‘The Golden Girls’ Star Bea Arthur Broke Television Taboo With a Controversial Abortion Storyline in ‘Maude’

Bea Arthur might be best known to fans these days as the cantankerous and witty Dorothy from the sitcom The Golden Girls, but long before she was making viewers laugh in that series, she was a part of several other major television shows.

Arthur’s role in the series Maude was not only groundbreaking for television in general, but during her days on the show, she was involved in several storylines that changed the course of how women were portrayed in network television. 

How Bea Arthur become famous

Bea Arthur as Dorothy, Rue McClanahan as Blanche, and Betty White as Rose Nylund
Pictured: (l-r) Bea Arthur as Dorothy Petrillo-Zbornak, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, Betty White as Rose Nylund | NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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According to IMDb, Arthur was born in New York in 1922. When Arthur was 10 years old, her family relocated to Maryland, where young Arthur began to experience health problems stemming from a condition that caused blood clotting issues.

Arthur was eventually able to overcome her health problems and during World War II, Arthur enlisted as one of the first members of the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. She worked as a typist, a truck driver, and a dispatcher during her time in service, eventually getting honorably discharged in 1945.

Several years after she was discharged from military service, Bea Arthur decided to pursue a career in acting. She started by acting in a variety of stage productions, including off-Broadway plays. By the ’60s, Arthur was an established name on Broadway and had earned acclaim for her performances in shows such as Mame and Fiddler on the Roof

Bea Arthur starred in ‘Maude’

Beatrice Arthur as Maude
Beatrice Arthur as Maude Findlay on ‘Maude.’ | CBS Photo Archive

In 1971, Arthur appeared as a guest star on the popular TV series All in the Family. As Maude Findlay, the outspoken, liberal cousin of conservative Edith Bunker, Arthur was perfectly tart and sarcastic.

Viewers loved her performance as Maude, so much so that after several more guest spots on All in the Family, Arthur was approached about starring in her own spinoff series.

Maude debuted on television in 1972 and made a star out of Bea Arthur. The series addressed a number of topics that had not been dealt with on television before, including gay rights, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, abuse, menopause, alcoholism, and much more.

However, one particular two-part episode caused controversy among viewers, an episode that dealt with a touchy, but very relevant topic.

How did Bea Arthur’s abortion storyline in ‘Maude’ break television barriers?

The two-part episode, Maude’s Dilemma, featured a particularly tough storyline. The episode told the story of how Maude was surprised with a late-life pregnancy and the way that she agonizes over what to do about it.

Ultimately, Maude decides that the best course of action is for her to have an abortion. While such subject matter might seem relatively par for the course on television today, in 1972, it caused a major stir. In many states, abortion was still illegal, and many network affiliates refused to air the episode.

According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, abortion had been featured in at least one television series prior to the Maude storyline, but never directly — and never as something handled by a leading character.

As Arthur later recalled: “‘The amount of mail was incredible. ‘I can’t call it hate mail, although there were a few that said, `Die, die,` but most were intelligent people who were deeply offended, and very emotional about it. I think the problem was I had become some sort of Joan of Arc for the middle-aged woman.”

Ultimately, even though it caused major controversy at the time, the two-part episode made history and has since become a cultural touchstone.