ralph Lauren executive role while co-parenting with on-again, off-again boyfriend Ross Gellar. Besides having the haircut that more than half the female population copied in the late ’90s, Rachel took the mom game by storm by maintaining a career, social and even a dating life. Portrayed by Golden Globe winner Jennifer Anniston, Rachel showed how the modern New York woman pulls off co-parenting with an ex-boyfriend. Motherhood saw Rachel realistically struggling to maintain a sense of self, which in past TV portrayals was not as much of a concern. Rachel’s character opened the door to the conversation about maintaining who we are as women as well as mothers.
Rachel Green (portrayed by Jennifer Aniston) welcomes her daughter in Friends
14. Harriette Winslow
A security guard and later a salesperson on the popular ’90s TGIF evening sitcom Family Matters, mom Harriette Winslow was not only a working mom with three kids, but she also put up with annoying neighbor Steve Urkel, played to comedic perfection by Jaleel White. Family Matters’ storyline revolved around the Winslows, a middle-class African-American family living in Chicago. Harriette typically keeps a cool head, unlike her husband, who is always losing his cool. Harriette, a graduate of the police academy, left the force after having her first son, but after returning to the workforce is faced with several tough ethical situations. She eventually works her way up to a vice president of sales. Jo Marie Peyton played Harriette for the shows’ nine and a half seasons, with Judyann Elder stepping in for the final 15 shows.
ABC Photo Archives
Reginald VelJohnson as Carl Winslow and Jo Marie Payton as Harriette Winslow in Family Matters
13. Angela Bower
Who can forget this ’80’s Who’s the Boss working mom? In a time when single parents were slowly infiltrating the television world, Angela Bower took it a step further, opening her own NYC advertising agency, the Bower Agency, and hiring a male live-in housekeeper and nanny. Angela, played by Judith Light, was one of the first single TV moms who was divorced and not widowed. As an ad executive in New York, Angela’s character was constantly juggling her professional life while also being mom to son Jonathan. In the midst of it all was Angela’s veracious and man-crazy mother, Mona, who was a source of great comic relief for fans of the show. On top of being a mom to Jonathan, Angela played a mom role to her own mother and her housekeeper’s daughter, Sam. Who’s the Boss was one of the first sitcoms to show that life as a divorced, single working mother can be hard but also great. Angela’s progressive lifestyle was a depiction of the shifting norms of the 1980s. Spoiler alert: Angela’s relationship with her housekeeper—single-dad Tony, played by Tony Danza—eventually turns into true love.
ABC Photo Archives
Judith Light as Angela Bower and Tony Danza as Tony Micelli in Who’s the Boss?
12. Frankie Heck
So it’s pretty accurate to say that Frankie Heck’s family on The Middle is kind of a hot mess. Played by two-time Emmy winner Patricia Heaton, Frankie is a working-class mom who shuffles through several jobs while managing to keep her family of five afloat. At one point Frankie is a car saleswoman, where she befriends an eccentric male worker named Bob who has a crush on her. After losing her job at the dealership, she goes to tech school to get “a real career” as a dental hygienist. Although not without obstacles, Frankie becomes a dental hygienist/assistant. Between coordinating shifts and picking up fast-food dinners most times eaten in front of the TV, Frankie and her husband, Mike, raise their kids with lots of humor, love and firm Midwestern ethics. Her cheerful spirit and optimism get her family through each hysterical day of Frankie’s middle-aged, middle-class life in the middle of the country! Get it, The Middle?
Michael Ansell/ABC, TVinsider.com
Patricia Heaton as working-class mom Frankie Heck in The Middle
11. Judge Amy Gray
The memorable television series Judging Amy strikes a chord with its powerful mother-daughter relationship. When main character, Amy—played by Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Amy Brenneman—divorces, she returns to her childhood home with her daughter and becomes a judge in Connecticut family court. In addition to the family-related cases that she adjudicates, many episodes focus on her experiences as a divorced mother and on the relationship with her own mother, Maxine Gray. The adult women’s lines of work often intersect due to Maxine’s role as a social worker in the field of child welfare. This triangle of three generations poses all kinds of relationship obstacles due to personality similarities throughout the three generations.
Everett Collection / Today.com
Amy Brenneman (right) as Judge Amy Gray in Judging Amy
10. Alicia Forrick
Alicia Forrick is the main character of The Good Wife and has ventured back into her lawyer career 13 years after leaving the workplace to raise her kids. She had good reason to return after her husband's sex tape was leaked to the media and he is sent to jail. As the estranged wife of a public officer, Alicia works to balance after-school childcare issues, office politics and her romantic interests, while providing for her family. Now back in the workforce, Alicia struggles to balance her career while the time she is accustomed to spending with her children is cut short. Julianna Margulies’ portrayal of Forrick earned her two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife
9. Rainbow Johnson
We absolutely love Rainbow Johnson of Black-ish. Rainbow is an anesthesiologist and liberal mother of four who often humorously disagrees with her significant other. Her husband, Dre, is navigating the waters of their predominantly white upper-middle-class neighborhood as “Bow” supportively stands by his side. Bow, portrayed by Emmy and BET Award nominee Tracee Ellis Ross, keeps it real when she’s not able to attend every single event for her kids. She juggles her work schedule as best she can and is clear from the outset that she is neither trying nor will she ever be a perfect mom. We can all learn a valuable lesson from this strong woman. She understands her limitations, she is OK with not having or doing it all, and she is willing to ask for help. Thanks for keeping it real, Bow.
Kelsey McNeal/ABC, InStyle.com
Tracee Ellis Ross as anesthesiologist and liberal mother of four, Rainbow Johnson, in Black-ish
8. Leslie Knope
Parks and Recreation ran for seven seasons, with beloved Leslie Knope’s character in the protagonist role. Leslie, played by Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live fame, serves as the deputy director of the parks department on the series. An acknowledged whipped-cream addict, Leslie idolizes top-level female politicians and has her eye set on becoming the first female President of the United States. During season six, she gives birth to triplets with husband and colleague, Ben, by her side. Viewers were torn when the news of their three babies was revealed, wondering if this hard-charging mom would falter, but she certainly did not. Leslie certainly earned the right to mountains of whipped cream, and Amy earned herself a Golden Globe win and six Emmy nominations for the role.
Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, mom of triplets, in Parks and Recreation
7. Tami Taylor
Tami Taylor is the wife of the Dillon High School Panthers head coach, Eric Taylor, and mother of two girls in the hit TV show, Friday Night Lights. She is a fierce depiction of what it means to get back out in the workforce. Tami, played by Emmy Award nominee Connie Britton, decides to return to work early in the series, accepting a position as a guidance counselor at Dillon High School. This means regular interaction with her husband not just at home, but in the workplace as well. In her role, she has to handle issues of players’ academic eligibility, rally the high school girls, and address general student issues—all while rocking those stylish aviators.
Connie Britton portrayed Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights
6. Pam Beesly
This mom’s wedded bliss kicked off with one of the most watched TV weddings in history. Fans of The Office watched as Pam, played by Emmy Award nominee Jenna Fischer, and Jim’s love story grew throughout the show’s nine seasons. But in the meantime, Pam’s career took a journey too. Her roles at Dunder Mifflin changed throughout the series from receptionist to saleswoman to office administrator. Viewers’ love for Pam’s compassion and kindness and their appreciation for her character grew as she searched for the right position to balance career aspirations and dedication to her family. Truthfully, we are all searching for our inner Pam.
Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) and Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) in The Office
5. Miranda Hobbes
By the time Sex and the City was hot on the TV scene, single working parents on television were commonplace, and in the early 2000s, this usually meant a single working mom was the result of divorce. But when Harvard Law School graduate Miranda Hobbes got pregnant, kept the baby, and was still on good terms with her baby’s dad but not interested in tying the knot, the TV world cringed just a bit at this new twist. Despite her relationship status, Miranda never wavered in her confidence, knowing that her well-paying job and strong independent persona was more than suited to raise a child. Portrayed by Cynthia Nixon (Emmy winner and four-time Golden Globe nominee for the role), Miranda continued to be the breadwinner in the family even after eventually tying the knot with Brady’s dad, Steve, later in the series. Although we all loved Miranda as a single-mom rock star, we all cheered inside when she and Steve finally professed their undying, yet awkward, love.
HBO Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes in Sex and the City
4. Lorelai Gilmore
Devoted mom to Rory, Gilmore Girls’ Lorelai Gilmore built her career from the ground up, starting out blazing her trail as a single teenage mom with a dream of opening her own inn. Her dream eventually becomes a reality when she renovates the Dragonfly Inn, creating the most successful bed-and-breakfast in the sleepy town of Stars Hollow. Lorelai struggles to achieve a stable relationship with her wealthy, snobbish parents, but they do love Rory. Lorelai’s relationship with them is a work in progress throughout the series, as are her relationships with several love interests. She talks fast and she talks a lot; she makes witty remarks, often peppered with pop-culture references, in everyday conversations. There were many distractions for her throughout the series, but in the end, Rory was still basically her main reason for living, and their relationship was as strong as ever by the series finale. Lauren Graham, who portrayed Lorelei, was nominated for a Golden Globe and two Screen Actors Guild Awards for the role. And here’s some great news for those who felt life was over when Gilmore Girls ended. Four 90-minute “chapters” of Gilmore Girls: A Day in the Life are coming to Netflix on Friday, November 25.
Photos 12/Alamy, VanityFair.com
Lauren Graham (right) as devoted mom Lorelei Gilmore in Gilmore Girls
3. Cookie Lyon
Cookie Lyon’s name is currently equivalent to “queen of the music scene” at the TV moment. Cookie, mom on the hit show Empire, is refreshingly honesty with her kids, making viewers both cringe and think twice about the level of honesty within their own families. While definitely not living a life lacking drama, Cookie digs deep to hold her family together in the tumultuous record business that is Empire Enterprise. Portrayed by Taraji P. Henson (winner of a Golden Globe for her role), Cookie, devoted to the family, serves a lengthy prison sentence away from her family for her husband’s wrongdoings. Cookie is willing to fight for who she loves, and also actually fight the ones she loves (literally knock her grown sons to the floor) if that’s what it takes to remind them of what is important in life. While her motherly intentions might sometimes be misunderstood, we are not here to judge Cookie or any other parenting style. It’s all about what works.
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon in Empire
2. Clair Huxtable
In the 1980s hit The Cosby Show, Clair Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad, is an attorney and matriarch who shares child-raising duties and household decision-making responsibilities with her obstetrician husband, Heathcliff, played by Bill Cosby. Clair, consistently sporting a no-nonsense attitude, whether at the office or at home, had zero time for obstacles—whether they be people or things. Clair is often referenced as a feminist icon in TV history. Through the years she schooled her son Theo on the value of a woman, dealt with the sexist husband of her daughter Sondra, and combatted daily interactions with Rudy’s friend Kenny, who relied heavily on his sexist older brother’s knowledge of women. Despite all the woman power going on, Clair always had time to let loose with her five kids and support them in their times of emotional distress. The Cosby Show won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series and a Best TV Series Golden Globe in 1985. Phylicia Rashad won two NAACP Image Awards for her role as Clair, and was nominated for two Emmy Awards.
Attorney and matriarch Clair Huxtable (portrayed by Phylicia Rashad) in The Cosby Show
1. Murphy Brown
We’d be remiss if we left this influential television mom off of the list. When Candice Bergen’s character on the popular ’90s sitcom Murphy Brown gets pregnant by her ex-husband, who is not interested in being a father, she chooses to put on a brave face for single parenthood and welcomes a baby boy. The series caused a bit of an uproar on the political scene when Dan Quayle voiced his opinion about the lack of respect for family values portrayed by the show. But for working moms everywhere, Murphy became an icon when she returned to work, determined to continue her successful career path while raising her son. Truly, Murphy Brown became an unintended icon for women during a conservative time period. For her performance throughout the series, Candice won five Emmy Awards (plus two other nominations) and two Golden Globes (and another six nominations).
VH1 Candice Bergen as the title character in Murphy Brown
Written by Amanda Keefer for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.