The medium of television dominated the American cultural landscape for half of the twentieth century. Its portrayal of women shaped perceptions of the feminine ideal even as attitudes about women and their roles in society changed. A few early stars achieved critical and financial success in shows that were for and about women. But television as an industry resisted including women on the business side and behind the scenes. It was not until women entered the general workforce in large numbers and demonstrated their power as consumers that women began to find a more welcoming climate.
It’s a numbers game
Television’s advantage over other forms of entertainment was the sheer number of people it reached. Radio, in its heyday, was massively popular. But within a decade of the first television network forming in 1948, radio quickly gave up scripted shows, reinventing itself as a destination for news, sports, talk, and music. Radio faded as a shared source of entertainment for the whole family when Rock and Roll took over the airways, and parents and teens discovered that neither could stomach the other’s musical choices.
Television learned most of its tricks from radio, particularly since the first TV networks were started and owned by radio networks. Their objective was to reach the most people with disposable income who would dispose of it on the sponsors’ products. The strategy was to divide listeners into audience categories and develop programs based on their perceived common interests. Serialized, romantic dramas were served to appeal to housewives during the day. Adventure stories starring comic book heroes came on in the afternoon as legions of boys arrived home from school. A mix of family entertainment, news, and cultural programs aired after dinner, when the family could watch together.
Advertisers underwrote programs targeted to their customer demographics. Toy, candy, and food companies underwrote children’s programs. Household goods—from appliances to cleaning supplies—were advertised on game shows and soap operas. A wider variety of commercials playing in the Prime Time after dinner included advertisement for cars, cigarettes, razers, and other “male” products. In exchange for expensive advertising, sponsors demanded data to back up the networks’ audience assumptions. A.C. Nielsen, an innovator in measuring radio audience size and demographics, introduced its television ratings index in 1952. Shows would live and die by the numbers.
Gertrude Berg created the character of Molly Goldberg—a Bronx housewife—for radio in 1929 and portrayed her on radio, television, film, and stage for more than 30 years. The Goldbergs debuted on CBS television in 1949, and A.C. Nielsen’s ratings placed it among the season’s top ten programs. Berg won an Emmy in 1951, the first year that acting awards were divided into male and female categories, prevailing over Betty White, Judith Anderson, Imogene Coca, and Helen Hayes.
The Goldbergs depicted an immigrant family adjusting to American society, with a strong thread of patriotism and upward mobility. Recognized as the forerunner of the situation comedy, the show today is lauded for its nuanced portrayal of American Jewish culture at a time when “ethnic” humor was often stereotypical if not outright racist. Berg exercised total control over her program through the production company she ran with her son Charney Berg.
Berg’s show would fall unexpected victim to the 1950’s changing political landscape. Berg’s television husband, co-star Philip Loeb, was accused of being a Communist sympathizer during the Hollywood red scare. Blacklisted as a result, sponsors and CBS demanded that Berg fire Loeb. She fought vigorously to keep him, but sponsor General Mills dropped its support and CBS cancelled the program. Berg worked for a year and a half to secure another sponsor who would keep Loeb in the cast. Finally, in 1952, having exhausted all her options she replaced Loeb and accepted a deal with NBC. The Goldbergs revival was short lived. Berg’s defense of Loeb and her hardline stance against the black list had damaged her with both the television industry and viewers. Whispers that she was a communist sympathizer, coupled with her liberal political leanings, dogged her attempts to revive her television career. The Goldbergs moved to NBC and then Dumont before being cancelled in 1954.
Help Wanted: Female Movie Stars Over 40
It wasn’t only radio stars who flocked to television. Female movie stars found a welcoming landing pad in the small screen. A generation of actresses who had risen to stardom in the 1930s and 1940s found themselves sidelined in the 1950s. Male film stars from the pre-television era continued to enjoy vibrant careers, and they assiduously avoided television. But aging female stars encountered a limited range of opportunities. Not only did film roles go to younger actresses, the roles themselves were not the same caliber of independent, strong characters that dominated before World War II.
Loretta Young was the first A-list movie star to headline a television series. Her friend David O. Selznick counseled her against joining the television “enemy” whose existence threatened the entire motion picture industry. Once she appeared on television, he warned, she would no longer be cast in films. Young, however, reasoned that, as a woman over 40, few movie scripts were coming her way as it was. Television represented a new medium in which to make an impact.
NBC, the smallest network, courted Young, seeing in her not only a name to attract audiences but also someone to raise television’s status. Young won an Academy Award in 1947 for her role in The Farmer’s Daughter. Audiences who had watched her in theaters since her film debut in 1917 happily invited her into their living rooms.
Young brought a singular, creative vision to her new program self-titled The Loretta Young Show. Young and her husband Tom Lewis formed the Lewislor production company, which exercised full creative and production control. Though Young technically held the title of associate producer, staff recollected afterwards there was no doubt about who was really in charge. Young’s creative goal was to dramatize ideas to integrate them into mainstream, popular culture. The anthology show featured different characters and stories each week, with Young starring in about half of the 30-minute programs. The storylines conveyed strong moral and religious messages that reflected Young’s deep, Catholic faith.
Though groundbreaking in many ways, including its sympathetic treatment of contemporary women’s issues, The Loretta Young Show found itself out of step with the times as the 1950s morphed into the 1960s. The Television Academy nominated Young for acting awards in each of her program’s seasons, and she won three times: in 1955, 1957, and 1959. However, her show never reached the heights of popularly. Its highest ratings came in 1954-55 when it was rated #28 and 1957-58 when it reached #30. Citing viewer mail that complained about Young’s conservative point of view, Proctor and Gamble dropped its sponsorship after the 1959-60 season. The company complained that the show was too focused on a narrow, conservative Catholic audience. Young later claimed the rift came over political differences. The show returned in 1960-61 with new sponsor Listerine, lasting for one more season before being cancelled by NBC.
Second Wave Feminism Meets the Second Wave of TV Stars
By the 1960s, television had become adept at creating programs that responded to social trends. The 1950’s television families reinforced a traditional view of the American family as white, middle-class, and suburban with mom and dad occupying their defined gender roles of breadwinner and homemaker. Westerns, with storylines that celebrated American individualism and the establishment of order on the chaos of the frontier, dominated the ratings in the late 1950s. As Cold War tensions escalated, spy shows proliferated across the television landscape.
As the leading edge of Baby Boomer women entered college in the 1960s, new television programs tentatively reflected an evolving social climate for women. The new generation of television women in the 1960s included That Girl Marlo Thomas. Thomas—daughter of television super star Danny Thomas and goddaughter of the incomparable Loretta Young— had enjoyed success on the stage and in minor television roles. Network executives, at the urging of sponsor Clairol shampoo, were eager to find a starring vehicle for Thomas. Clairol identified up-and-comer Thomas as the ideal messenger to their target market of young women. Thomas rejected several concepts as too boring and conventional before developing her own.
Thomas had read and was strongly influenced by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. She suggested using Friedan’s book as the foundation of the new show’s plot. She proposed a show chronicling the adventures of a young actress, newly arrived in New York, who takes on a series of jobs while working towards her big break. Thomas’ character was feisty and independent, and her attitudes mirrored the beginnings of the women’s movement. That Girl debuted in 1966. After five seasons on the air, producers urged that Thomas’ character marry her long-time boyfriend. Thomas refused, pointing out that her character was single and that marrying her off would make it appear as if marriage had been her character’s goal all along. Never breaking the top 30 in ratings and having run its course, the show ended in 1971. Thomas was nominated four times for acting Emmys for That Girl. She won the Golden Globe in 1967.
Programming for women and programming by women
That Girl was a role model for programs for and about women that would come later in the 1970s and 1980s. As increasing numbers of women entered paid employment, television advertisers in the 1970s discovered the purchasing power of a desirable, new demographic. In response, A.C. Nielsen added the category of “working women” to its demographics in 1976. Advertisers that had previously aimed their marketing efforts to women around household cleaning products and convenience foods, demanded that the networks develop shows to reach this new category of consumers.
Producers responded with programs that mirrored the target audience and their perceived values. Shows featured younger, liberal, and more urban characters. Their experiences as working women were depicted as normal rather than exceptional. Eve Arden’s school teacher character in Our Miss Brooks spent the run of the 1950s show pursuing a husband so that she could quit her job. But Mary Richards in the The Mary Tyler Moore Show focused on her career rather than her love life in the 1970s. In general, women’s roles in the 1970s represented a broader range of the female experience with women appearing as police officers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, and more.
The entrance of a new group of women producers and television executives helped move the development of empowered women characters. Women had been excluded from behind-the-scenes positions as producers, directors, and writers throughout television’s early years. A decision by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the early 1970s to investigate network hiring policies for women shifted the legal landscape. Legal pressure as well as changing audience demographics, created opportunities for a generation of women who would go on to produce more women-centric shows depicting women in a wider variety of situations.
The advent of cable television and niche programing encouraged producers to slice audiences into ever smaller demographic segments. Today, programming segments are no longer confined to hours of the day but rather to entire channels that produce shows that mirror their target audience’s lives, experiences, and aspirations. Programs do not need mass audiences to survive; they need a minimum number of the right audiences. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s annual report on women in television, Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television, points out that though women are a desirable demographic, they remain underrepresented in the business. 79% of the shows they studied featured more male than female cast members. Women made up only 26% of creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and directors of photography. When women run the show, as a producer or creator, they cast more female characters and hire more women in production positions. But while today’s landscape is far from perfect, women’s presence both in front of and behind the camera is in striking contrast to television’s early days.
Want to learn more? Read “Women in Television: Promoting and Advocating for Change.”
Elizabeth L. Maurer
Director of Program
ABC News. “Chat Transcript: Loretta Young Biographer Joan Wester Anderson.” ABC News. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=124146.
Alley, Robert S., and Irby B. Brown. 2001. Women television producers: transformation of the male medium. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
“Research.” Center for the Study of Women in Television Film. Accessed September 20, 2016. http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/research/.
Fishman Orlins, Susan. “Before Lucy And Oprah, There Was Gertrude” Jewish Journal News. July 2, 2009. Accessed September 20, 2016. http://www.jewishjournal.com/film/article/before_lucy_and_oprahthere_was_gertrude_20090701/.
Gregory, Mollie. 2002. Women who run the show: how a brilliant and creative new generation of women stormed Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
“Nielsen Ratings.” Wikipedia. Accessed September 19, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nielsen_ratings.
Roman, James W. 2005. From daytime to primetime: the history of American television programs. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.
Smith, Glenn D. 2007. “Something on my own”: Gertrude Berg and American broadcasting, 1929-1956. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.
“History of the Television Academy.” Television Academy. Accessed September 21, 2016. http://www.emmys.com/academy/about/history.