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Edith Bunker: High-pitched herald of change

Jean Stapleton played Edith Bunker along with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker.

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Jean Stapleton played Edith Bunker along with Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker.

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It’s hard to imagine a modern TV show with a character quite like Edith Bunker. Portrayed by Jean Stapleton, who died last week at 90, Edith was the working-class wife at the center of “All in the Family,” a sitcom that examined the fraught racial and class politics of the 1970s. Edith wasn’t modern, sassy, or empowered. She also wasn’t one of those hot TV wives that you often see married to sitcom schlubs. She was an artifact of the ’70s, a woman who was loyal to her prejudiced husband, offering only mild resistance in a grating, high-pitched voice. But she was also warm and deceptively wise, having learned a thing or two about life from her years in the kitchen.

The show was an artifact of its time, too, and Stapleton’s broad performance feels jarring compared to today’s more understated and ironic comedic styles. But as portrayed by Stapleton, Edith represented both the unseen virtues and untapped potential of middle-aged housewives in the era of women’s liberation. Stapleton’s ability to add an element of self-awareness to Edith’s submission helped “All in the Family” connect with viewers and become an important cultural touchstone. If Edith could understand Archie Bunker, and sometimes even make him change, then America could, too.

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