'Designing Women' at 30: A Tribute to the Four 'Man-Loving Feminists' Who Changed TV

Annie Potts, Jean Smart, Meshach Taylor, Delta Burke, Dixie Carter (Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)
Designing Women starred Annie Potts, Jean Smart, Meshach Taylor, Delta Burke, and Dixie Carter. (Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)

“It’s ironic to me that Designing Women never got an Emmy for anything except hairdressing,” creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason says. “I think they were saying, ‘We like your hair. You need to shut your mouth.'” That was never going to happen.

Thirty years ago, Designing Women debuted on CBS’s fall schedule and introduced TV viewers to the women of the fledgling Atlanta interior design firm Sugarbaker & Associates. There was sophisticated widow Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), nicknamed “The Terminator” for her verbal assassinations of the sexist, bigoted, and otherwise ignorant; Julia’s younger sister, Suzanne (Delta Burke), the former beauty queen who wined and dined clients as well as any rich older gentleman who could be her next husband; Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), the single mother who looked at Julia as a mentor both professionally and personally and at Suzanne as a silly person (“But of course, in the South, we embrace that,” Potts says); and Mary Jo’s close friend Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart), the gullible churchgoing office manager from Poplar Bluff, Mo., who alphabetized Suzanne’s alimony checks while waiting for her own true love to come along.

To quote Season 2’s “Dash Goff, the Writer,” they were “sweet-smelling, coy, cunning, voluptuous, voracious, delicious, pernicious, vexing and sexing, these earth sister rebel mothers, these arousers and carousers…” Or, to put it slightly less eloquently, they were smart, opinionated, man-loving feminists who defied the stereotypes of women — and Southerners — on TV.

To celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary, Yahoo TV looks back at Designing Women‘s first five seasons through interviews with Bloodworth-Thomason, Burke, Potts, and Smart. They also share fond memories of Carter, who passed away in 2010, and Meshach Taylor, who joined the series in Season 1 as delivery man Anthony Bouvier and died in 2014.

Part I: The Pitch

In 1986, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, from Poplar Bluff, Mo., had already made a name for herself in Hollywood having earned an Emmy nomination for co-writing an episode of M*A*S*H. She’d also created two short-lived series — Filthy Rich (1982-83), a spoof of nighttime soaps starring Delta Burke and Dixie Carter, and Lime Street (1985-86), a Robert Wagner-led drama in which Jean Smart and Annie Potts had guest-starred as sisters who were international jewel thieves.

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason: I had a deal with CBS to create a show for an actor that they wanted to see on the air. By now I’d been involved in enough preliminary pilot-making to know if they like someone, you should probably do that show, but I was just sitting in my office looking out the window thinking, “This just really isn’t me. And this actor isn’t anyone I’m really interested in.” I wanted to write something that had a lot of estrogen. And fortunately, because of this brilliant casting director who was my dear friend, Fran Bascom — she’d found Jean and Annie for Lime Street, and she also had brought me Dixie and Delta for Filthy Rich — I started thinking about the four of them now, and how much I had liked Dixie and Delta together, and how much I had liked Jean and Annie together, and “Wouldn’t it be so great if I could do a show with all four of them?”

So I just called CBS on a lark. I didn’t even have an idea for them, really. I just said, “Look, I’ve got these four actresses, I really would love to write something for them. I would really much rather do that than this show that you’re thinking of doing. ” They said, “Well, how soon can you come over here?” I said, “Right now.” I got in my car and drove there. … I told Mike Ogiens, [CBS’s VP of comedy development], “Look, I don’t care what they do for a living, I just want these four women all together in the same room all talking. That’s all I know.” And Mike said, “I want to do this show. I can see it.” And then he called Harvey Shephard, who was [CBS’s senior vice president for programming], and Harvey came down. By then, CBS knew my writing and they knew each of these actresses individually. Harvey said, “So you’re gonna get these four women … and you’re gonna basically write what they say?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “We’re gonna shoot that show.” And then he left. Oh, the only other thing he said was, “What’s the name of it?” And somebody said, “Well, how about [they play] decorators?” And then somebody else said, “Designing Women.” And that was it. It might be the easiest sale in network history for somebody who’s not had a successful show before.

There was one hiccup: When it was time to formally cast the pilot, the network didn’t want Burke, a former Miss Florida who’d already starred as an ex-beauty queen in one series with Carter, as Suzanne. They wanted Lorna Patterson, the Airplane! actress who’d played the lead role in the TV adaptation of Private Benjamin.

Bloodworth-Thomason: They were really pushing another actress, and I didn’t want that other actress. It wasn’t that she was terrible; it was that the part was written for Delta. It was very close to shooting, a few days before, and they came and saw that the part was not written for Lorna. I said, “Please, please, let me call Delta. What do you have to lose? Let her just try.”

Delta Burke: I’m in my apartment, crying my eyes out and saying, “This was written for me. This is my part.” Then I got a call that I had a chance at it, and I had to come in and audition. So I went in and auditioned. They didn’t want me to have a Southern accent, for some reason. I’m trying really hard not to have a Southern accent, and they went for me. They said, “OK. You can cast her.” Then we’re shooting the pilot, and I thought I was talking without a Southern accent, but years later, I saw the pilot at the Museum of Television & Radio … and there I was with a Southern accent. I thought I had hidden it, but I had not.

Annie Potts: Once she came in, it all fell into place, really, because everything was in balance then.

Burke: Dixie was already like my sister. That bond was there. Whenever we would have scenes to do, it wasn’t Julia and Suzanne doing the scene, it was Dixie and Delta doing the scene. I groveled at her feet. I thought she was so talented. I wanted to grow up to be just like her.

Potts: I had not [met Dixie before Designing Women]. It was love at first sight. I thought she was just devastatingly gorgeous and funny and sexy, and she was married to someone very famous [Hal Holbrook], and I was just completely bedazzled by her and remained so for the rest of our time together.

Jean Smart: I remember the first time I ever laid eyes on Dixie Carter. I went to an off-Broadway show and it was a show called A Couple of White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. This woman makes an entrance. She came out on that stage like she was a thoroughbred pony or something in her high heels and her hair. I just thought, “Who is that?” The most gorgeous creature I had ever seen. Several years later when I got to work with her, I was thrilled.

Burke: We all liked each other immediately, so there was this friendship going on right from the beginning, but we just clicked with our work right away and we would feed off each other. You’d get excited about what somebody else did that was really funny that you liked, and you’d go, “Oh, do that! You’re really funny when you do that!” We’d encourage each other in that way. I knew at the time that it was very unique situation because you don’t get that kind of atmosphere, those kind of characters to play, and these kind of actors to work with. It just doesn’t come along.

Part II: The Voice

The plot of the pilot revolved around Suzanne’s hitting it off romantically with Mary Jo’s ex — Ted (Scott Bakula), the cheating gynecologist Mary Jo had put through medical school while raising their children.

Potts: They had let me be in on the casting session for Ted. I felt that [Scott Bakula] was by far the best, and I requested him because I think also sometimes, when somebody is so likable and you have to hate them, it makes it hard and that’s funny.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I wanted the women to get into an argument, and I thought, “There’s no better argument than over a man.” But because women are so often trivialized with fighting over men, I wanted to take this very stereotypical situation and try to elevate it to show that even in their discussion of the problem, the conversation can be elevated. Like on Real Housewives, it’s just a lot of fighting and slapping each other and pulling each other’s wigs off; we didn’t want to do that. I wanted to show that through humor and camaraderie they could triumph over that, and that at the end of the show, the four of them are much more important than any relationship with a man.

The pilot also featured Julia’s first legendary monologue, a scathing assessment of a man named Ray Don (guest star Arlen Dean Snyder), who insisted on joining her, Charlene, and Mary Jo at their table.

Potts: You know there’s gay bars that run her speeches on a continual loop. People know all the speeches by heart. Dixie suffered over every one of them because they were always lengthy and fabulous and she had a sensational work ethic and she wanted them to be just right. She worked them and worked them and worked them.

Smart: No one wrote speeches in sitcoms back then. You’d have a line or two, and someone else would have a line or two and a punchline, and then you’d have a line or two and a punchline, and they’d have a line, and you’d have a line. Nobody would have page-long monologues like we got. It was fabulous. One of my all-time favorite episodes was [Season 1’s “Nashville Bound] where Charlene’s entire family from the Ozarks comes to visit and I had to introduce them all by name. I was terrified. I said, “If I don’t get this in the first take, I’ll fall on the floor and die.” [The list] went on and on and on and on and on and somehow, through pure terror and adrenaline, I nailed it the first time, thank God. Poor Meshach is watching going, “Oh, damn!” because he had to do it again right after me. Oh, bless his heart. And Ronnie Claire Edwards, who played my mother, one of the funniest, if not the funniest, woman I ever met in my entire life — she just passed away [in June], and I was really, really sad about that.

Smart: The other thing I liked about [Linda’s writing] was that all four women were very, very different. Lots of times, you’ll see on shows, comedies in particular, where the lines could be kind of interchangeable. But these women were so unique with themselves that you wouldn’t be able to, say, take one of Charlene’s lines and give it to Suzanne, or take one of Julia’s lines and give it to Mary Jo.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I don’t think [the actresses] get enough credit for that, because I get so much credit for writing them. They were bringing a lot of themselves to the characters — their eccentricities, their little quirks, their manner of speaking. Their voices had a musicality to them, a rhythm, and I think it coincided with my writing rhythm, so it was kind of a little symphony when it worked. I like Southern voices anyway — I married a Southern man [Designing Women executive producer/director Harry Thomason], and I still love to hear him talk. It’s just a soothing, melodic sound. Maybe this comes from my childhood, but I’m comforted by it. Not to make too much of it, but I think the way that the show sounded was really important because it didn’t sound like any other show on television.

Dixie is very languid, and she has a trajectory that starts out slow and then ends up going off like a rocket. I wrote those speeches that way, but if you heard somebody else read them, it wouldn’t have happened that way. Maybe it’s a Southern cadence, but she owned it, and that evolved into her being “The Terminator.” When she would start on something in that slow drawl, when she got somebody in her gun sight, it was so much fun to watch because you were going on a trip with her and it was going to end in wild applause. She was just the master of controlling the trajectory and the speed of it and then the explosion at the end.

Potts: “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” speech? Come on. It doesn’t get any better than that on TV, I don’t think.

In Season 1’s second episode, “The Beauty Contest,” Julia let loose on the reigning Miss Georgia World after she overheard her belittling Suzanne to a friend.

Burke: Well, you know, Julia can make fun of Suzanne but nobody else can make fun of Suzanne. Linda asked me about my feelings on beauty pageants, and I talked about how it felt to have that crown on my head and how much I had loved them. She put that in there for Suzanne, so that was nice. It was an emotional moment for Suzanne. Luckily, I was in a doorway behind Dixie so I couldn’t see her face, because I would have been cracking. Dixie was just so brilliant in that and we would quote that forever, all the time.

Bloodworth-Thomason: Julia was kind of my Sasha Fierce, like Beyoncé has her Sasha Fierce. She gets to do and say all the things that you would never dare say. That was inspiring. That was also the same for Suzanne: She said some terrible things that you don’t like about yourself, the things that you are shallow about or politically incorrect about. You could never say those things but you could just put them right in Delta’s mouth and they come out as funny. It was always with this high, melodic, self-assured voice that just got her off the hook. Her Southern lilt, and her careless way of throwing things away verbally really brought a lot to the humor.

Jean had that kind of raspy Marilyn Monroe thing going on. She was the only non-Southerner, but her accent was just beautiful. She’s very languid, very comforting, very soft. Charlene can say just about anything and be loved for it, because it just comes from such a good place. There’s no meanness in her. She represents the inviolable goodheartedness of Southern women, where no one can crush their loyalty, no one can disrupt their optimism. If Charlene met somebody who cut a man’s head off, she would immediately set about trying to understand it.

I still think Annie had the toughest role. The things that she said were the most relatable things to the viewing audience. Eccentricity is so much easier than normalcy. That’s pretty hard to do, to fulfill that Everywoman slot and still be very special, and very specific, and different from all the other characters. Annie is such a brilliant comedian, she managed to do that.

Potts: I was a single mother for a lot of my time on that show, so it was important for me. There would be times when the show was on, and since it’s gone off the air, that I’d have people come up to me and say, “I was a single mother then,” or “My mother was a single mother and we watched the show together, and you gave her such courage and meant so much to her.” Of course, that’s always very sweet to hear.

Burke: That first year was so beautiful because we were so grateful to be there, to have these wonderful parts to play and that we all liked each other so much and worked together so well. We were just delirious with joy. On top of it, it’s about these amazing characters that we’re playing that are so funny and so witty and can pick on each other and defend each other and there’s this wonderful, feminine bond. It was everything wonderful that you could think of.

PART III: The Near Cancellation

It’s difficult to imagine now, but Designing Women almost became a one-season wonder. By the time the show premiered on Sept. 29, 1986, sandwiched between Newhart and Cagney & Lacey, CBS had a new programming exec in Shepherd’s chair. Bloodworth-Thomason prefers not to mention his name, because they’re still friends, but she will say he was not a fan of the show: “He got up in New York and apologized for the show before they showed it. He got booed by the press. They’d already seen some of it and they loved it. He didn’t like it. It was foreign to him. Again, the wind is always never at your back if you’re a Southern writer in Hollywood; the wind is always in the front.” Airing on Mondays, Designing Women landed in the top 30s in ratings. After a December move to Thursdays, opposite NBC’s top 10 show Night Court, it fell into the 60s — and off CBS’s schedule.

Potts: When I read the Ghostbusters script, it was like, “This is going to be huge. I just know this is going to be huge.” But you know, TV is such a difficult business and you just never know. There’s no telling sometimes what the zeitgeist is going to be and what’s going to land and take off and what’s going to fall short. Four white women and a black man was unusual at that time, and being political, although Norman Lear certainly had been priming people for that for a decade by then. It was certainly to my taste, but you know how that is: It was like, “Yeah, I think that ought to be a hit,” but that’s just my point of view.

Smart: I had started to learn that that didn’t necessarily mean anything in the business sense. The first show I did, I came out from New York to do a series with Lynn Redgrave and Norman Fell called Teachers Only. I remember when one of the executives came in to announce our time slot was [moving to] Saturday night. I was from the theater. I didn’t know what that meant. Then Norman Fell turned and looked at all of us and said, “Well, it’s been nice working with you!” I did three more series after that that were kind of short-lived before Designing Women. I was just kind of naïve about that stuff back then. I guess I didn’t really believe that they were going to cancel the show. I was like, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.”

The show’s “hiatus” would have turned into cancellation had viewers not mobilized for a record-setting write-in campaign.

Potts: There was an organization called Viewers for Quality Television that, considering there was no Internet at the time, were able to exert quite a bit of influence. Linda and her husband were very smart to harness the energy of that, and it was the biggest write-in campaign in TV history at that time, when they took us off.

Bloodworth-Thomason: My husband just saved the show. We make fun of him because he’s always the fearless leader. He’s like Charlene — he never believes he’s canceled. He just said, “Hell, no, we’re not canceled.” He organized the letter-writing campaign that got 50,000 letters to CBS.

Burke: We went on the road and toured around doing a lot of publicity and trying to get people to write in. I was teamed up with Jean, and we would go to different states. I remember we were landing in Seattle and there was smoke coming from the plane and a lot of fire trucks on the tarmac, and we thought we might be about to crash, and the first thing we did was to apply makeup.

Smart: It was actually in San Francisco! It’s like an episode of the show! We were flying into San Francisco and we were almost there, and the pilot came on and said that they were having a problem with their hydraulics. But I thought, “Oh well, OK, that doesn’t sound great, but whatever, he sounds calm.” And he said, “We will be attempting to land on the runway or just beyond.” And I thought, “‘Just beyond’ is the bay, I think. That doesn’t sound good.” Delta and I were going, “By God, if we’re going to die, we’re going to go down looking good!” So we whipped out the mascara and lip gloss and eye shadow. As the plane’s coming down toward the tarmac, I guess nobody knew if the wheels were actually down or if the brakes were going to work before we touched down. You could see all these fire engines on both sides of the runway screaming past us going toward wherever it is we’re going to end up, and I thought, “Well, that doesn’t look good.” But it was fine.

Potts: I really don’t know how [the Viewers for Quality Television] did it without the Internet, but they did do it, and it saved us, and I’m forever grateful to them.

Bloodworth-Thomason: To his credit, Bud Grant [then president of CBS Entertainment] really listened to what the viewers were saying. He called Harry and said, “Bring the cast and come over.” That’s when Bud Grant went out to the corner of CBS and raised a white flag and said, “We surrender.”

Potts: Yes, I’m pretty sure that actually happened. Where did that picture go? Again, the Internet hadn’t been invented, so staged for what publication I don’t know, but we did do that.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I can’t imagine that ever happening today. A man in a position like that putting himself to be viewed that way. It said volumes about the kind of man he was, and how strong he was. He said, “We’re going to give you another chance.” Thank God he did, because there were 150-some-odd episodes after that.

Tony Goldwyn guest stars in the Season 2 episode 'Killing All the Right People' (Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)
Tony Goldwyn guest-stars in the Season 2 episode “Killing All the Right People.” (Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)

Part IV: The Statement

In Season 1, Designing Women had tackled serious issues — Charlene had a breast cancer scare after her doctor insisted she didn’t need a second opinion in a special 60-minute episode, and Mary Jo was sexually harassed and nearly raped by a client in the season finale — but it’s the Season 2 episode “Killing All The Right People” that showed what the series was truly capable of. In it, a young interior designer and friend (played by then-newcomer Tony Goldwyn) came to Sugarbaker & Associates and asked the women to design a room for his funeral because he was dying of AIDS. At the same time, Mary Jo was volunteered to voice the pro argument for a PTA debate over condom distribution in schools. The episode, which earned writer Bloodworth-Thomason an Emmy nomination, is best remembered for two scenes: Julia escorting out a client who insisted, “As far as I’m concerned, this disease has one thing going for it — it’s killing all the right people,” and Mary Jo’s passionate closing argument: “More important than what any civic leader, PTA, or board of education thinks about teenagers having sex or any immoral act that my daughter or your son might engage in, is the bottom line that I don’t think they should have to die for it.”

Bloodworth-Thomason: The day I found out that CBS was greenlighting Designing Women to be a series is the day I found out my mother had AIDS. That was in April of 1986. She died in November of 1986. For that period, I was writing scripts by her side in the hospital.

It was hard to find a hospital then that was proficient in AIDS care. Nobody really knew how to deal with AIDS patients. We were all still wearing gloves and masks. Nobody knew exactly how it could be transmitted. They would put the medicine in a bucket and kick it into the room. We were not welcome at the hospital where we were. No nurses wanted to touch my mother or any of the 17 young men. It was my mom and 17 young men who were all dying on the same floor.

A lot of those young men died alone with game shows playing across the hall in a sitting area. Only my mom’s heroic AIDS doctor, Dr. Jeff Galpin, would come by and hold their hand when they died. They actually had my mother transferred to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center, which did have trained nurses, because she was treated so badly. One day I was standing out in the hall, and they were taking my mother for a test, wheeling her with their mask on. This woman, who was just a visitor at the hospital, was standing outside in her high heels and her purse, and she looked at my mom, and she didn’t say anything, but I noticed her disdain. Then they wheeled a couple of AIDS patients who were young men. She took a look at them and said, “Well, if you ask me, this disease has one thing going for it — it’s killing all the right people.” It just sent chills up my spine. I couldn’t believe anyone could be that ignorant, or that cruel. If you haven’t seen anyone die from AIDS, you can count yourself lucky in this life, because it is a horrible, horrible thing. I thought, “OK, I’ve got to do this show.” We did, and everybody did it so beautifully. When I look at it today, it seems a little primary and not so sophisticated, but when we did it, it was the first AIDS show that had ever been done on a comedy. I was very proud of that.

Smart: I had always been the kind of person who said, “Oh, please, don’t have sitcoms do ‘a very special episode.’ Linda could always pull it off. She just was that kind of writer. It didn’t seem disrespectful. It didn’t seem rushed. It didn’t seem cheesy. It was always really well done, and how she did that many times over in 22 minutes or however much time they’d give us back then, it was kind of incredible.

Potts: Linda was very political. She and Harry, their best friends were the Clintons. Everything had a purpose for her, and I was happy to carry all those messages.

Burke: I was impressed that Linda wanted to tackle all types of topics that just really weren’t in the sitcom arena. That was fun and interesting for us to get to do, to show the different viewpoints of the different characters. One big thing for Linda was, first of all, to show that Southerners were not stupid. Always on TV, whenever they would cast anybody Southern, they’d make them an idiot. She wanted to show that these Southern women were very smart and very intelligent and also happened to be funny.

Bloodworth-Thomason: Whether it was Green Acres or Beverly Hillbillies or Dukes of Hazzard, even on Andy Griffith, which was a favorite show of mine, the people where not the brightest lights. Now we’re faced with this show where these women are very smart and they’re saying some pretty smart stuff, and I think it was confusing — not everybody got the value of it right away because it was new, it was different.

I think we played a really important role in showing people that there’s another side to the South than just all the stereotypes that are in everyone’s head. Always it’s called “down there.” I cannot tell you how many friends of mine have said they wouldn’t even want to go visit there. They still think most people there aren’t very smart, aren’t very educated, almost everybody has racial prejudice. Nobody had ever seen these liberal Southerners like Julia. It was always, “You’re not from around here, are you?” We were actually reflecting the part of the South that probably locates most of itself near universities, the people that you just can’t get enough of, the place where Southern writers hung out. Designing Women didn’t cure anything, but it certainly made people sit up and rethink what the South, especially the new South, is really about. You just don’t see other shows, or even necessarily other people from the South, championing the best aspects of it.

Bloodworth-Thomason did have to strike a special deal with Dixie Carter, a conservative Republican: For every speech she had to deliver that she didn’t completely agree with, she’d get to sing in a later episode. “Nothing I wrote did she ever turn down,” Bloodworth-Thomason says with a laugh. “She’d kind of shake her head like, ‘I don’t like this,’ but she’d get right to work on it because she knew it was going to end happily for her in another way.” But she had CBS’s full support.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I never [told CBS] I was going to do all these issues. I said, “I just want these women to be able to talk the way women really talk. They’re not just going to sit around talking about their boyfriends and their hair.” We started doing all these issues, and CBS had another power change, and they fell in love with this show. They thought it was the greatest thing that these women were talking about issues. They couldn’t get enough of it. Howard Stringer [president of CBS from 1988 to 1995] traveled around giving speeches about, “You’ve got to see these women, and just listen to what they’re talking about. They’re not like anybody else on TV.” I was given carte blanche. Jeff Sagansky [president of CBS Entertainment from 1990 to 1994] is a Republican, and he never intervened in any way. He just basically told the creative people at CBS to let me do what I wanted to do because it was working. I got very, very few notes ever on Designing Women. Even when I wanted to do Clarence Thomas [in Season 6’s “The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita”], they said, “Great, do it.” Again, that would not happen today. They would be horrified and mortified.

It was fun and it was immediate. We were never one script ahead. Talk about living dangerously. Back then, it was a million at stake and a hundred people waiting on set. I never wrote the script until Saturday and Sunday each week. We would [rehearse] the show during the week, shoot it on Thursday, edit on Friday, then Saturday and Sunday, I’d write another script. The messenger would always come on Sunday night and get it, and we’d start over. I would just pray to God that I wouldn’t run out of topics. My husband and I are Southern — we sort of like that “getting off the Titanic and boarding the Lusitania” feeling. It’s very exhilarating.

Burke and Taylor in Season 2's
Burke and Taylor in Season 2’s “Stranded.”

Also invigorating was the decision to begin cultivating an unexpected friendship between Suzanne and Anthony in the Season 2 episode “Stranded.” They were traveling together to St. Louis to meet the others at a design show when a snowstorm closed the roads, forcing them to share a one-bed motel room — that is, after Suzanne finally allowed freezing Anthony to come in from the van.

Bloodworth-Thomason: Suzanne’s smug, cavalier racism — which didn’t come from hatred, it came from poor information and prejudice that she’d been taught — affiliated with Anthony just telling it like it is, I just thought that would be funny together. He was always appalled by everything she said, yet there was this real affection between them. She just held on to these old ways. “You know, Anthony, you’re not so bad.” I thought they gave a lot of hope to solving racial problems. They were one of the great relationships that came out of the show.

Burke: Suzanne is not ever doing anything to be malicious. She just does these things and has no clue that it’s mean maybe or racist maybe or could possibly be upsetting to anybody because it doesn’t come that way from her heart. Meshach and I, we had good chemistry and people pick up on that. When we were all in Arkansas at the house that they used as Sugarbaker House for the credits, they never could find us. They’d go looking for me or looking for Meshach, and we’d always be off someplace together. I think Linda saw that we kind of really hooked up as friends and she decided to use it in the show with Anthony and Suzanne always being off together or stuck together and things like that.

“Stranded” is one of my very all-time favorite episodes. Anything with Meshach was just brilliant because he was so talented and such a genuinely wonderful man. I miss him so much. We were traveling together once promoting the show and they stuck us in a suite together. We had two different rooms, you know, but it was the same suite. I had a long-line brassiere I was trying to get myself into and I was having trouble doing it, and Meshach had to help me. So there was a little Anthony/Suzanne going on in our relationship off-camera.

Hal Holbrook shares a dance with wife Carter in Season 1's
Hal Holbrook shares a dance with wife Carter in Season 1’s “Reese’s Friend.”

Part V: The Romance

As any diehard Designing Women fan knows, Hal Holbrook was already married to Carter when he first appeared as widowed Julia’s new love, attorney Reese Watson, in Season 1. When Richard Gilliland began his recurring stint as Mary Jo’s new boyfriend, Atlanta Braves scout J.D. Shackleford, that season, he fell in love with Smart. They married at Carter and Holbrook’s home in 1987. “Richard actually had met all three of the other gals and he had worked with Delta a couple of times,” Smart says. “I said, ‘Do you know if he has a girlfriend? Is he married?’ She said, ‘I don’t know,’ and apparently, she walked right up to him and said, ‘She wants to know if you’re single!’ in Delta fashion, or Suzanne fashion, I don’t know which. It was mortifying, but I was kind of glad that she did it because we were never apart after that day. [Later] I found out that Richard had dated Delta. She didn’t include that little detail.” Burke made her own love connection in Season 2, when Gerald McRaney guest-starred as Suzanne’s favorite ex-husband. They wed in 1989.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I would absolutely say that there’s never been a comedy on television where there was so much love and sexual chemistry going on. You might have tension, like on Cheers between Diane and Sam, but you didn’t have romance — sexy romance, like when Reese and Julia would dance together. He would start talking about her legs, and you’d just go, “Oh, you don’t see this on comedies.” Again, I credit the women with that. They just exuded it. You were commanded to write to it.

Burke: Fran Bascom, the casting director, said, “We’re thinking of John Ritter or Gerald McRaney to play your first ex-husband.” I had met Mac a couple of months before at a Publicists Guild Awards thing, and I thought he was pretty good stuff and how was I ever going to hook up with him. So I said, “Oh, get that Gerald McRaney. I think we’ll have good chemistry.” From the day he came on the set, we’ve sort of been together. We had a kissing scene in the show, and he said, “Can we have lunch together?” And I was on one of my diets, as usual, and I said, “No, but you can join me in my trailer.” So he came into my trailer and I remember saying to him, “You know, it’s so awkward to do that kiss on the stage in front of everybody. Why don’t we just get that out of the way right now.” So we got to do our first kiss in the trailer, and it was pretty good. I thought, “Well, now, if he kisses that good, then he’s pretty damn good.” [When we did the kiss on set], I couldn’t remember my lines and we had to stop for a moment.

Gerald McRaney and Burke in Season 2's
Gerald McRaney and Burke in Season 2’s “Dash Goff, The Writer.”

Burke: [There was also] the infamous picnic, except we didn’t bring a basket with food. We thought we’d just go off to the backlot. I never ever saw anybody back there before, but all of a sudden this little tour cart comes through with a bunch of people on it. It was a little embarrassing. I was sort of a little trampy with him. I said, “You know, could you lay on top of me just for one moment?” And he did. There was chemistry there, I have to say.

Potts: I do remember after Mac and Delta started dating, she had had a lot of not-good relationships, so I asked him out for a drink and I did tell him if he hurt her that I would f***ing kill him. I do remember that.

Smart and Douglas Barr in Season 2's
Smart and Douglas Barr in Season 2’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Three episodes after “Dash Goff, the Writer,” Charlene finally met the man of her dreams, Col. Bill Stillfield (Douglas Barr), in “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Shortly after Charlene tells her friends she’d like a soldier right out of World War II for her upcoming birthday, the handsome Air Force pilot walks into Sugarbaker & Associates with a job for them — only Charlene thinks he’s an early present, an actor hired to ask her out. After sparks fly on their first date, Charlene has a dream that transports all the women, Reese, and Anthony to World War II.

Smart: [The dream sequence] was fun, and doing a little bit of the jitterbug with Anthony. My mom and dad were both in the service in the war, and my mother sang in the officers’ club with the band when she was in the Navy. She used to sing “I’ll Be Seeing You” and stuff like that around the house, and I loved all that music.

Bloodworth-Thomason: Gosh, I don’t think I even knew that.

Smart and Taylor in the
Smart and Taylor in the “I’ll Be Seeing You” dream sequence.

Smart: It was a nice coincidence because Charlene’s the kind of person who would romanticize World War II. I mean the whole country did. Unfortunately, of course, the reality of it wasn’t all that romantic, but it was a time in this country that was unlike any other that came before or since. For better or for worse, the country came together like one big neighborhood block party. There was nothing more important than your neighbor and your country, and it was perfect for Charlene’s character. She was a romantic. She might have had a lot of boyfriends; that didn’t mean she was sleeping with them. She was just like me. She was very old-fashioned about that kind of stuff.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I liked that friction: She was very sensual, but she was a very good girl, which I think made her sexier. She never tried to sell it through her wardrobe or through any overt action. Douglas Barr always reminds me of the quintessential World War II guy that’s well educated, and handsome, and so decent, just the best a man can be. I thought, “Jean’s got to have that guy, because Charlene deserves that guy.” When she married Bill, you just knew Bill’s a lucky man. You knew she was giving it all to him.

Smart: The night that Charlene got married [in Season 3’s “Come On and Marry Me, Bill”], I was sitting in my dressing room. I was, I confess, smoking a cigarette and wearing this incredibly tight wedding dress and looking in the mirror. I had a little suspicion for a week or so, but I looked at myself and I said, “You are pregnant. Put that cigarette out.” I put out that cigarette right at that moment. I never smoked again, except for a couple times in movies but it didn’t make me want to smoke at all. I found out a couple days later officially that I was pregnant and I thought, “Man, they got me married off right in time!”

The cast, along with executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, attend Charlene's Season 3 wedding (Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)
The cast, along with executive producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, attend Charlene’s Season 3 wedding. (Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)

Charlene, too, became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Olivia, in the 60-minute Season 4 classic “The First Day of the Last Decade of the Entire Twentieth Century.” Dolly Parton guest-starred as Charlene’s “guardian movie star” in another memorable dream sequence in which she told Charlene that she was about to meet the person who’d be holding her hand when it was her time to go.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I just love Dolly. As everyone else knows, along with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, she’s one of the most authentic performers in American music history. Of course I knew that she acted, and I just thought she fit with Charlene. She has a lot of the same qualities, especially her sexuality that’s never exploited in a bad way. I thought they would be perfect together. I’ve had more people talk to me about that episode because they loved the connection that Dolly brought between Charlene and her little girl, who was about to be born. I’ve had men come up to me and tell me they cried watching that episode because it just meant a lot to them. It stirred a lot of people. I think Jean and Dolly were so flawless in it.

Smart: I’ve always found if the words are good, it’s real easy for me to go there [emotionally], and also, I had just had my son. For about a month or so after I delivered, the character was still pregnant and they were still padding me to make me look immensely pregnant. It was just a fun, meaningful episode. I have a picture of Dolly on my bookshelf, of her holding my son in his little onesie. She’s got these long, four-inch fuchsia fingernails and that big, gorgeous smile and my son’s going, “Oh! Where are those fingernails going?” Her bare hand was like right in his bum. It was very cute. Very cute.

Dolly Parton and Smart in Season 4's
Dolly Parton and Smart in Season 4’s “The First Day Of The Last Decade Of The Entire Twentieth Century.”
(Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)

Bloodworth-Thomason’s all-time favorite episode of the series is the Season 2 finale, “Reservations for Eight.” Charlene and Bill, Julia and Reese, Mary Jo and J.D., and Suzanne and Dash intend to spend the weekend skiing together but get snowed in at their cabin instead. When the women suggest the sleeping arrangements not be co-ed, a verbal battle of the sexes erupts between everyone but canoodling Charlene and Bill, who, in the end, take the dance floor and lead the others to make up.

A truce in
The truce in Season 2’s “Reservations for Eight.”

Bloodworth-Thomason: I probably loved “Reservations for Eight” more than any episode because it really highlighted the male/female thing that we were trying to do. The show was known for its feminism. That episode in particular highlighted that we were men-loving feminists. I wanted to make that so clear. I think that’s one thing that millennial women had to learn to sort through today. I think that they had the impression that all feminists in the past were man-hating: We burned our bras, we hated men, we didn’t even marry men. It was a very rude depiction of feminist and feminism. I wanted Designing Women to stand in the cultural ether as a show that represented feminism in the best way.

Southern women, of course we love men. We don’t love all men — we’re going to have to show you the errors of your ways — but we love men. I thought that episode really depicted it. We had a lot of romance on the show. That’s another thing I’m proud of, because again, I think that’s missing in a lot of comedy today. A lot of couples in comedies are asexual, especially on network. If they’re on cable, they’re so screwed up you can hardly recognize them as anybody you would ever know.

Bloodworth-Thomason: There’s a definite symbiosis between what is going on now and what we were talking about [in Julia’s speech, about men having only themselves to blame if they’re not happy with the world, since they’ve been running it]. We’ve been fighting this battle forever. Women had to get up earlier. They had to work twice as hard. No, we’re not whiny crybabies; we’ve done everything while smiling, and having all the children, and making the most money. We’ve been good sports, but damn it, enough is enough. Hillary [Clinton] is still the Rorschach test for Oh my gosh, am I talking too loud? Did I laugh too hard? I mean, my God, the small lane that women are supposed to stay in as they try to progress is astonishing.

VI: The Drama

It’s no secret that there came a time when Designing Women was not only ripping stories from the headlines, it was making headlines. Tabloids followed Burke’s weight gain like a sport, taking odds on whether it would affect her new marriage and her job on the show. Despite the show ‘s earning three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series (for Seasons 3, 4, and 5) and Burke nabbing two Emmy nominations herself (the first for Season 4’s “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?”, which addressed Suzanne’s weight), the set became strained to the point that Burke’s contract wasn’t renewed for Season 6. People magazine ran a 2,000-word feature in July 1991 asking, “Was Delta Burke a disruptive egomaniac? Or a troubled victim of a vindictive set?” The piece ended with Harry Thomason saying, “I don’t know what happened or what we did. We wish her well. We hope she has every success in the book.” Twenty-five years later, there is a better understanding of what went wrong: None of those 2,000 words were “depression” and “panic attacks.”

Burke: Everything that I had ever wanted was coming true. I was starring in a TV show, I had a wonderful part, I’m making great money, I’ve met the man of my dreams. But something was going on — the pressure of something was too much. I began to have those horrible panic attacks. Nobody had heard of them back then. Nobody talked about depression, No. 1, and they didn’t talk about panic attacks. They were totally unaware of them. They would hit me out of nowhere, like you know the cartoon where the 10-ton weight smacks the coyote. Out of the blue, this thing would hit me over the head, and I would just freeze where I was on the stage, and I wanted to say “I’m so sorry,” but I couldn’t speak. I would just try to stagger off the set, and by that time, I would start making screaming sounds and shaking and Meshach would catch me and take me back to my dressing room. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just having a complete meltdown panic attack.

Then, apparently, the girls were all thinking, “Who’s going to go in and talk to her?” They would send Dixie in, of course. And Dixie would go in there and just pet me and love me and tell me everything was all right and I was going to be OK and calm me down. At first they began to treat me with medication: Whenever I would have an attack, I would take this pill. Then they began to teach me that when you feel this attack coming — which I never felt it coming, but I paid attention and did notice that yeah, my body did feel kind of strange — take your pill then, and you won’t have the attack.

I thought, “What if this happens while I’m shooting?” I’d be so embarrassed and mortified because it was so humiliating. I remember shooting one day, and I said to the second AD, “I’ve got to go to my dressing room.” He said, “No, we’ve got to shoot something.” I said, “I’ve got to take a pill.” He said, “Go. Go. Go to your room.” Because they knew what would happen if I didn’t take that pill. Finally I learned how to not have the attacks without having to take medicine. I was dealing with a psychiatrist, like four or five days a week at that point, because I was in a high-pressure situation and I had to function somehow.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I didn’t realize that’s what was wrong with her. I just couldn’t figure it out. We were all in a big misunderstanding. That sounds like a cop-out, but we really were. Nobody had the right information. Everybody was acting on wrong information. We were thinking, “My God, what’s wrong with you? This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to all of us. You’re making a bundle of money, you’ve got the role of a lifetime, and really, you can’t be happy and you’re mad at us?” We just kept saying, “Why are you mad at us? Nobody wants you to lose weight. Stop saying this.” She had a different thing going on in her head, and we did not know, or understand, about the panic attacks. It really affected me deeply when I found that out, because had I known that, I would have had a completely different perspective on how we talked to her.

Taylor and Burke lip sync
Taylor and Burke lip-sync “Love Is Strange” in Season 4’s “Rowdy Girls.”

Burke’s all-time favorite episode of the show is Season 4’s “Rowdy Girls.” Fans will remember it for Charlene’s convincing her cousin Mavis (Kim Zimmer) to leave her abusive husband — and for the talent show in which Suzanne, in blackface, lip-synced Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” with Anthony and the Supremes’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with Julia, Mary Jo, and Charlene.

Burke: The day before [filming it] there had been something really awful in the tabloids, and I really couldn’t cope with it. I had driven up into the hills and parked my car and I was extremely depressed. That was when I had the gun with me. [Her voice breaks] It’s hard to talk about, but I was very depressed and I kept taking Valium to help the pain go away. Apparently I ended up back home and everything, but I guess I had taken too much Valium. The doctor came to see me and I was fine, but I shouldn’t have gone to work the next day. I don’t know how I drove to work. I don’t remember it. Apparently, throughout that day, I don’t remember this happening, but they would have to walk me around the soundstage to keep me moving and going. They were thinking, “There’s no way she can do the show. She’s in really bad condition.” [But] when the show happened, I clicked and I was safe. I was on safe ground. I could go out there and do the show like nothing had happened. I don’t why that was, or how that was, I was just very thankful for it. So I was able to do the show, and it was the show I loved so much with Anthony. In blackface.

Bloodworth-Thomason: That was one of my favorite episodes too. I just love them performing together. When I think of the women as a group, one of the main images that I have is of them in those outfits. The way that Delta was performing and the way Dixie kept looking at her like, “Just get out of here, get out of my sight.”

Julia does not approve
Julia does not approve.

I’m not very self-analytical when I write. I think just organically. I probably thought, “Gee, this [spousal abuse] is really so devastatingly depressing, we need something really outrageously funny.” I don’t think a regular network would allow that today; a cable network would. I wanted to do that because I wanted to poke a hole in political correctness. Again, Delta was so innocent when she did that. The fact that it was so horrible allowed Dixie to just go miles and miles and miles down the road of righteous indignation, like, “What the hell is wrong with you?” And then Delta grinning at her — she was not understanding what she’s done.

Burke: The audience just laughed and screamed. They thought it was a hoot that Suzanne would do that. They loved it.

The audience laughed, cried, and applauded five weeks later when they watched the taping of Season 4’s “They Shoot Fat Women, Don’t They?” As Suzanne asked for opinions on dresses to wear for her 15-year high school reunion weekend, Julia and Mary tried to prepare her for her former classmates’ reaction to her weight gain, which turned out to be even crueler. After a heart-to-heart with Julia, Suzanne decided to go to the second night’s festivities after all. When she won the award for Most Changed, she delivered an Emmy nomination-worthy acceptance speech that explained how she had changed: The old Suzanne wouldn’t have forgive them.

Burke: I just remember thinking that we’ve got to deal with this. It’s the elephant in the room. I went to Linda and I said, “All I’m asking is, please don’t make the butt of the jokes; let the jokes come from Suzanne and give Suzanne the power.” And that’s what she did. Then it was no problem for me to talk about the weight because I was the one that was taking control of [the conversation].

When we were reading the script for the network on Monday, there were a few gasps because, you know, Linda’s got me saying things like, “You all act like I should be ordering fabric over at Georgia Tent and Awning” or “I’ll just be going now, if you think the streets of Atlanta can stand the strain of both me and my Mercedes.” They thought, “What is Delta thinking to be saying these lines? Is it going to upset her?” But I thought they were hysterical. Then they realized I was OK with it, so everybody kind of calmed down.

When we were shooting [Suzanne’s acceptance speech], the audience got very involved and very emotional and did do this wonderful ovation. It meant a great deal. I also had these women coming up to me saying, “It’s so nice to be represented, to have ‘one of us’ be on TV.” At first I thought, “What?” I was kind of confused. Then I realized what they were talking about and I was getting all of this support. Through all of the times with the weight, and all the issues and all the bad press about it, they sent me wonderful letters. It was so moving. I would carry those letters while I was filming. I would stick them in my bra or in my shoe or in my purse. Those letters helped to give me strength to do what I had to do. I certainly didn’t feel like God’s gift to women, but Suzanne did and so somehow I had to play that. That episode helped me personally as well as the character.

Bloodworth-Thomason: She tore your heart out. She just was so good. She was better than the writing in that. I never cared what Delta weighed. That’s what I was so frustrated about. I couldn’t even go get my haircut without somebody coming up and saying to me, “How dare you tell Delta Burke to lose weight.” Which is just so maddening and crazy. I actually thought it made the character more interesting if a former beauty queen gained weight. It was like a gift to me as a writer. I didn’t want her to be unhealthy, but I could not have cared less. That was a misconstrued thing in the public that I really wanted to do that show that straightened it out. I wanted us to all be friends again, which we are. Delta and Mac and Harry and I always say, “Yeah, it’s like Southern family: They fight, they come back. They kiss and they love.”

Part VII: The Ending

Both Burke and Jean Smart, who wanted to pursue other roles and spend more time with her young family, parted ways with the show after Season 5. Viewers learned in the Season 6 premiere that Suzanne had already headed to Japan to be closer to her mother off-screen, while Charlene appeared to say goodbye before relocating to England for Bill’s work. The series continued for two more years: first with Julia Duffy as cousin Allison Sugarbaker and Jan Hooks as sister Carlene Frazier Dobber, then with Hooks and Judith Ivey as wealthy client turned partner B.J. Poteet. Burke reunited with Bloodworth-Thomason in 1995, however, for the short-lived series Women of the House in which Suzanne took over her late husband No. 5’s congressional seat.

Burke: I don’t know what happened to Suzanne after that. [Linda] would always say that Suzanne and Anthony were going to end up married. I think that would’ve been something. I wonder how people would have reacted to that one.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I think that she would have ended up in a biracial nursing home with Anthony. I don’t think it would have been conjugal; I think he would still be rolling his eyes, and she’d still be ordering him around. I don’t think she ever would have found a man who really met her requirements the way Dash did. I think they would have always been … I don’t know if you call it “friends with benefits,” but I don’t think they ever would have stopped seeing each other. I think he would be the great love of her life.

Dash and Suzanne forever!
Dash and Suzanne forever!

Smart: I’m sure Charlene would have been charmed by the English culture, high tea and all that kind of stuff, you know, but I think she would have also enjoyed teaching them something that she would have learned at home in the Ozarks, like rendering hog fat into candles or something. I would think that she eventually would want to come home and raise her children at home.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I think Charlene would have been married to Bill forever, probably have a ton of grandchildren, just would have constantly celebrated family. She’d probably be on the Cooking Channel today, like Trisha Yearwood, and have her own show as Southern cooking.

I think Mary Jo would probably have had another marriage that didn’t work out. That’s just her character. She’s always just doing things for everybody else, and the grandchildren, and all that. I think she would have stayed in the design business, and I think to the end she would have been a good soul.

Potts: I guess Mary Jo probably took over for Julia and is mentoring some young, awesome women coming up the ladder.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I think Julia would have had to evolve into some sort of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. I think Julia had that kind of grandness. I think she would have been the primo female in Atlanta society, the one that people go to for a famous quip. She always has the dart ready if there’s a well-deserved target, sort of the Dorothy Parker of Atlanta. I think she would have carried that on until her death.

Dixie’s funeral, I never cried so hard at a funeral for a nonfamily member of mine. I loved her so deeply, so personally, but I also mourned the loss of Julia Sugarbaker. There’s nobody on this show was loved more than Dixie. Of all of them, she was my soulmate. I’ll just never stop wanting to see her again. If I could call a number right now and hear her talk, I would probably call it once a week, just to hear her.

Smart: I said this to Hal one time after she passed, and he said it meant a lot to him. I said, “The two of you were like teenage boyfriend and girlfriend; you weren’t like husband and wife.” Even though she was the oldest of the four of us, she was, in every respect except chronologically, the youngest of the four of us. She was just like a giddy schoolgirl. She was the cutest, most bubbly person. I admired her relationship with her daughters. I didn’t have kids yet when I met her, and I thought, “Oh, my God, If I ever have kids, I hope they look at me the way they look at her.” They just idolized her. One time she was having a garden party at her house, and she had a big old hat and she’d had a couple glasses of champagne, and she’s sitting out there doing God knows what, and her daughters are just looking at her like she is a goddess that just dropped from heaven. She was the most glamorous thing that had ever happened.

Bloodworth-Thomason: Oh, my God, you’d go to her house, and you’d have to stay all evening because it takes her forever to come downstairs. You’re there forever having drinks and hors d’oeuvres. She’s always got somebody in the kitchen who’s inept. I don’t know where she hires people. She had the staff that you can’t believe. She’s got her dad’s Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association Cadillac parked outside. It’s an old Cadillac, at this old house, in Hancock Park. Dixie comes out about 9:30, leaning over the banister from upstairs going, “Oh, is there a party?” She goes on and on, and then she comes downstairs. Then she goes, “I don’t know what’s wrong with that cook.” Everybody’s getting so hungry. You go in and you hear a lot of clamber and pots and pans rattling. Then she comes back out, “It’s going to be just a little bit.” Then after dinner, she’s lying across the piano with a martini. She singing now, “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” This whole night has been so worth it. Even though you were really hungry and you thought, “Please, can I just go home,” when you do, you think, “Oh, my God, I’m so glad I went to that.”

In addition to priceless memories like those, each of the women left Designing Women with at least one memento.

Smart: I wish I had that big wicker chair [Charlene sat in]. My husband says I need a 12-step program for wicker collecting. I do love me some wicker. What I do have, and I’m not sure where it is, is one of Charlene’s business cards from her desk. I tell my children, “Save this, and when I’m dead and gone, sell it on eBay.”

Burke: I wish I had kept that little-bitty pin that Suzanne would stick in her hair like a crown, but unfortunately I did not. I do have a negligee and one outfit, I think. … I wish I had kept that pin.

Potts: I have the name that was on my door. For the premiere, Linda made us all needlepoint pillows that had a quote from each of our characters from the pilot, which is very sweet. Mine was a line in regard to how when you’re married to a gynecologist it’s a little tough, because what can you do that he hasn’t seen a hundred of that day. The line was: “Because you can only do so much with what you’ve got, if you know what I mean.” I still have that. It’s one of my treasures.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I have Bernice’s Christmas skirt, you know, where she took the Christmas tree skirt and wore it. Every year somebody in my hometown in Missouri tries to buy it. There’s a big scholarship foundation back in my hometown called the Designing Women Foundation. The money Designing Women has made has put over 157 women through college. I love the idea that the legacy lives on, that these loudmouth Southern women were able to actually make a lot of money, then we put our money where our mouth was. I did it in memory of my mother, whose name was Claudia. We sent little girls from the Ozarks all over the world, trying to enrich them culturally. They go to Broadway and they come out here [to California]. They’ve been to Europe. We still have a lot of programs. It’s been a wonderfully rewarding privilege to be able to transfer the money from television to real-life progress for women.

(Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)
(Credit: CBS/Everett Collection)

Part VIII: The Hope

Asked what they hope fans remember when thinking about the show 30 years later, it should be no surprise that Bloodworth-Thomason has a thorough answer.

Smart: Just that it was, I hope, a lot of fun to watch, and it didn’t ever talk down to the audience. That it was clever and funny and wasn’t cruel and wasn’t crude. That it was sort of classy and silly.

Burke: Mainly it’s the intensity of the friendships between the women. That they were there for each other no matter what. That’s what speaks loudest to me. I love that they are Southern and they are intelligent and that they’re showing that to the world.

Potts: I hope they remember all the scenes that were in it about the empowerment of women, how women can be beautiful and smart and funny and incisive. I think that we did lay some groundwork for that, and I hope that we played our little part in perhaps making it OK for the next president to be a woman.

Bloodworth-Thomason: I think Designing Women has played a small role, even in Hillary’s journey. So has Mary Tyler Moore, Bea Arthur on Maude, the Golden Girls, Candice Bergen on Murphy Brown. All the women on television who have given women confidence to be who they are and to defy stereotypes through the years, especially a lot of the Norman Lear women, have done more to change the trajectory of women than anything else. I think the deepest and most lasting way to change things is to do it through art. Legislation does not change hearts and minds; art does. And the best art form to do it in is still comedy. It makes the medicine taste sweet.

We can’t lose that sort of charge, that urgency. I know you never really reach the goal line; if you do, you don’t know you’re there, because there will always be a new challenge. But we’re so far from being where we should and could be. TV is still the most powerful tool in the world. I think there’s a lot of squandering of opportunity, especially on network [television] of female comedy. Just talking about nothing, just talking about your boyfriend, and your hair, and trends. It’s just vapid. It doesn’t help we’re in the face of the Kardashian culture.

Mary Tyler Moore, Maude, Murphy Brown, Designing Women — you just saw the feminism. It was roaringly funny. I just want to see more and more women doing that. I think the millennials have said, “Hey, we know we’re equals so we don’t have to talk about it.” That really isn’t the case. We’re not equal. I won’t get on my soapbox, but we’re still coming up short in almost everything that you can measure in terms of salary, and child care, and just carrying the bigger load. Just the way we’re oversexualized still, and the huge number of us who are slaughtered every year. You’re killed because you have a vagina, just the way elephants are killed because they have ivory. I still say rape is a hate crime all over the world. I don’t think enough people make this connection. I think it’s our duty to lead and inspire the millennial women, and the men, too, who want to come along. Just because the world seems a certain way, just because you have found it this way, does not mean that we’re not still on a journey. We are.

I think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and women like that absolutely carry the gene. There so many new brilliant comedians on cable, like Tig Notaro, who does [Amazon’s] One Mississippi. I love Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. I do think they’re in the spirit of Designing Women. I love that Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, all these women openly brag about, “Hell, yes, I’m a feminist” on the covers of magazines. There was a long period where nobody would go on a talk show and say they were a feminist. It was like, for them, saying, “I’m a sexless, neutered man-hater. I’m a big, strident, unattractive bully.” That changed. Now I think that 60 percent of millennial woman identify feminist. That’s made me so happy. Even though I think a lot of them haven’t seen Designing Women; if they did see it, I think they’d love it. Dixie, Delta, Jean, and Annie can be so proud, even if they never did another thing, that they’ve played a huge role in a very historic journey.

Designing Women is currently not streaming online or in reruns, but all seven seasons are available on DVD.