Shonda Rhimes

Who gets to be the bitch?

This woman is such a rarity she is basically a unicorn. Shonda Rhimes is a black single mother who began as a freelance scriptwriter and struck gold in Hollywood when she created soapy medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, whose riotous success (15 seasons and counting), together with that of her political drama Scandal, made her one of the most powerful players in the business. She has her own production company called Shondaland and, most recently, scored a $150m deal with Netflix.

Rhimes is a born storyteller, but she also works to level the playing field regarding race and sex. Since Grey’s Anatomy, which was conceived as a way of showcasing a diverse cast, she has tried to address industry and national norms. And, for women, all her work has been informed by an absence: “Most of the women I saw on TV didn’t seem like people I actually knew. They felt like ideas of what women are. They never got to be nasty or competitive or hungry or angry. They were often just the loving wife or the nice friend. But who gets to be the bitch? Who gets to be the three-dimensional woman?” Anyone in a Rhimes show. Lucy Mangan

Sally Wainwright

A grip on the reins of life

Flawed, honest characters … Sarah Lancashire and Charlie Murphy in Happy Valley.
Flawed, honest characters … Sarah Lancashire and Charlie Murphy in Happy Valley. Photograph: Ben Blackall/BBC/Red Productions

From At Home With the Braithwaites to Scott & Bailey to Happy Valley, there isn’t a Wainwright-penned drama that doesn’t put its women to the fore. Her characters are redoubtable, flawed, honest, passionate, determined to hang on to the reins of life even as it gallops away from them. They’re stickers and stayers, like Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley, hunting the villain who took her daughter from her while bursting with warmth, humanity and dry rejoinders. While her men are no cardboard cutouts, she always gives the women the meatiest slice of the pie. Julia Raeside

Zeinab Badawi

She co-parented me

Zeinab Badawi
Zeinab Badawi Photograph: BBC

When I was a girl, I went through a phase of wanting to change my name to Zeinab Badawi. My own south Indian name was too unpronounceable and foreign, my shame-infected teenage reasoning went. The solution was clear: to rebrand myself as a glamorous British-Sudanese journalist with an equally unpronounceable foreign name who, for most of the 90s, co-presented Channel 4 News and co-parented me because our telly was always on and she was always on it.

Watching the news, I saw faces a little closer to mine: Moira Stuart, with her amazing eyeshadow and mildly amused expression; Trevor McDonald, who I used to confuse with my dad; and Badawi, whose identity I wanted to steal. This holy trinity eventually prompted me to announce to my parents that I was going to become a newsreader with the existential question: “But if we get the news from Moira Stuart, where does she get it from?” Chitra Ramaswamy

Tina Fey

Hot messes and kickass bosses

Giving women permission to fail … Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, with Oprah Winfrey.
Permission to fail … Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, with Oprah Winfrey. Photograph: NBCUPhotobank/Rex Features

Writer, actor and producer Tina Fey deserves a round of applause for the sheer number of women she’s put on TV’s payroll, first as Saturday Night Live’s head writer, then as the force behind 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Great News and Busy Tonight – all female-first shows.

But her greatest contribution to the sisterhood is Liz Lemon, the character who, in the televisual sphere, gave women permission to fail. Based on Fey’s time at SNL, Lemon was 30 Rock’s protagonist who reflected our lives as kickass girlbosses in one arena and hot messes in another. By stepping into the Louboutins of the recently-defunct Sex and the City only to trip up disgracefully, Lemon led the way for flawed females thereon, from the life-juggling Julia in Motherland to Fleabag. Take that, manic pixie dream girl. Shilpa Ganatra

Julia Davis

Monsters on the prowl

The joy of a Julia Davis comedy is that you never quite know what you are going to get. Whether the setting is modern suburbia, as with Sally4Ever, or the candlelit grimness of 1830s village life that was Hunderby, Davis’s series are always populated with self-serving narcissists and painfully passive wet blankets who do horrible things to one another and incite chaos all around.

Nighty Night, her initial masterpiece, had an unparalleled opening that set the tone for the black comedy that was to come. On hearing grave news from the doctor, the deliciously monstrous Jill Tyrell starts to weep: “Why me?” “Jill, let’s keep it in perspective,” consoles her husband Terry. “It’s me that’s got the cancer.” A true original. Rebecca Nicholson

Issa Rae

Awesome rise of Awkward Black Girl

A comedy about black women just being themselves … Insecure. Photograph: HBO

The US-Senegalese comic first showed a talent for nerdy dramedy with her crowdfunded web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Entering the industry by DIY means, Issa Rae proved you don’t have to be a Larry David or a Tig Notaro to create your own show.

HBO’s Insecure became a hit, supersizing Awkward Black Girl’s tales of workplace racism and relationship woes in pop-culture-packed fashion. It also emphasised that there was a market for a comedy about black women just being themselves, and, er, occasionally trespassing into the homes of men who’ve ghosted them to trawl their search histories.

Forthcoming series Him or Her – about a black, bisexual man – promises to be another Rae game-changer. “There haven’t been many flattering images of black males on television,” she told the Atlantic, “because there haven’t been a lot of flattering images of black people on television.” Here’s to continuing to change that. Hannah J Davies

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Dark humour and female fearlessness

Subversive … Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Subversive … Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Photograph: Luke Varley/BBC

“I have a horrible feeling that I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,” announces Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in the opening episode of the eponymous TV series. It was the line that so perfectly captured not only the essence of Waller-Bridge’s protagonist, but her writing in general.

From property-guardian sitcom Crashing to psychological drama Killing Eve, Waller-Bridge has created women who are funny, subversive and wholly relatable. She has said she is drawn to writing women who are “transgressive”, those who break boundaries and flip expectations. Luke Jennings may have written the novel on which Killing Eve is based, but it was Waller-Bridge who laced the hit show with her trademark dark humour and female fearlessness.

Series one of Fleabag saw her bring to life women who time break-ups to coincide with their cleaning schedules, and admit they’d swap five years of their lives for the perfect body, women driven by desire and unwilling to conform to type. Fingers crossed for more of the same in series two. Leah Harper

Jenji Kohan

All hail the dykon!

A cultural icon among lesbians … Orange Is the New Black.
A cultural icon among lesbians … Orange Is the New Black, with Laverne Cox second right. Photograph: Netflix/Everett/Rex

It’s no exaggeration to say that Orange Is the New Black was a game-changer. The popularity of Jenji Kohan’s show proved that diversity sells – that people aren’t just interested in the stories of conventionally attractive, thin white women. Laverne Cox’s portrayal of Sophia Burset, a transgender woman, was groundbreaking and led to Cox becoming the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for a primetime Emmy in the acting category. And the amount of sapphic activity in the show was much appreciated by gays like myself, making Kohan a cultural icon among lesbians – or, to use the technical term, a “dykon”. Arwa Mahdawi

The first TV critics

Something I wrote caused a strike

In the beginning, television critics worked from home because that’s where the TV set was. I had a home, a TV set and no excuse. So I became a TV critic. It was a nice little job for a woman. Everyone said so. When I was pregnant, my husband offered to project the TV image on the ceiling for me. I think he expected more gratitude than he got. I would watch the night’s TV, phone my copy in at midnight and the copy-taker, enraged by my version of the phonetic alphabet, would say: “Is there much more of this stuff?” (Who can remember their tango and foxtrot after midnight?)

So it was a relief to both of us when the TV companies started to show previews at their London headquarters or at shady dives in Soho. Snootily, in the case of the BBC (“Previews are a privilege, not a right”), and joyfully in the case of Yorkshire TV, who seemed to relish a day away from Leeds.

‘We did it for love’ … Nancy Banks-Smith.
‘We did it for love’ … Nancy Banks-Smith. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Sylvia Clayton, the Daily Telegraph critic, wrote a play for the BBC called The Preview based on us. One critic died unnoticed in the dark. This was inspired by the tendency of the Daily Express’s writer to drop off halfway through everything. I appeared as a critic “always encumbered with shopping bags, spilling packets of fish fingers and cornflakes”.

Sylvia – I forgive her – was simply brilliant. She was a prize-winning novelist and could speak any language from a cold country. I once heard her reprove a group of glorious young vikings, who were boasting about travelling without a ticket, in fluent Swedish. They all got off at the next stop.

Mary Malone, TV critic of the Daily Mirror, had the exotic air of a foreign correspondent. The New Yorker writer SJ Perelman, tripping over her Scoop-like luggage, said there had been nothing like it since John Hanning Speke went up the Nile. She was the archetype of what I imagined a female journalist would be before I actually became one. You thought of Rosalind Russell sitting on Cary Grant’s desk in His Girl Friday and crossing her legs with a sizzle of silk stockings. Mary married George Gale, the archetype of a male journalist, also known as Lunchtime O’Booze.

We all did it for love. It must have been love. Every morning when everyone on the bus was discussing last night’s television, I felt so puffed up and proud to be part of something that mattered. When the Daily Herald’s entire cleaning staff went on strike and downed mops because of something I wrote about Up the Junction, a Wednesday play, I was thrilled. Because they must all have watched it. It was just bliss to be there at the beginning. Nancy Banks-Smith

Sharon Horgan

Too funny, too truthful, too brutal

Scabrous … Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe.
Scabrous … Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

The gloriously deadpan Sharon Horgan made her name with Pulling (co-written with Dennis Kelly), a six-part comedy about a group of late-twentysomething women in meltdown that was axed so unexpectedly that the explanation of best fit remains that the BBC simply couldn’t cope with something so funny, truthful and brutal written by and about women.

She has continued in much the same vein, razing comforting lies, beloved myths and protective shibboleths about marriage: in Catastrophe (co-written with Rob Delaney), motherhood (in, uh, Motherland), ageing and failure (in Divorce) and all points in between (Women on the Verge, co-written with Lorna Martin).

Without Horgan’s scabrous voice insisting on making you laugh till you’re sick at the dark underbelly of women’s lives in particular and society in general, their frustrations, hypocrisies and utter idiocies, the world and its television would be a poorer place – and markedly less fertile for pitches like Fleabag hinged on that horrifying idea: the “unlikable female character”. LM

Oprah Winfrey

The queen of everything

They call it Oprahfication: emotional outpourings, opinion spoutings and coming outs. The Oprah Winfrey Show all but normalised candour in the 90s, sparking a boom in oversharing that has basically – for good or ill – become the bedrock of culture today. Winfrey started out in local radio while still at school, then promptly got hired by a Nashville TV station – as their youngest ever news anchor and the first of colour.

By 1986, she had turned around the fortunes of a Chicago talkshow and set up her own production company. In the intervening years, she has become America’s first and only female black multi-billionaire, nicknamed the Queen of All Media. She has also managed to star in copious TV shows and movies, transform America’s reading habits, launch a sideline as a mindfulness guru, and set up the Oprah Winfrey Network so brilliant auteurs like Ava DuVernay can create such cinematic dramas as Queen Sugar. All this while being instrumental in getting the first black president elected. Yes She Can. Kate Abbott

Grace Wyndham Goldie

‘By God, you’ve changed politics!’

The First Lady of Television … Grace Wyndham Goldie.
The First Lady of Television … Grace Wyndham Goldie. Photograph: George Konig/Getty Images

When Grace Wyndham Goldie joined the BBC in 1947, people spake the news and moved on, to the extent that, on a slow day, the bulletin would say: “There is no news.” She made TV more watchable by breaking the rules, making current affairs central to the very purpose of TV. She pioneered coverage of general elections back when it was illegal – indeed, she’s the reason we hold the vote count straight after polls close, rather than waiting until the next day. She created dynasties (she launched Richard Dimbleby and, with him, Panorama), maintained a much missed firewall between the BBC and government interference, and steadfastly resisted showbizification.

There’s a beautifully telling message from her boss in 1952, when she’d just launched Press Conference: “You did not invent the idea, my dear, of press people questioning politicians; this has already been done in the States. So you have not changed the nature of television, but by God you have changed the whole future of politics in Britain.” Even those who recognised her immense value still, apparently, had as their uppermost concern that she might get ideas above her station.

They call her the First Lady of Television, which is annoying, implying: a) an invisible president; and b) that she was in the service of the medium, rather than its radical creator. Still, at least people didn’t forget her. Beats being a lady scientist. Zoe Williams

Victoria Wood

‘Can I find it? Can I buffalo!’

Victoria Wood.
Laser-like … Victoria Wood. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

In her 20s, Victoria Wood was patronised by agents because, she recalled later, “I was fat and a girl – a double whammy”. She was northern, when the comedy scene was dominated by southerners. She was doing a cabaret act, which hadn’t been on anyone’s books since Noël Coward. But she ploughed her own furrow and, from the late 70s on, began to accrue success.

Her television work – most famously Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV – gave the world Acorn Antiques, Kelly Marie Tunstall and the line: “I’ve scoured this store from top to bottom. Can I find a side-winding thermal bodybelt? Can I buffalo!”

There was no one else doing what she did, never mind as brilliantly. She created new space for comedy, especially for female comedians. Her voice, her rhythms, the precision with which every line was crafted – not a missed beat, not an extraneous syllable – and the laser-like specificity of her jokes influenced a generation of writers, on top of the joy it brought to millions. What a legacy. LM

Biddy Baxter

The great get-it-done woman

Brought in to helm an ailing Blue Peter in 1962, Biddy Baxter ended up inventing interactive TV. She introduced the now iconic Blue Peter badge and the show’s charity appeal, which saw children up and down the land collecting milk bottle tops and holding bring and buy sales. The show that speaks directly to its young viewers, encouraging them to write in with thoughts, artwork and fundraising ideas, is still going strong, 60 years after the most formidable get-it-done woman at BBC TV Centre first click-clacked down its corridors. Many who worked for her say the sound of her heels on the studio steps reminded you to jump to it.

She gave equal weight to her presenters, challenging them to do equally harebrained things. If John Noakes could shin up Nelson’s column without a harness, of course Lesley Judd could abseil from a lighthouse on to a tiny boat. Well before her time in so many ways, she led where so many others still follow. JR

Susan Harris

Golden Girls made ageing look amazing

The Golden Girls.
A lot of sex … The Golden Girls. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

“When do you see passionate older people on television?” Susan Harris asked, in a 1985 interview with the New York Times. “When do you see people [over 50] in bed together? Eventually, on this show, you will. It’s kind of pathetic that this show is television’s baby steps.’’

The show was The Golden Girls, and Harris, the writer and creator, certainly made good on her promise. That The Golden Girls featured four female leads over the age of 50 was groundbreaking in itself, but their antics, which included a lot of sex, made ageing look amazing. And Harris didn’t just overturn stereotypes around age: The Golden Girls tackled everything from racism to Aids.

She didn’t shy away from important topics in her other shows either. In 1972, she famously wrote an episode for the series Maude called Maude’s Dilemma, which was the first time a lead character on a primetime TV show in the US had a legal abortion. TV can be an incredible tool to educate, but it takes a lot of talent to both educate and entertain. AM

Jo Brand

She took the hit for those to come

Jo Brand on Have I Got News For You.
Tough gig … Jo Brand on Have I Got News For You. Photograph: BBC/Hat Trick/Richard Kendal

What could be more admirable than a trailblazer who emerged when female TV comics weren’t a thing, and effortlessly beat the men at their own game? In the late 80s, Brand was unapologetically herself the first time she was beamed into homes across the nations on Friday Night Live, and later when she fronted her own show, Through the Cakehole, and then when she nailed her guest appearances on Have I Got News For You, a tough gig at the best of times.

With her gobby personality and unshakeable self-belief, she played no small part in encouraging society’s acceptance of women in all our forms. More precisely, it means today’s female comics don’t have to be the butt of their own jokes on TV. Jo Brand took the hit for everyone who came after. SG

Eileen Diss

Cider with Eileen

Some time after the dawn of television, public broadcasting exploded and the BBC bust a gut to get and keep talent in-house. This led to quite an ambitious set-design department, which Eileen Diss defined, bouncing from programme to programme like an incredibly decisive squash ball.

She started in children’s programming, and with the sensitive eye on gender equality for which the 50s were renowned, was initially given the Grove Family, British TV’s first soap, plus her regular Billy Bunter, Zoo Quest work. The Grove sets look like a cross between early Corrie and Meet Me in Saint Louis, which is to say, brilliant.

She made her first big impact with Maigret, a proto box set based on the novels of Georges Simenon, which tangentially launched her as a stage designer, favourite of Harold Pinter, and by that time she’d gone freelance. But her influence on BBC design work, its slightly crazy mix of boarding-school perfectionism and free-spirited iconoclasm, was baked in. You can laugh at the production values of 60s and 70s TV, but you can’t watch Diss’s Cider With Rosie or Moll Flanders without seeing the values. ZW

Candace Bushnell

Amuse my bouche!

The search for love and shoes … Sex and the City.
The search for love and shoes … Sex and the City. Photograph: HBO

Is there a show that has done more for women than Sex and the City? Twenty years on, it’s au courant to write off Candace Bushnell’s glossy, frothy portrait of four privileged white women searching for sex, love, shoes and themselves in New York. At best it’s a guilty pleasure, at worst a misogynistic mess. But for a generation of women, the show based on Bushnell’s books was, is, and always will be a fabulous, radical torchbearer for women.

Partly, it’s the sex and the punning about the sex: if you don’t find Samantha Jones willing a man to amuse her bouche over a trendy downtown dinner hilarious, you’re dead inside. But mostly, it’s the cumulative feminine power of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. They may have been archetypes, but that was the point. I identified with none of them, but still I recognise their struggles, their quest for love and, above all, their friendship. CR

Verity Lambert

Just the one mistake

Verity Lambert
Never afraid to speak her mind … Verity Lambert. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

A force of nature who cut her teeth on the first series of Doctor Who, Lambert was both the BBC’s youngest TV producer (she was 28) at that time and the only woman working in drama production. She was never afraid to speak her mind: writer Alan Bleasdale would later say he wanted to “kill her” during the making of GBH, while conceding that her cuts infinitely improved the drama.

Her CV reads like a history of the best of British drama programming: Budgie, Minder, The Naked Civil Servant, Rock Follies, Widows, Jonathan Creek. The much-mocked soap opera Eldorado was a rare misstep – she would later admit her chief mistake was “allowing it to be put out on air too quickly”. That it stands out so strikingly is a testament to her Midas touch. Sarah Hughes

Lynda La Plante

Bold, brash and big-haired

Oh-so-human … Helen Mirren as DSI Jane Tennison with Ben Miles as DCI Finch in Prime Suspect.
Oh-so-human … Helen Mirren as DSI Jane Tennison with Ben Miles in Prime Suspect. Photograph: Granada TV

TV’s crime queen wrote her first series – the bold, brash, big-haired Widows – in response to the poor dialogue she was given as a jobbing actor. A fast-paced thriller about four women who pull off a heist, Widows became a huge word-of-mouth hit, establishing La Plante as a writer of style and substance. She went on to create one of television’s greatest characters, DI Jane Tennison, in Prime Suspect. The flawed, furious and oh-so-human Tennison transformed the TV landscape. SH

Winnie Holzman

She made us wear candy necklaces

My So-Called Life … Claire Danes, who played Angela, with executive producer Winnie Holzman
My So-Called Life … Claire Danes, who played Angela, with executive producer Winnie Holzman Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

The maker of My So-Called Life gave millions hope. She made us wear candy necklaces and dye our hair Crimson Glow. She allowed us to believe we would make it through the hormonal tumult of our teenage years unscathed. She taught us it was OK to be awkward and flawed like Angela Chase, to be true to yourself and eccentric like Rayanne Graff. To be alert to everyone’s truths and faults, courtesy of the divine, troubled Rickie Vasquez and the gorgeous, illiterate Jordan Catalano.

My So-Called Life is key to my makeup, as well as the very fabric of television. But this beloved show was cut down after just 19 episodes, too ahead of its time to be countenanced. Holzman’s follow-up was shelved by HBO in favour of that other feminist masterpiece, The Sopranos. Oh what might have been. KA

Amy Sherman-Palladino

Eat it, Aaron Sorkin!

Revolutionary … Gilmore Girls.
Revolutionary … Gilmore Girls. Photograph: Network/Everett/Rex/Shutterstock

Almost 20 years ago, Gilmore Girls revolutionised portrayals of young women by putting a woman’s inner monologue in her mouth. Mother-daughter leads Lorelai and Rory Gilmore chewed through matters of pop culture and privilege in TV’s densest scripts (eat it, Aaron Sorkin!), and upended norms about single mums and ambitious girls. TV had dorky heroines, but even homey Dawson’s Creek used a Jackie/Marilyn dichotomy. Rory’s rivalry with Paris unfolded like a seven-year presidential debate, empowering bookish viewers yet implicitly questioning the pressures of perfectionism.

Female high-achievers and ruptured lives became Sherman-Palladino’s defining themes: 2012’s Bunheads found teen ballerinas questioning their small-town values. Its sweetness counterbalanced TV’s antihero obsession – a trick Sherman-Palladino attempted with The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, but failed to realise in a show that wears its quirky defiance heavily. Still, two lightning strikes is more than most manage. Laura Snapes

Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson

Two women, one empire

Broad City … Jacobson, left, and Glazer.
Broad City … Jacobson, left, and Glazer. Photograph: Comedy Central

I was introduced to Glazer via her YouTube channel, Chronic Gamer Girl, in which she played classic video games and cracked jokes. Soon, she started Broad City with Jacobson as a web series. Their effortless chemistry and perfect comic timing as two drifting millennials gained a dedicated fanbase, including Amy Poehler, who helped get the show on TV.

The fifth and final series of Broad City dropped in January. As it reaches the end, Glazer and Jacobson will be paying it forward. Variety reported the pair were “quietly building an empire of talent in the hope that they can change TV for the better”. Jacobson is developing a TV project with the essayist and author Samantha Irby, while Glazer is working further with 2 Dope Queens, Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson. “Women need to be in more decision-making positions,” Glazer has said, “and now we are.” Hannah Jane Parkinson

Fleabag series 2 begins on Monday 4 March on BBC One, at 10.35pm.

Did we miss anyone? Add your suggestion in the comments or via this short form – and tell us why they deserve a mention. We’ll publish a roundup of the best.

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