Women of the New Frontier: On the Trailblazers Who Reimagined Television

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong Considers a Forgotten Chapter in the History of Broadcast Culture

In the fall of 1948, a 49-year-old woman, the absolute prototype of a Jewish mother, marched into the Madison Avenue office of the famous and debonair William S. Paley, the man in charge of CBS, and made a brazen demand. She wanted to write, produce, and star in her own television show. Gertrude Berg believed that she, of all people, deserved a spot on television, and she insisted that one of the most powerful men in media give it to her.

This ultimatum alone would speak to her chutzpah in any TV era, including our own. But she issued it in 1948, not a time we associate with women’s liberation.

Five feet five and 150 pounds, the mother of two grown children, Berg proposed an idea that seems radical even today: that she should star in a TV sitcom as the mother of two young teenagers. Of course, she did come with a track record. For the previous two decades, during radio’s Golden Age, she’d written and starred in a radio comedy called The Goldbergs. Radio had been the default, dominant mode of national entertainment. Families had gathered around their living room radios daily to hear the latest installments of their favorite dramas and comedies as well as news and music. She had reigned supreme in this era. She looked like the prototype of the Jewish mother because she had created it.

In fact, she had already lived an entire situation comedy lifetime: on her show The Goldbergs, she had played radio’s favorite meddling mother, Molly Goldberg, who had raised her children to adulthood over its 17-year course. Now she insisted on starting all over again as television’s favorite mother.

And she wasn’t the only woman who made such bold claims to the new frontier of television, a discovery I was surprised to stumble upon in the early annals of the medium’s history.

I was born in the 1970s, and I grew up with the television on. I watched all the syndicated reruns as a kid, dating back to I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, through The Brady Bunch and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, through All in the Family and The Jeffersons. I memorized the theme songs to The Facts of Life and Silver Spoons. I read every TV Guide that came to our suburban Chicago home cover to cover. I led the day-after conversations at school about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Seinfeld. My family communicated in TV catchphrases: “This is Carlton, your doorman.” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

When I grew up to become a journalist, I landed at Entertainment Weekly, where I covered the television business for ten years. I specialized in the great women of television, using my deep appreciation for TV history to write stories about Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Alias, and Grey’s Anatomy; I drew comparisons along the way to Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Murphy Brown, and St. Elsewhere. I transitioned to writing books about television history, chronicling the lives and legacies of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City.

Still, I didn’t know until recently, and many of even the nerdiest of TV history nerds don’t know, that there was a time—a time before, even, Lucille Ball—when women ran television. Not everything, of course: Paley and his buddies occupied the biggest offices. But a surprising number of women pioneered the genres we still watch today, negotiated contracts, directed, produced, and wrote. But their names and contributions have now been largely forgotten.

I got my first hints of this as I researched The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Reaching back before its 1970 premiere to understand its history, I ran into Gertrude Berg, who came up as I investigated predecessors to Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary’s no-nonsense Jewish friend. Berg played the original groundbreaking Jewish character Molly Goldberg. Unlike Rhoda in the 1970s, who was only implicitly Jewish until the second season of the show, Molly’s identity had been explicit since her first radio appearance. I had never heard of her, but Mary Tyler Moore Show creators Allan Burns and James L. Brooks assured me that she had been a big deal in her time.

I also learned that Betty White’s Mary Tyler Moore Show character, a TV hostess named Sue Ann Nivens, was meant as a send-up of White’s previous persona, described as “sickly sweet.” That baffled me until I looked it up; indeed, White had spent the early years of her career, throughout the 1950s, as one of the first daytime talk show hosts and then a sitcom pioneer, known for her adorable demeanor (and “high necklines”).

A surprising number of women pioneered the genres we still watch today, negotiated contracts, directed, produced, and wrote.

As I rooted around in this era, I found still more women whose contributions to the medium—not to mention their liberated lives—should have made them household names still known today, but were largely lost to footnotes. Irna Phillips, for example, had conceived the soap opera, including its defining tropes, dramatic organ cues and cliff-hangers that punctuate complicated interpersonal problems. And she did it while she raised two adopted children as a single mother, building an empire along the way that included shows that would run for decades to come. She hoped, she said, that she would eventually meet a man for whom she would give it all up. But she never did; her Guiding Light, in fact, holds the record as the longest-running scripted program in broadcast history, ending in 2009 after 72 years on radio and television. Decades’ worth of soap fans are thankful Phillips never found the right guy.

Hazel Scott, meanwhile, had parlayed a successful career as a jazz musician into hosting a variety show, which made her the first Black person, male or female, to host a national prime-time program. But insidious opposition to her work as a civil rights activist would cut that short and even drive her out of the country.

I wanted to tell the story of a time in television when women’s ascendance and equality seemed possible, and their prominence allowed them to set the standards for everything that came after them. They were brave enough to try what hadn’t been done before, and in the process found what worked (or didn’t), for instance, on a daytime talk show, a TV soap opera, or a family sitcom; they showed us smart, interesting, multifaceted, dignified versions of women of color, single career women, and Jewish mothers. They did all of this 70-plus years ago, when segregation was still legal and quite the norm, especially in the American South; when women were expected to get married straight out of high school and stay home to feed their husbands, clean the house, and raise the children; when divorced women, single women, and working women were seen as threatening, selfish, failed, used-up, and suspicious.

I found four women, in particular, who represented the different parts of television’s, and women’s, history of the time: Berg, who played up her motherhood while building an empire; the single mother and daytime soap impresario Irna Phillips; the glamorous political firebrand and variety show pioneer Hazel Scott; and the perky, deliberately single daytime talk show host Betty White.

Television had existed in theory for nine years as these women first entered the business. But it was just growing out of infancy and into toddlerhood in 1948, as television sets’ price point crept downward and more people could afford to own one. The number of homes with televisions in the United States reached one million, which represented just two percent of the population.

Signs indicated that a growth spurt would soon come. The C.E. Hooper Company had just begun tracking television ratings after doing the job for the past 14 years for radio, the primary means of mass entertainment in the United States. The first nightly newscast, CBS TV News, had debuted in May, not long after the radio network had launched its first substantial commercial television programming overall.

The other major radio network, NBC, set out to use television to distribute high culture to the masses, bringing its NBC Symphony Orchestra, led by the renowned Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, over from radio. ABC, which lagged far behind the other two radio powerhouses, launched on television as well, hoping for better fortunes on the new frontier. DuMont, a TV manufacturer, was operating its own network and giving ABC some serious competition. WTVR in Richmond, Virginia, became the nation’s first TV station south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The variety show hosts Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan were becoming TV’s first superstars.

In that Wild West era of television, no one knew what might work. Broadcasts were live, and anything was worth a try. When Berg did get her television show, she had to layer two or three housedresses over one another on a show night, then run backstage between scenes to strip one off as her quick costume change.

I wanted to tell the story of a time in television when women’s ascendance and equality seemed possible.

Phillips and her directors had to teach the first TV soap opera stars how to play to cameras instead of just speaking into a microphone as they had on radio. (The actors spent Phillips’s first TV soap visibly tracking their lines on a blackboard just off camera, making them resemble lookouts rather than soap stars.) Scott had to maintain her trademark cool, fresh beauty while she played piano under broiling TV lights in a silent studio, the opposite of the adoring crowds she was used to. White hosted one of the first daytime talk shows and had to improvise on camera for five and a half hours a day, six days a week, with no writers to help.

The nascent television business included these and other women in a surprising number of jobs, both in front of and behind the cameras. Women hosted daytime music and cooking shows, led industry unions, and even developed new TV news formats, including one of the first public affairs programs, NBC’s Meet the Press, created and hosted by the broadcast journalist Martha Rountree. It’s still on the air as of 2020, making it TV’s longest-running show.

In fact, the creative teams behind the handful of scripted, serialized, prime-time shows in 1949–1950 were about 25 percent female, according to my own count, almost exactly where things stand today in television. (Comparable statistics aren’t available for the radio industry of the time.) That would drop over the next few decades to a dismal 6.5 percent in 1973—a time when the growing women’s movement forced Hollywood’s Writers Guild of America to undertake such a count at all; in the years between, no reliable statistics are available.

San Diego State University’s Center for the Studio of Women in Television & Film began tracking those statistics more closely each year starting in 1997, when women made up 21 percent of behind-the-scenes talent. In 2018–2019, women made up about 25 percent of TV creators across platforms at a time considered to be a high point for women working behind the scenes in the medium—landing us now roughly where we were back in 1949 in terms of gender representation behind the scenes.

Many of the earliest TV stars, female and male, came up through the radio ranks, writing and performing for what was Americans’ dominant home entertainment medium until the 1950s. While radio reigned supreme, TV signals reached tentatively across the country, in hopes that someone would be out there to receive them, literally: television was live and broadcast quite similarly to radio, sending signals out to transmitters, which would beam them to home antennae and produce the picture and sound viewers would experience as it was broadcast. Every broadcast existed only in the moment.

Crucially for women in the business, television was also still a speculative business. Resources were scarce and fame wasn’t a sure thing. Women led among the pioneers, willing to try a new field where men didn’t yet hog all the airtime. While male writers, actors, and hosts enjoyed the Golden Age of Radio from the 1930s through the 1940s, women grabbed the chance to write, produce, host, and act for TV while it was still an open field.

The most enduringly famous of these women was Lucille Ball, who came to television from radio in 1951. CBS asked her to bring her radio hit My Favorite Husband to the new medium, and she agreed to do so only if her real-life husband, the Cuban American musician Desi Arnaz, could play her spouse. After they proved their dual appeal with a successful vaudeville act, CBS agreed. Their show became I Love Lucy, the era’s defining hit for two major reasons: Ball’s genius for physical comedy and their insistence that the show be shot on film, which allowed it to live on in syndicated reruns for decades to come. But Lucy wasn’t the anomaly she appeared to be; many women had come before her in television, with equally important roles both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.

Men flooded the industry and took over many of the jobs women had been doing when, in the mid-1950s, television became big business and a conservative wave washed over the country. It was the era that would be idealized as true Americana: idols of white, straight masculinity, such as James Dean and Elvis Presley, ruled. Marilyn Monroe was objectified relentlessly as America’s biggest film star, revered for her girlish, feminine wiles.

Women led among the pioneers, willing to try a new field where men didn’t yet hog all the airtime.

The economy was at full blast, like the new sounds of rock ’n’ roll blaring from a suburban teenager’s car stereo. American life was grand—as long as you were a white, straight, well-heeled man with a house, a wife, a few kids, and a few cars. TV began to reflect that Father-knows-best patriarchy. As a result, many of those women’s contributions, aside from Lucy’s, vanished from memory.

I chose these four women—Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott, and Betty White—to tell this story, which encompasses many other female television firsts, because they each represent a different dominant strand of that story. Berg and Scott took on the big leagues of prime time and fought ethnic and racial stereotypes along the way, paving the way for Clair Huxtable and Olivia Pope, The Nanny and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As a result, they also battled direct attacks on their careers from the supposed anti-Communist crusaders of McCarthyism, who used the Cold War as cover to attack the left.

Jews, civil rights activists, and progressives—many of them women—lost their voices and livelihoods in the process. Phillips and White worked in the daytime realm, where female audiences ruled, even though they were often condescended to. Phillips and White pioneered the territory that would later provide fertile ground for the careers of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. All four women faced an incursion of patriarchal, conservative forces that compelled them to fight for their survival.

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When Women Invented Television

Excerpted from When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today. Used with the permission of the publisher, Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Pop Star Goddesses, first honed her knowledge of pop stars at Entertainment Weekly, where she worked for a decade. She now writes for Billboard, New York magazine, Refinery29, and Dame, and is the author of Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love; the New York Times bestseller Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything; and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. She lives in New York City.





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