In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Elizabeth Newman chats with New York Times bestselling author and pop-culture whiz Jennifer Keishin Armstrong. In her book, When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today (HarperCollins, March 2021), Armstrong looks at the lives of Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott, and Betty White, who found themselves fighting from the margins of TV as men took control, and the work they did to pioneer the medium that now rules people’s lives. An edited version of the conversation follows.
What drew you to the story?
The four women who I feature in When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today are the end result of a longer process of discovering that there was this era of TV history, from 1948 to 1955, when women were doing a ton of stuff. We’ve been acting like Tina Fey and Shonda Rhimes were this new thing—they’re great, and I’m so glad that we have them, and they ushered in this new era—but I was really struck by the fact that women were doing a ton at the beginning.
What surprised you most in your research?
These women dealt with a lot of sexism, as you can imagine, but they really worked hard and persevered in the face of all of it. It’s incredible to see their determination in the face of so many different difficulties. Three of these four women highlighted in the book ended up hospitalized at some point with a stress-related illness, but they kept going. They would not stop and did not take “no” for an answer; they kept going no matter what the industry and life threw at them.
Three of these four women highlighted in the book ended up hospitalized at some point with a stress-related illness, but they kept going. They would not stop and did not take ‘no’ for an answer; they kept going no matter what the industry and life threw at them.
There is a point in the mid-1950s when forces really start to arise against them, and this is when the ’50s, I say, become the ‘50s. This is when Father Knows Best is coming in. This is when the men start to really infiltrate the TV industry. They hadn’t been there before, because TV was not dominant and profitable yet.
Paving the way
How have these four women influenced what we see today?
There’s a lot of influence that these women have had on TV. I think of Irna Phillips—she invented the daytime soap, and we all know what that is—as the Shonda Rhimes of her day because she had this empire. That, to me, is what she ultimately gave us that we still see on TV today.
Hazel Scott did a lot in terms of the image of Black women in TV and film. She had a strict demand: she could never be shown in a uniform. That was her way of getting around being a maid, which was very common for Black women in film at the time.
Gertrude Berg created the basis of the family sitcom as we still think of it today. She was also really instrumental in Jewish portrayals on TV: it was very unapologetically Jewish. And this was just coming out of World War II, so it was extremely important and necessary. People were actually incredibly honest, by my estimation, in that they’d write in letters and say, “I didn’t want to watch your show about Jewish people, because I had a lot of bad ideas about Jewish people. But I watched your show, and I fell in love with you, and this has changed me.” I don’t know if people would be so forthcoming about that now.
Betty White and TV were made for each other. She’s perfect for it. She is the person you want in your living room day after day. That’s why she could have a talk show where she was on for five and a half hours a day, six days a week. People cannot get enough of Betty White.
What did you find out about them balancing their personal and professional lives?
I picked these four women as juxtapositions to each other. They all had different tactics for what they did.
We have Gertrude Berg, who was a mother. What’s fascinating about her is that she was playing America’s favorite Jewish mother and was super maternal on the show, of course, and was always cooking. She also had a motherhood-advice column. And all of her grandchildren said, “She was not cooking.” She had a line of house dresses that were very affordable, yet she herself would only dress in the finest dresses, furs, hats, and gloves when she was off duty.
Hazel Scott was part of a “power couple.” She was married to Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was incredibly famous as a politician and a preacher, and they both were big Civil Rights activists. They were often doing things together, hatching plans together, and had this very glamorous life. They were often in Ebony magazine. They had one young son, and he was about five at the time that she had her TV show.
Irna Phillips was single, and she adopted two children as a single mother, which is also extraordinary. And she was always racked with guilt because of the way that mothers were supposed to be at that time. She even started to write this into her shows. She wrote whole plot lines for men to show them as stronger because she was worried that she was contributing to the divorce rate, and she didn’t want kids to end up like hers. She actually said at one point, point blank in her memoir, that she regretted having her children, not because she didn’t love them, but because she felt she had not given them as much of her attention as she could have.
And Betty White, interestingly, remained single. She had actually been briefly married, twice, right before her career took off.
A hard act to follow
Why is it important to have women-driven stories?
There was this idea of “women stuff is silly; it’s not important.” You see it most clearly in the story of Irna Phillips, who invented the soap opera. There was a bunch of men reviewing these stories that were specifically made to appeal to women in daytime TV, and they were just constantly making fun of it. From start to finish, they were saying, “This is drivel, this is silly. And I can’t believe there’s more women crying.” And this and that. Women with feeling; how unbelievable.
With Betty White, there was this really interesting moment that I found in the archives of NBC. Male executives would send each other memos back and forth about what was wrong with Betty White’s TV show. They would talk about how Eisenhower had recently been elected, and one of the analyses that was very accepted was that there was this surprise surge of women voters who really helped get him into office in a landslide. In a memo, the executives mentioned something like, “Gosh, women have all this power; maybe we should be doing something.” Their solution became, in a few sentences, that they should have more segments about fashion and things like that. That was the big takeaway from women having political power.
They even said in one of the memos I was reading that “dames enjoy emotional upsets, so we should figure out ways to have more of them in Betty White’s show.” By “emotional upsets,” they meant emotional reunions. They were debating what dames like and never thinking to ask any dames themselves. This has been going on since the beginning, and I think we can say that even though things have probably gotten a little bit better since then, there’s still this sense of, “Oh, silly women stuff; who cares?” kind of thing.
The book covers only seven years, from ’48 to ’55, of these four extraordinary women’s lives. I encourage people to go learn all about all of them because they’re really incredible.
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