In Saturday Night Live’s 40-year history, in terms of pure numbers, the show has been dominated by men. Male cast members nearly double the female members, and where men can have long careers, only two women have ever been with the show eight seasons or more and even fewer have gained the breakout success of their male co-stars. But the women of SNL have meant so much to us—to young women who love comedy, to girls who want to see more girls on TV, and to anyone who appreciates funny people telling funny jokes.
That’s why the women of SNL are more than hilarious—they’re downright revolutionary. So, while you continue to enjoy VH1 Classic’s “SNL Rewind: 2015-1975 Mega Marathon,” here are some of the most female-empowering moments in the show’s history.
Jane Curtin sets the stage for the women of Weekend Update.
The first female and second ever Weekend Update anchor was Jane “You Ignorant Slut” Curtin who dominated the desk, sometimes solo and later with co-anchors Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, from 1976 until 1980. In 1980-81, Gail Matthius shared the desk with Charles Rocket during their brief run. It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that another woman would serve in the coveted anchor role, Tina Fey. In 2004, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler shared the spot, marking the first time two women helmed Weekend Update. The next female anchor was Cecily Strong, but alas her time was brief.
That time Amy Poehler told Jimmy Fallon “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” We’ll let Tina explain in this excerpt from her book Bossypants, published in 2011, how Amy Poehler responded to Jimmy Fallon’s reaction to an “unladylike” action and created a revolution.
Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said: “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”
Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit …
With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.
Molly Shannon is the first female cast member to break out in a male-dominated season.
In 1995, there were only three female cast members: Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri, and Molly Shannon. Each made their mark on a male-dominated season thanks to winning recurring characters and endless energy. But early in the season, one of the first characters to break through and eventually even get her own movie was Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher.
Kate McKinnon becomes the first openly lesbian SNL cast member.
The first openly gay cast member was Terry Sweeney in the show’s 1985-86 season. Not for 26 more years would Kate McKinnon join the cast and not only be the show’s first out and proud lesbian, but one of the most successful cast members. In 2014, she was nominated for an Emmy for her performances on the show and it was recently announced that she’ll be starring in the Ghostbusters reboot with Melissa McCarthy and two other SNL stars, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones.
The “Kotex Classic” and “Annuale” skits make it on air.
There’s this idea that period humor isn’t funny, or shouldn’t be. That it’s “woman humor” and therefore lesser. That’s why these sketches are so important. Women don’t need to hide their femininity to be funny, and they certainly don’t need to shy away from menstruation.
Tina and Amy play Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton and change the course of the election.
SNL’s election coverage is always a big deal, but never has the deal been bigger than in the 2008 election thanks to one glasses-wearing pitbull with lipstick. From the first sketch, Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and an equally perfect Amy Poehler as Hilary Clinton made history, and helped shape a historic election.
Jay Pharoah sets out on a mission to make SNL hire a black female cast member.
Somewhere around 2013, the voices that had long been proclaiming the need for SNL to hire a black female cast member—rather than just utilize Kenan Thompson in a wig as it long had—were at last heard. Among them was one big voice: cast member Jay Pharoah. In an interview with theGrio, Pharoah said, “They need to pay attention. Her name is Darmirra Brunson…Why do I think she should be on the show? Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing. She needs to be on SNL. I said it. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year.” While things didn’t work out for Brunson, Pharoah’s candor led to a big change…
Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones mark the first time the cast had two black females at the same time.
Sasheer Zamata was added to the cast in January 2014, followed by the first appearance of Leslie Jones in May before she became a featured player in October. This season, the show’s 40th, actually has the most African-American cast members in the show’s history. The women this season are all strong and talented, and that’s why we love this all-women sketch including, for the first time in the show’s history, two black female cast members.
Ellen Cleghorne was the longest running black female cast member, until Maya Rudolph.
On the show from 1991-95, Ellen Cleghorne was only the third African-American female on the cast (Yvonne Hudson and Danitra Vance preceded her and each only made it one year). In her four years, her celebrity impressions included Alfre Woodard, Anita Baker, Debbie Allen, FloJo, Natalie Cole, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Whoopi Goldberg and Dr. Dre.
“Slumber Party” is the first all-female sketch on the show.
Now, a sketch full of women with a female guest host wouldn’t be a surprise. Then, it was something to be thankful for. “We were brazen, and women were not brazen prior to SNL,” Curtin told Glamour. “We portrayed women as people, which is huge.”
Gilda Radner was the first cast member Lorne Michaels hired on SNL.
Every woman to walk through the hallowed halls of Studio 8H owes a debt of thanks to the ones who came first: Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, and, of course, Gilda Radner. Radner was beloved from day one for her characters like Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, and of course Judy Miller and Baba Wawa. Fun fact: In playing Baba Wawa, Radner was the first person to ever parody a news anchor on television. Tragically, Radner died of ovarian cancer at just 42. But her legacy lives in the hilarity of every woman who followed.
Bottom line: “Bitches Get Stuff Done.”
And this is the culminating moment of all the hard work of every woman who ever made it onto the SNL stage. Tina Fey, the show’s first female head writer, and Amy Poehler defending Hillary Clinton while making it clear that Clinton didn’t need their defense. She’s a bitch. And so’s Tina. And so’s Amy. And so are we all. Because bitches get stuff done. In that moment, it became a rally cry for every woman who cared about comedy. Someone was speaking for us. Thank you, Tina, Amy, Gilda, Jane, and every other fantastic female to appear on SNL. Thanks for everything.
For more great moments for women in comedy, check Poehler discussing the resonance of Broad City: