“When Women Invented Television” Revives the Forgotten Women of TV

Author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who wears a brown linen blazer, has dark hair, and wears red lipstick and glasses.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today (Photo credit: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis)

It’s rumored that the recordings of jazz musician Hazel Scott’s 1950s variety show—a first of its kind on television for a Black American—were dumped in the Upper New York Bay. After acquiring the company DuMont, the story goes that ABC filled three semitrucks with DuMont’s archive of kinescopes and two-inch videotapes, brought them to the Bay, and unloaded them into the water. And just like that, the memory of Scott’s historic television career was drowned, leaving us without any viewable record of her history-making, shining years as a television star.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s newest book, When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today, concludes with this unforgettable story, zeroing in on how little effort was made to preserve the contributions of the pioneering women of television. Scott wasn’t the only woman whose achievements have been dumped: Beyond her, When Women Invented Television follows the lives and careers of three other notable women from the earliest era of television: Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, and Betty White. These women paved their own way despite dealing with misogyny, racism, antisemitism, and paranoid Cold War–induced sanctions, only to have those accomplishments largely paved over. Bitch spoke with Armstrong about the foundation of her work, the way politics shaped early television, and reviving the legacies of the extraordinary women whose work continues to inform television as we know it today.

How did your your time spent as a journalist for Entertainment Weekly and the books you’ve written on television history like Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything and Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think Live & Love inform When Women Invented Television?

When I was researching the Mary Tyler Moore Show book, I ran into the first inklings of this book. For a while I’ve been obsessed with that 1940s or ’50s time in television, because you can’t see a lot of it. It’s the only time you can’t see everything that was made. I really tripped on this part of women’s history in television that I didn’t know much about, and it turned out neither did anyone else.

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I’m struck by the fact that you can’t see a lot of what was produced during the earliest television era. So many of these recordings are lost. You write in the book they were just thrown away off the coast of New York.

I love that story about ABC apparently dumping the Hazel Scott Show recordings into the Upper New York Bay. I told that story because it sticks with you. It probably didn’t happen this exact way, but it’s a great visual for what did happen. It’s sad but it’s also a really strange part of this history. Now it’s almost obvious to us—we can get nearly anything we want to watch from any period of time now. They really didn’t think people were going to want to keep watching the same TV they were making in perpetuity. They really saw it as sort of an ephemeral medium at the time, the way that radio was. That’s so interesting, especially in that we’re all watching everything that’s ever been made whenever we want.

In this house, we’ve gone so far back in our viewings now, we’re doing ’40s movies. You can only go back so much, and it’s really frustrating for modern people. It can’t be true that there’s no Hazel Scott Show. That’s part of my book. That’s what made it hard for us to remember these women’s legacies, because the way we do that is through reviewing things like I Love Lucy. Lucille Ball was also a genius, but that’s a huge reason why that [show’s] iconic—they literally had different recordings of it. We could keep remembering it. We could remember Lucy.

You focus on the lives of Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott, and Betty White. Were there any other women you considered spotlighting? Why did you choose these four particular women?

I had a long list. You can see a lot of that list in parts of the book where I’ll go on a tangent about a few other women. Amanda Randolph, the first Black female TV star who had her own local New York show and eventually a sitcom, comes to mind immediately. There were a lot of factors, but in the end I thought these four women each represented different corners of the industry and also different life choices they had to make. Irna and Betty started in daytime; Hazel and Gertrude are my primetime women. I really wanted them to have a little bit of actual creative input into a genre. I wanted them to be an actual pioneer in what they were doing. Berg really helped to make the family sitcom; she wasn’t just in one. That was another way I focused my particular story.

You wrote about how these women, especially Berg and Scott, were affected by heartbreaking physical and mental health issues. Television pushed Berg to her limit. Could you speak more about that, and the lesser-understood ways that women in television are impacted by the stress of the industry?

It was something that I didn’t truly know when I went into [writing the book]. I’ve dealt with my own psychosomatic mental and physical illnesses so I really related to that. They [had] a lot of gastrointestinal issues and heart issues. Two of these women were dealing with McCarthyism—it’s literally someone trying to draw you out of the industry. Three out of the four suffered from these clear manifestations of stress and mental illness, and to greater and lesser degrees among them acknowledged what that was. Even White—when she lost her big national talk show that was supposed to be her big moment, and then she watches it disintegrate as she gets essentially fired—really thought her career was over. It’s easy for us in retrospect to be like, “Well, don’t worry, she’d be with us for another 70 years in the television business,” but she didn’t know that then. It’s really stressful for women who were constantly being sidelined and second-guessed.

The yellow book cover of When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, which features different women who influenced television.

When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (Photo credit: Harper) 

This book taught me almost as much about McCarthyism as it did about the women who grew up immersed in it. Did you expect Cold War politics to affect these four women’s careers so strongly? Can you tell me more about how you learned about that political history and how you incorporated that into your book?

They disproportionately went after women, people of color, and Jews. Government officials were using this as a way to get rid of people they didn’t like. So I did know that this was a big part of history and television. The blacklist is very murky, and that’s why I’m so glad that you learned about McCarthyism from this, because a lot of us still don’t know what it was. When you have to write about it, you suddenly realize there was a list. Did they really post this list? Where did they post this? I didn’t understand any of that at all, and it’s fascinating how much it really worked as hearsay and gossip. It’s just a fascinating bit of groupthink and this shadowy policing where you don’t ever get convicted of anything.

And the fact that these people could fire somebody just because they wanted to, and then say it was for something else. They would just say “Oh, we couldn’t get a sponsor,” or “This show is too expensive to make.” They were able to get away with this, and people just moved on with their lives. Scott was just stuck trying to figure out what to do with herself at that point, and no one was paying attention or cared.

Advertising had a complete hold on the television industry in its nascent years. What do you think of the relationship between advertising and TV today?

It’s very different. There are two things happening now that are the exact opposite of things that were happening then, which is that advertising is not as much of a factor, and we have infinite choice. Gertrude Berg was just constantly being screwed around by time slots. They were like, “Oops can’t find room again.” So that’s another way that they could sideline you, whereas now, we will never run out of Netflix. They can put on as much as they want to, and they don’t have to worry about what advertisers think. And that’s why you have so much more variety, so much varied content and so much more diverse content. There’s not as much worry about advertisers. It’s not even clear that the public cared that much about McCarthyism, but if you could convince the advertiser that it was an issue, that was all that you had to do.

Throughout the book, you touch on how the male critics in the early TV era derided shows made for women, like Irna Phillips’s soap operas. Would you say there’s been a significant shift in how TV made for women and girls is perceived and critiqued today?

I think so, but it’s super recent. The internet helps. That’s why they could pull off Sex and the City even in 1998 or 2000. We wouldn’t have this big public outcry that would last days. There might be a few letters to the editor and that’s it. The executives are in a bind because they don’t respect women but they know that they have to serve them. It has only been fairly recently where they’ll serve them in a way where they hire women to make shows for women. It should have moved faster. We still have plenty of work to do, but it’s slightly better than 1950. Yay?

We still have plenty of work to do, but it’s slightly better than 1950. Yay?

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Do you think there’s any sense of internal memory in the TV industry that remembers these women who paved the way?

Not much. We know about Betty White. She was like my Trojan Horse. I was hoping people would go, “Oh I love her, I want to know something about Betty White.” Irna’s life—soap opera nerds know who she is, but I wanted people to see how she had an incredible empire, and she did this as a single mom and was really hardcore as a businesswoman. The enormity of her accomplishments have been forgotten a bit. Hazel is nearly completely forgotten. Jazz history buffs know who she is. The way that I’d explain her is that she was like the Beyoncé of her day. It’s like Beyoncé suddenly vanishing from our history. Could you imagine if [Hazel Scott] had been able to keep a TV show into the time where people started having TVs? She’d be Nat King Cole. If she could have held onto that a couple more years, it would’ve made a real difference in her legacy.

Gertrude might be the one who shocks me the most when people don’t know who she is. There were even some definitive TV history books where I’d go to the index and she’s not even in there. It’s just mind-boggling to me. This woman was good friends with Milton Berle, who was all over these books. Gertrude really had the first family sitcom, and it’s pretty recognizable. If you watch it, it looks like what we would think of as a family sitcom now, and it was so famous at the time. She had a cookbook, a line of housedresses, a motherhood advice column. She was huge, and then somehow just disappeared from the history books. Part of it is the McCarthyism issue sidelining her, but it’s very strange to me that the people [writing these books] wouldn’t at least note something.

What are the biggest takeaways from When Women Invented Television that readers should apply to the realities of women who are working in television today?

These stories have not been widely told, but these women were so inspiring, and I can’t believe they did what they did. They really just kept going until they absolutely couldn’t anymore and that’s really inspiring to me.

If you were to write a book about women who are changing and impacting the industry in significant ways today, who would those women be?

May the Shonda [Rhimes] era never end. Bridgerton just happened, and it’s the greatest thing ever. It’s amazing how good she is at making amazing gigantic shows. Shows are smaller now, but that means we get to have a ton of different viewpoints. So there was the Sex and the City era, the Shonda era, and nowwe’re in the “there can be lots of different people” era. That’s really good. We don’t have these mass viewing experiences anymore. I’m rewatching Grey’s Anatomy, and I keep thinking about how big it was in the 2000s. Everyone was talking about how they said “vajayjay” on Grey’s Anatomy. It’s not ever going to be the same, but maybe that’s okay. It means that nobody has to be the one representing all women, which is a trap—Sex and the City certainly did not represent all women, but that’s how it was sort of treated. Whereas now, you can still have a Bridgerton—maybe not as big as Grey’s Anatomy, but it really makes a splash. That’s the place to look now—all the different ways we can represent women, which is very exciting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Shailee Koranne
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Shailee Koranne is a Toronto-based writer who wants to change the way people feel about Geminis. She writes about media, pop culture, and politics, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Vice, HuffPost, and elsewhere. Find her on Instagram @shailee.jpg.