Betty White has been a staple of American culture for decades, and her legacy deserves to be commemorated. With her passing last week, Betty is being celebrated for her wit and humor.
However, one thing that many people may not know about the actress is how throughout her life, she maintained a strong belief in equality and inclusion. She helped black performers get their start in show business, turned ageist stereotypes upside down, stood for gender equality, and was an advocate for animals.
Let’s take a look back at Betty White’s daring fight for equality.
Betty White was born in Illinois in 1922 but was raised in Southern California. As a child during the Depression, Betty learned the value of hard work from her father, who built and sold crystal radios. This modest business helped keep the family afloat — often through bartering for goods — and was a foreshadowing of Betty’s early career.
Betty began modeling and acting a bit after high school and then joined the war efforts when World War II began. Afterward, Betty turned to radio work when major studios turned her down for on-camera roles. Perhaps it was this early rejection and put-down of her natural looks that helped Betty understand the value of fighting for the underdog.
Commitment to Racial Inequality
From 1952 to 1954, Betty hosted and produced her own variety show on NBC. Betty had creative oversight on the show, a power that made a huge impact on the life and career of one performer in particular. Tap dancer Arthur Duncan, a Black man, was invited to perform on Betty’s show.
However, at a time when segregation was a hot topic, the studio worried that viewers in the South would boycott the show. That didn’t faze Betty. “He stays,” she famously declared. And Betty and her producers made sure to employ Arthur Duncan on her show often after the dustup. Duncan went on to have a successful career, which he credits largely to Betty standing up for him.
Gender and LGBTQ Allyship
Along with hiring a Black performer for her variety show, Betty also hired a female director. She learned the value early in her career of forming bonds with other pioneering women, such as Lucille Ball. As she gained power in Hollywood, she made an effort to support other women in acting, directing, and production roles.
Betty was also a beloved icon in the LGBTQ community. She used her platform to bring attention to serious issues. Betty was hailed for bringing awareness to HIV in an episode of The Golden Girls in 1990. She was also involved with GLAAD and spoke of her support for marriage equality prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 2015.
Changing the Narrative on Aging
Women in Hollywood have notoriously shorter careers than their male counterparts. But this didn’t discourage Betty. In fact, she took many stereotypes about older women and faced them head-on through her role on the television show The Golden Girls.
Instead of the narrative that life essentially ends after 50 for women, The Golden Girls showed us something much richer. The women on the show were active, leading complex, interesting lives. Lives full of friendship, love, and real value. The show’s raw depiction of real-life hit a nerve, and the popular series lived on in syndication.
Animal Advocacy Work
Betty’s love of animals started when she was young, as she was fascinated by wildlife during her family’s visits to the Sierra Nevada. As an adult, she hoped to work as a forest ranger, but at the time such roles were not available to women.
As her media career flourished, Betty took the opportunity to return to her first love: animals. She created and hosted a show about celebrity pets called The Pet Set. However, it was through her ongoing work with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association that Betty solidified herself as an animal advocate. Betty was also a trustee of the Morris Animal Foundation for over four decades, and a supporter of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio.
A Look Back on a Life Focused on Equality
In looking back at Betty White’s storied career, it’s clear that she lived her life with a focus on equality. The sheer breadth of Betty’s work is staggering. In her century-long life, she stood for racial justice, female empowerment, LGBTQ allyship, fought age discrimination, and promoted animal advocacy and conservation. Betty White was truly a once-in-a-generation personality, and we can all learn about inclusion and acceptance from her incredible example.