“When Women Invented Television”: How to Invent an Entertainment Empire

Four Women Who Helped Put T.V. on T.V. by Figuring Out How to Fill a Programming Day

Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. Ironically, she played a local television presenter after being one (as well as a sitcom actress) in the early 50’s. CB Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. Ironically, she played a local television presenter after being one (as well as a sitcom actress) in the early 50’s. CB Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When Women Who Invented Television is not the best book I ever read, but I did enjoy learning something about several key female pioneers in the field. Author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong keeps you interested in their life stories even if she doesn’t pull off the big story of the history of women in early television as well as she could have.

Betty White, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott, and Gertrude Berg

Out of the four covered in detail, I was only familiar with Betty White, and who isn’t familiar with Betty White? That woman is amazing, and she’s managed to star in a hit comedy series during the last 3 generations: The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the ‘70’s, The Golden Girls in the ‘80’s, and Hot In Cleveland in the ‘teens. What many people don’t know is that she started out hosting daytime T.V., and I mean hosting it all, because she was on the screen five hours a day on local T.V. in Los Angeles. Yes, five hours a day. Actually more. She helped to invent daytime talk T.V., oh, and was also starring in a sitcom even then called Life with Elizabeth.

The other three women respectively pioneered the situation comedy, pioneered the “soap opera” daytime serial, and pioneered the evening variety show and was also the first African-American person of either gender to have her own T.V. series. Getrude Berg was the star of a radio series called The Goldbergs that focused on a Jewish-American family in New York, which she transitioned to television when people were still figuring out how to do it. Her show predated, and was later obscured by I Love Lucy, when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz built on the format devised by Berg and her team. It’s ironic that a genre that was started out featuring a minority family and a “mixed marriage” (a white woman married to a Cuban was somewhat scandalous at the time) subsequently turned completely WASPy as television took over the market.

The same is true of the format pioneered by singer Hazel Scott. Because early television wasn’t recorded, at times her contributions to television have even been overlooked by the experts. If you don’t know her, head over to YouTube and watch some of her clips.

Finally, Irna Phillips is famous for pioneering the soap opera on television as a leader in the field on radio. The amount of work she did is astounding, and she helped to develop the conventions of a genre that dominated daytime T.V. for decades. My mother and my grandmother watched several, and eventually, I became a follower of Guiding Light, the very show that Phillips first brought to television from radio.

Guiding Light and General Hospital came on in the late afternoon, from 3-4, so most families were into one or the other, and at school we were divided up into fans of one of the other for discussion and debate just like people follow sports teams. It’s usually passed off as an unimportant “girl” think, but the fact is that boys watched them too.

“Soaps” are also supposed to be a waste of time, but believe me, they did more than people realize. They featured lifestyles that most of us enjoyed vicariously, with parties and fancy clothes, but women in them actually did more than sit around and moan. I remember being introduced to the idea that women can be doctors (and not only nurses) through one of my mom’s favorites, The Secret Storm, and later, through Guiding Light, found out that your husband can rape you. Luckily, I never personally needed that exact piece of information, but through watching Holly take her even husband Roger to court for rape, back in the 1970’s I learned that I had control of my body, even when it came to marriage, which was a new legal concept then. I also learned not to mistake charm for character, which is another important lesson.

As you can see, there is more than enough material here for several books. There is the story of what these women did in addition to the difficulties they had as women and ethnic minorities. On top of all of that, the early 1950’s, when television began to catch on, was also the “McCarthy Era”, in which anyone with remotely liberal leanings was in danger of being “blacklisted” as a “Communist sympathizer”, which affected many workers in the performing arts, including all of these women.

And that’s where this book loses its way a little bit. Armstrong’s writing style is straightforward and serviceable, but she works too hard at trying to force her quadruple biography into some sort of manifesto about unfairness to women, when the fact is that television came along during a certain time period, when these women were all at different stages of their careers, and a lot of things happened that at times, provided them with opportunity and at times undermined opportunity. Perhaps the book could have been improved by addressing women’s contributions to early television as a social history rather than a group biography.

These definitely weren’t the only women out there doing what they did. There are omissions, most notably Lucille Ball, whom I have always admired for her business acumen and ability to extract her biggest career success for herself and her husband out of prejudice that threatened to end her career as a performer.

Regardless, When Women Invented Television is a light, enjoyable nonfiction read to enjoy during a beautiful afternoon outdoors.

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