By David Martindale
Back in the late 1970s, when actress Renee O'Connor was growing up, one toy she enjoyed playing with was a Wonder Woman action figure.
"It was neat having a female action hero on TV to look up to," she says. "Usually all the heroes were male."
Little did she know then that she would become the sidekick to one of TV's greatest female action heroes. In fact, O'Connor made a mighty good role-model/hero herself. She co-starred with Lucy Lawless on Xena: Warrior Princess as Gabrielle, a feisty, sensitive, intelligent young woman who could bust heads when necessary.
It wasn't long before O'Connor realized that Xena and Gaby were having the same impact on young viewers that Wonder Woman had had on her. "It's pretty exciting, having these girls tell me how they're dressing up as Gabrielle at home, having mock staff fights and mock storytelling wars. Going into the show, I never would have dreamed that it would have that effect on people, on young girls. But I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Some of TV's other pioneer women -- pioneers in the sense that they busted female stereotypes -- have had similar experiences:
Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman): "The comments I get from fans, they're definitely from both ends of the spectrum. For young men basically, Wonder Woman was strictly an adolescent fantasy. But there are women who tell me Wonder Woman was the first show that gave them a female hero."
Cheryl Ladd (Charlie's Angels): "I call it the 'You Can Be an Astronaut Syndrome.' If the Angels could run around pulling guns out of God-knows-where from our bikinis, anything was possible for women. Young girls started perceiving themselves doing something exciting. I don't necessarily mean being detectives. It just opened the doors of imagination for women and young girls."
Anne Francis (the 1960s-era private eye Honey West): "I've had baby-boomer career women who have come up to me and said, 'If it weren't for Honey, I don't think I would have realized I could have done something else in life.' They did not have many role models for a single career woman. Most of the images at that time: The nice mom who stayed at home and catered completely to Pop and the kids. We were taught in those days to assume that role."
Peta Wilson (La Femme Nikita): "I remember one episode I really enjoyed doing. A guy tries to force himself on Nikita, but instead I kick his butt. That was for every single woman out there who has had that happen to her. And I think that sent out a powerful message to everyone: Women don't have to sit back and 'take it' any more."
Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager): "If I accomplished anything in my seven years as captain on a Star Trek series, I hope it's that I've helped turn the issue of women in command into a non-issue. If the Voyager crew can have a female boss, one of courage and conviction, why can't a woman run the office here on Earth? That's a message I sincerely hope our younger viewers picked up on. I suppose we'll find out in a few years, once they grow up and begin to populate the workplace."
David Martindale is a columnist and contributing editor for Biography magazine.