When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today (2021)

When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today

Book: When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today
Author:
 Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Publication Info: 2021, Harper
Genres: Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Women’s History, Media/Culture Studies, Biography
My Rating: 4 stars. 4 star average on Goodreads

Summary

The New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia tells the little-known story of four trailblazing women in the early days of television who laid the foundation of the industry we know today.

It was the Golden Age of Radio and powerful men were making millions in advertising dollars reaching thousands of listeners every day. When television arrived, few radio moguls were interested in the upstart industry and its tiny production budgets, and expensive television sets were out of reach for most families. But four women—each an independent visionary— saw an opportunity and carved their own paths, and in so doing invented the way we watch tv today.

Irna Phillips turned real-life tragedy into daytime serials featuring female dominated casts. Gertrude Berg turned her radio show into a Jewish family comedy that spawned a play, a musical, an advice column, a line of house dresses, and other products. Hazel Scott, already a renowned musician, was the first African American to host a national evening variety program. Betty White became a daytime talk show fan favorite and one of the first women to produce, write, and star in her own show.

Together, their stories chronicle a forgotten chapter in the history of television and popular culture.

But as the medium became more popular—and lucrative—in the wake of World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee arose to threaten entertainers, blacklisting many as communist sympathizers. As politics, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and money collided, the women who invented television found themselves fighting from the margins, as men took control. But these women were true survivors who never gave up—and thus their legacies remain with us in our television-dominated era. It’s time we reclaimed their forgotten histories and the work they did to pioneer the medium that now rules our lives.

Review

It was the Golden Age of Radio and powerful men were making millions in advertising dollars reaching thousands of listeners every day. When television arrived, few radio moguls were interested in the upstart industry and its tiny production budgets, and expensive television sets were out of reach for most families. But four women—each an independent visionary— saw an opportunity and carved their own paths, and in so doing invented the way we watch tv today.

The author focused on four pioneering women during this time period in media/television: Irna Phillips, Gertrude Berg, Hazel Scott, and Betty White.

The book recognizes these women as four different parts of tv’s history of the time — these themes included womanhood/gender, motherhood, being unmarried/single, being political or opinionated. Having certain identities. Race, religion, gender. Mix this against the backdrop of the Cold War, McCarthyism, shifting dynamics socially and culturally, and one can see how media has played an indispensable role in US history. It’s only fair to tell the unique stories and perspectives of the women who played their part in the rise of television.

The format of the book is split into chapters that focus on the unique attributes of the four women analyzed. In my view, they can be deemed almost symbolic of certain obstacles faced as well as personalities, successes and victories. The author noted for example that daytime stars paved the way for Winfrey or DeGeneres. They created the appeal of the soap opera or the family drama. Building off the back of the massive success of radio, television eventually became more accessible to the general public — the impact is obvious. More entertainment, more commercialization, more news, more access. Nowadays we probably take it for granted, having the whole world in our hands every day as long as our phone’s charged. Imagine just a short while ago, it was all brand new.

I learned quite a bit about these women. Most importantly to me, it was a well researched topic that was interesting and relevant. A lot of books are coming out about the role of women in certain industries, like coding or intelligence during WWI-II or science generally. There will definitely be room to dig deeper into the experiences of women in the entertainment industry, but I think this book did a great job of taking the initiative to bring together four experiences and show overlap, thematic similarities AND the specific obstacles & positive influences by each of these women. 

Who’s it good for?

Fans of the above listed women who are covered in this book, those who like to read about women’s history, those interested in media/cultural studies (especially 1920s-30s USA), those interested in television/celebrities.

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54236116-when-women-invented-television

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