Headlines about women in television can be confusing and contradictory. Some say progress for female TV writers is moving at a snail’s pace, while others say 2013 is a great year to be a woman breaking into Hollywood’s “cigar-chomping” boy’s club.
My take? We’ve come a long way since Irma Kalish of “All in the Family” and Susan Harris of “The Golden Girls” first paved the road for women to be taken seriously as TV writers and showrunners, but we still have a long way to go.
The Hollywood Reporter just announced their annual list of Top 50 Showrunners, and only 10 women (many of them working in teams with men) made the cut.
Still, just a brief glance at the progress that’s been made – from Chicago native Agnes Nixon creating the TV soap opera in 1968, to Tina Fey becoming the first female head writer at “Saturday Night Live” in 1999, to Lena Dunham inspiring a million Internet think pieces with each zeitgeist-y episode of “Girls” – is enough to see that times are slowly but surely changing for the better.
And despite numerous sexist roadblocks that still need to be torn down (shows like “Californication,” and “Veep” did not employ a single female writer during their 2011-2012 seasons), plenty of women in television are making waves by taking charge.
In no particular order, here are 15 groundbreaking female TV writers you should know:
1. Jenji Kohan
Kohan started out writing for shows like “Will and Grace,” “Gilmore Girls,” and “Sex and the City;” and in 1997, won an Emmy Award as supervising producer of the HBO sketch comedy series “Tracey Takes On…” In 2005, Kohan become the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the dark comedy “Weeds,” starring Mary Louise Parker, which ran for eight seasons on Showtime. Today, Kohan is the co-creator and executive producer of the Netflix prison dramedy “Orange is the New Black,” which is gearing up for a highly-anticipated Season 2.
2. Elizabeth Meriwether
Meriwether is a Yale University graduate who got her start as a playwright before transitioning to film and TV. She got her big break writing the screenplay for the 2011 film “No Strings Attached,“landing her a spot in “The Fempire” next to fellow female screenwriters Dana Fox and Lorene Scafaria. Meriwether went on to write for the Adult Swim series “Children’s Hospital” and is now the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of “New Girl” on Fox.
3. Michelle Ashford
Ashford has a long list of writing credits to her name, including two Emmy-winning television miniseries: 2008’s “John Adams” and 2010’s “The Pacific.” However, Ashford’s most prominent role to date is as creator and showrunner of the new Showtime drama “Masters of Sex,” which premiered in September to widespread critical acclaim and has already been renewed for a second season in 2014.
4. Amy Sherman-Palladino
Sherman-Palladino is best known for creating the whip-smart and heartwarming series “Gilmore Girls,” which debuted on The WB in 2000 and became a tentpole for the network. The show that would make huge stars of Alexis Bledel, Lauren Graham, and Melissa McCarthy later moved to WB’s successor network The CW, where it ended after seven seasons in 2007. Sherman-Palladino went on to create the ballet dramedy “Bunheads” for ABC Family in 2012; but much to fans’ disappointment, the series was not renewed for a second season.
5. Nahnatcha Khan
Khan has written and produced a slew of creative shows, from the Saturday morning cartoon series “Pepper Ann” to the Seth MacFarlane vehicle “American Dad!” In 2012, Khan created her own ABC sitcom called “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 3,” which, despite its questionable title, turned out to be a shining example of truly great yet underrated comedic television. Unfortunately, not enough viewers tuned in to watch James Van Der Beek play a hilarious washed-up version of himsef, and the show was cancelled after two seasons in January.
6. Shonda Rhimes
Rhimes is a Chicago native and graduate of Dartmouth College. She also is the creator, head writer, and executive producer of the long-running ABC medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and its shorter-lived spinoff “Private Practice,” as well as creator and showrunner of the current ABC smash hit “Scandal.” To date, Rhimes is the first African-American – man or woman – to create and produce a top-rated, one-hour series that has run for more than one season. “Grey’s Anatomy” is now in Season 10.
7. Julie Plec
Plec graduated from Northwestern University in 1994, and went on to write scripts for Wes Craven’s (“Scream” and “Cursed”) and the ABC Family sci-fi series “Kyle XY.” Plec hit the television big leagues in 2009, when she co-created “The Vampire Diaries” with Kevin Williamson for The CW. The supernatural teen drama has become a domestic and international juggernaut, prompting Plec to create a spinoff called “The Originals” in 2013. Plec also co-created a third series for the CW this year: “The Tomorrow People,” based on the popular British science fiction TV series of the same name.
8. Liz Sarnoff
Sarnoff got her start writing episodes of “NYPD Blue” and “Crossing Jordan” before joining the crew of “Deadwood” in 2004 as an executive story editor and writer for Season 1. The following year, Sarnoff joined the writing team of “Lost” in the series’ second season, and won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series for her work. She was promoted to co-executive producer of “Lost” for Season 5, and executive producer in the show’s sixth and final season. In 2011, Sarnoff co-created the Fox series “Alcatraz,” an ambitious J.J. Abrams-produced prison series that lasted 13 episodes.
9. Jane Espenson
Espenson had a five-year stint as a writer and producer on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” followed by work on the sci-fi cult classic “Battlestar Galactica” and its prequel spinoff “Caprica.” In 2010, she wrote an episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and joined the writing staff for Season 4 of the British television program “Torchwood.” Espenson also has written episodes for Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” “Angel,” “Tru Calling,” and the ABC fairy tale series “Once Upon a Time.” Currently, Espenson is the co-creator, writer, and producer of a sitcom web series called “Husbands,” now in Season 3 on The CW Seed.
10. Mindy Kaling
Kaling first joined NBC’s “The Office” as a writer at the age of 24, and as the only woman on a team of eight. She later took on the role of Kelly Kapoor, while still writing and directing episodes. In 2010, she received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series with Greg Daniels for the episode “Niagara.” After “The Office” came to end earlier this year, Kaling became the first South Asian-American woman to create, write, and star in her own network television show: “The Mindy Project,” now in Season 2.
11. Ann Biderman
Biderman won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing in a Drama Series for an episode of the police procedural “NYPD Blue,” and went on to become the creator and executive producer of the NBC/TNT series “Southland.” Now, Biderman is the creator and showrunner of “Ray Donovan,” a powerful crime drama on Showtime starring Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight. A second season of “Ray Donovan” will air in 2014.
12. Emily Kapneck
Kapneck created the popular animated program “As Told by Ginger,” which ran on Nickelodeon from 2000-2009. She also has served as a consulting producer on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and is currently the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the ABC sitcom “Suburgatory.”
13. Kay Cannon
Cannon received her B.A. in Theatre from Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill. and trained in improvisation at both The Second City and The I.O. Theater ( formerly ImprovOlympic) in Chicago. She went on to write for the NBC series “30 Rock,” winning three Writer’s Guild of America Awards and later a Peabody Award in 2008 for her work on the show. Cannon also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 sleeper hit film “Pitch Perfect.”
14. Issa Rae
Rae is the creator of the YouTube comedy series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” in addition to the vlog series “Ratchetplace Theatre” and a collaboration with Black&Sexy TV called “RoomieLoverFriends.” A new comedy series for HBO, co-written with Larry Wilmore and starring Rae, is currently in development.
15. Diablo Cody
Cody may be best known for writing the 2007 indie film “Juno,” but the Chicago native also has found a great deal of success in television. She created “The United States of Tara” in 2009, an Emmy-Award winning drama starring Toni Collette that ran for three seasons on Showtime. Cody also has recently been tapped to create a new “smart, sassy teen girl drama” for Fox, alongside “The O.C.” producers Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz.
To end this list: an adorable video of Amy Poehler interviewing her TV idol, pioneering comedy writer Irma Kalish:
Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @leahkpickett.