A Two-Dimensional View of Fashion: History of Paper Dolls and Popular Culture

November 20th, 2016


While everybody wears clothing, not everyone wears fashion. In choosing to wear fashion—rather than just clothing—the wearer makes a statement about herself and her sense of identity. Individuals use fashion to place themselves in (or out) of groups, demonstrate their places in society, and communicate not only who they are but also who they aspire to be. But a collection of individuals makes up a society. While fashion choices are ultimately individual, fashion trends reflect society’s culture, norms, expectations, and values.

Paper dolls as artifacts illustrate the social expectations for women at particular moments in time. As products of both popular culture and mass marketing, paper dolls are intentionally designed to reflect that society’s idealized version of womanhood. The dolls’ little paper wardrobes communicate a wealth of information about the ideal woman of the past.


Pretty Paper Playthings

Paper dolls were popular playthings from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. Technological advances in the 19th century dropped the cost of printing and made reproducing pictures much easier, leading to an explosion of illustrated, paper ephemera including prints, books, magazines, and cards. The first American paper doll commercially produced as a children’s toy was Boston-based J. Belcher’s “The History and Adventures of Little Henry” in 1812. The dolls accompanied a children’s book and were designed to act out various scenes as the narratives unfolded. Paper dolls only grew in popularity over the century. Newspapers and magazines published paper dolls both as playthings and as vehicles to illustrate current fashions for girls and women.

Children learn through play, using toys to try out different roles. For little girls, the appeal of paper dolls lay in their extensive wardrobes and the many different scenarios a doll could play out. The dolls and their wardrobes depicted the ideal aspirational lifestyle for their time. Dolls of older teenagers or young adult women encouraged girls to project themselves into that next phase of life. As with most playthings, paper dolls encouraged girls in fantasy role play, but the roles were defined by the dolls’ clothing and accessories.

Paper dolls from different decades send a message about the role of women at the time and what society valued. Twentieth-century paper dolls’ wardrobes expanded the various potential roles for girls, from college student to movie star to World War II WAC. In this, they reflected an expanded horizon of women’s opportunities that aligned with what women were doing in real life.

Career-oriented dolls—unless that career was “movie star”—continued to be outnumbered by dolls depicting ladies of leisure. The doll below, published circa 1942, has a wide wardrobe wholly oriented towards leisure activities with outfits for day, evening, and recreation. She reflects the aspirational ideal of a 1940’s woman’s lifestyle, even if it was not most women’s lived reality.

This trend in paper doll wardrobes continued until the late 1970s, after the women’s rights movement, when sets began to mix professional options among the leisure clothes, mirroring women’s increased entry into professional employment. Lydia, published in 1977, owns career wear as well as play clothes.

Here Comes the Bride(s)

An enduring archetype was the bride paper doll. Publishers regularly released bridal party paper doll sets decade by decade, positioning marriage as an important adult milestone and a goal in and of itself. So important was the role of “bride” that some sets neglected to include grooms. Bridal paper doll outfits codified wedding pageantry, using fashion to engage girls in the fantasy while enabling them to playact the cultural role of “bride”. These two paper dolls sets, published 30 years apart in 1949 and 1978, show that the fashion elements of a dream wedding remained remarkably consistent over time.

The Rise and Fall of Paper Dolls

Advances in color lithography in the last quarter of the 19th century resulted in hundreds of sets of dolls with colorfully printed wardrobes. These sets remain popular today among collectors both for their beautiful designs and the nostalgia. Paper dolls declined in popularity in the 1960s and 70s, and some blame Mattel’s Barbie. With her fashionable wardrobe, Barbie fulfilled much of the same fantasy play role as paper dolls. Paper dolls’ heyday endured over one hundred years. Today, those dolls and their fashionable paper wardrobes, reflecting the attitudes and assumptions about women’s social roles, tell us a lot in the present about how the popular culture of fashion defined women.


Want to learn more about the history of fashion? Visit NWHM’s exhibit “Fashioning Yourself!


Elizabeth L. Maurer
Director of Program





Recommended Readings

  •  Johnson, Judy M. “The History of Paper Dolls.” The History of Paper Dolls. 2005. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://opdag.com/History.html.
  • Katharine, Katharine, ed. American Cornucopia : Treasures of the Winterthur Library. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Electronic. https://archive.org/stream/americancornucop00kath/americancornucop00kath_djvu.txt.
  • Nichols, Carol. Paper Dolls of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: Identification & Value Guide. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 2005.
  • Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. “From Little Fanny to Fluffy Ruffles: The Scrappy History of Paper Dolls.” Collectors Weekly. July 15, 2013. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/the-scrappy-history-of-paper-dolls/.
  • “Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.” Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library. 2009. Accessed November 16, 2016. http://www.winterthur.org/?p=738.
  • Young, Mary. A Collector’s Guide to Magazine Paper Dolls. Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1990.
  • Young, Mary. Tomart’s Price Guide to Saalfield and Merrill Paper Dolls. Dayton, OH: Tomart Publications, 2000.

Statement of the National Women’s History Museum on the Report by Congressional Commission on the Study of a Potential American Museum of Women’s History

November 16th, 2016

“We thank the Commission for recommending in their report to Congress a national women’s history museum in a prominent location on the National Mall. We greatly appreciate the Commission’s hard work and bi-partisan support. We are proud to have supported them financially and to have worked collaboratively with them over the past 18 months.

“The National Women’s History Museum believes America deserves a Museum that educates, inspires, empowers and shapes the future by integrating women’s distinctive contributions into our culture and history.  We support a strong public-private partnership that ensures the Museum takes its place among the other great museums in Washington, D.C.

“For more than 20 years, National Women’s History Museum has been dedicated to educating Americans about the diverse historic contributions of women and fought relentlessly to raise awareness about the critical need for a national women’s history museum in our nation’s capital.

“We worked closely with Congress to create legislation that would designate a site for a National Women’s History Museum, which ultimately led to the law that created the Commission. We thank all the cosponsors of that legislation, Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Susan Collins, and Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Marsha Blackburn.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the commissioners, Congress, our 55,000 charter members and all of our stakeholders to make the museum a reality as soon as possible.”

NWHM Board Member at UN Youth Assembly

October 17th, 2016

NWHM Board Member Cheri Kaufman gave a presentation at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Youth Assembly at the United Nations. You can read her remarks at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/you-want-a-better-world-go-create-it_us_57cef82ee4b0eb9a57b64234.

Snubbed Women in STEM

October 17th, 2016

In 1940, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu[1], educated in her native China and the United States, overcame both gender and racial barriers to receive her Ph.D. in physics. Shortly thereafter, Wu was invited to work on the Manhattan Project to conduct research on uranium enrichment and radiation detection. And if that was not enough, she later found experimental evidence against the long standing theory of conservation of parity. Her two male colleagues were awarded the Nobel Prize for research made possible by her discovery, but Wu was ignored. Why?


The Problem

Over the last century, great strides have been made in the United States to equalize the status of women and open the doors of opportunity that have been closed to them for most of history. Yet somehow these strides in STEM fields have fallen woefully short.[2] This is one of the great ironies of women’s history. In the past several years there has been a sense of urgency to get young women and girls interested in science early. But as recently as the mid-twentieth century, women in science were so ostracized that they were not recognized for groundbreaking, sometimes Nobel Prize-winning, work.


But Wait, there’s More!

Scientist Esther Lederberg, geneticist Nettie Stevens, and physicist Chien Shiung Wu

Wu’s story is just one of several that we have allowed to slip through the proverbial cracks. Dr. Esther Lederberg was a microbiologist credited with discovering the lambda bacteriophage—a virus that infects bacteria. With her husband, Joshua, she also developed a method to move bacterial colonies between petri dishes. Joshua Lederberg and his male colleagues received the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine in 1958. But like Wu, Esther was not recognized for her contributions.

Sometimes women’s scientific contributions are not as obviously overlooked. Dr. Nettie Stevens[3] (whose birthday was honored in a July 7th Google Doodle this year) was a geneticist during the turn of the twentieth century. She was among the first to argue that sex determination in certain organisms (including humans) is determined by chromosomes. This discovery was not widely accepted in the scientific community until other scientists published similar findings. Edmund Wilson came to similar conclusions in his own experiments, and prominent geneticist, Thomas Hunt Morgan, wrote a textbook confirming Stevens’ findings but did not credit her for the discovery.


That was Then, This is Now

While the numbers are improving, there are still considerable disparities along both gender and ethnic/socioeconomic lines.[4]Many experts argue that the key to inspiring the next generation of women to pursue STEM careers is to give them role models to whom they can look for inspiration.[5] Women like Wu, Lederberg, and Stevens are just the people for the job. But for women and girls to be inspired by their handling of adversity and achievements, their stories need to be told. One of the ways we can tell these stories is through a museum dedicated to women’s history. Not only would such an institution tell the untold stories of women in STEM, but of those in politics, the arts, sports, and social change, to name a few.


[1] https://www.nwhm.org/education-resources/biography/biographies/chien-shiung-wu/

[2] http://www.aauw.org/research/why-so-few/

[3] http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/nettie-stevens-a-discoverer-of-sex-chromosomes-6580266

[4] https://ngcproject.org/statistics

[5] http://www.scilogs.com/from_the_lab_bench/why-we-need-to-drop-everything-and-foster-female-role-models-in-stem/


Read how an early STEM education made a difference for three 21st century scientists. >>




Rising Stars Reflect on STEM Education

October 17th, 2016

By Catherine C. Veal

In my 34 years working to develop diverse talent in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, many have addressed why STEM education is important, especially for girls. A good “one stop shop” is the Women in STEM resource library of The Office of Science and Technology Policy, Executive Office of the President, https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ostp/women.

AAUW, a member of the Museum’s National Coalition, supports girls STEM education as displayed in this graphic

To build on this, meet three collegiate undergraduates who are rising STEM stars – confident, fearless young women already excelling in fields still largely dominated by men. Their contributions and achievements illustrate what is possible when girls can access high quality STEM education.

Kendell Byrd studies computer science and economics at Swarthmore College, has interned as a software engineer at Jawbone, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Facebook HQ, and was profiled by Women of Silicon Valley.

Drake University neuroscience major Sarah Martin, first runner-up in the Eduzine Global ACE Young Achiever 2016 competition, conducts scientific research in ALS and is building an assistive device that allows people living with the disease to shower more safely.

Yale University computer science major Summer Wu develops apps and wins hackathons, this year the Capital One Summit for Software Engineers Hackathon for her Android app Splitter which uses optical character recognition to parse receipts and split the bill for groups.

The trio reflects on high quality STEM education, what is key for girls, and why it matters.

Wu stresses the importance of well educated, well trained, passionate teachers, up to date facilities and equipment, and opportunities beyond the classroom including learning in real-world settings. The latter is key, Byrd says. In high school, she relished “Inquiry Days,” one day a week where instead of regular classes, students conducted research in university laboratories, interned for a start-up, or designed their own projects.

Martin says exposing students to high quality learning experiences may instill a passion that leads to STEM career choices. For girls who already like STEM, this helps them believe they can succeed in these careers, key to reducing gender gaps.

girlswhocode_stemparticipationGirls in particular need encouragement at an early age, Wu says, given that subsequent environments are “less than conducive” to helping them achieve their full potential in STEM. She points to a summer program at Northwestern University when she was in middle school. In the mornings, students did labs to introduce new subjects; in the afternoons, they discussed key takeaways and learned new material. “Every day, I felt like my understanding of how the world worked increased tenfold, and I credit that experience for making chemistry my favorite subject when I got to high school years later,” she said.

Empowering young girls with differentiated experiences also opens doors. In the 4th grade, Martin’s teacher let her teach science class sometimes because she was so advanced. “I made my lesson plans and even assigned and graded homework. It helped me become passionate about science at a young age.”

For girls who do not like STEM or who prefer the arts and humanities, Byrd points to how STEM intersects with other areas. With a strong background in STEM, “these girls will be even more well-rounded, open minded, and stronger in their arts and humanities careers.” Martin concurs, noting “interdisciplinary integration” is needed in all kinds of situations and careers. Wu concludes: “STEM teaches students a systematic, logical way of thinking that is beneficial for all of our future leaders, no matter what field they choose to specialize in.”


Author’s Note: These women are alumni of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, IL, a public residential institution that enrolls students in grades 10-12 who are talented and interested in STEM. To learn more, visit www.imsa.edu.


Author Bio

Catherine C. Veal is a founding administrator of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy where she worked from 1986 to 2015 in various leadership roles.
These young scientists are building on an important history of early pioneers who were not always recognized for their contributions. Read about them here. >>





Women of Civil War Alexandria Walking Tour

October 1st, 2016

Oct 15th and Nov 13th at 11am

Learn more about women’s roles during the Civil War in Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria was in a unique position during the Civil War. It was a city with Southern sympathies continuously occupied by the Union Army and virtually operating as a Northern supply depot due to its proximity to Washington, DC and its transportation infrastructure. The women who remained in Alexandria and those who came during occupation experienced the War not as a battle but a day-to-day way of life. This tour will explore the stories of a diverse group of women and their experiences living in Civil War Alexandria. To buy tickets please visit: http://www.nwhm.org/get-involved/events/walking-tours.

Women Making History Los Angeles Event Draws Support for Building a National Women’s History Museum on the National Mall

September 28th, 2016

Alexandria, Va.–The National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) hosted its 5th Annual Women Making History Event in Los Angeles on Saturday, September 17. The event commemorated the achievements of women, while generating awareness of the importance of preserving women’s history and building a national women’s history museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

This year’s event raised the most money to date—nearly half of which was raised in the room during the event, improving on past totals by more than 50 percent. “This year’s event was not only the best in its history,” said NWHM Board Chair Susan Whiting, “but it also helped us move closer to raising the money needed to build a national women’s history museum on the National Mall in our nation’s capital.”

The event honored a diverse group of accomplished women representing the many facets of the entertainment, lifestyle and beauty industries. Honorees included:

  • Oscar-Nominated Actress, Project Sunshine Ambassador and star of “Scream Queens” Abigail Breslin;
  • Entrepreneur Toni Ko, Founder and CEO of PERVERSE sunglasses, and Founder of NYX Cosmetics;
  • Emmy-Nominated Actress Tracee Ellis Ross; and,
  • Fashion Designer and Entrepreneur Rachel Zoe.

Honorees gave inspiring speeches about the importance of a national women’s history museum. Toni Ko, who generously donated $100,000 to NWHM, pointed out how there is a museum for everything including “mustard, toilet seats, potatoes and bananas.” Yet there is no national museum dedicated to incorporating women’s stories into our nation’s history.

Tracee Ellis Ross responded, “Bananas? It’s bananas there’s no women’s museum, please!”

Abigail Breslin noted, “Together we can bring about meaningful and consistent advances for all women regardless of their circumstances. I am proud to be a sister in this mission and convinced when we are united as sisters, we not only elevate women, we elevate humanity.”

Rachel Zoe remarked that it was important for both men and women to advocate for the museum. “The most important thing that we can do as women is teach our children, if they’re boys, how to respect women and each other. As for the girls, teach them how to be fearless and tell them that they can do anything they want to do.”

The event was made possible by presenting sponsors Glamour and Lifeway Foods (Nasdaq: LWAY).

“Supporting the women’s history museum isn’t just a box we check off for corporate social responsibility,” said NWHM Board Member and Lifeway Foods CEO Julie Smolyansky, “it’s in our very DNA.”  Smolyansky’s mother co-founded Lifeway Foods with her father, and Julie became the youngest female CEO of a publicly held firm when she took over Lifeway Foods at age 27.  “My mother’s story is largely unknown, as is the story of so many women,” said Smolyansky.  “These stories are missing from business magazines, board rooms, from history books, from news stories, from parliamentary halls and from museums.”

Through their philanthropic and professional endeavors, each of the women honored are outstanding examples of women’s accomplishments.

“We are so proud these remarkable women joined us for our event,” said NWHM President and CEO Joan Wages. “While we still have work to do, money to raise and a Museum to build, we are closer than ever to seeing the Museum become a reality, and we cannot say enough how important their support is.”

# # #



About the National Women’s History Museum

Founded in 1996, the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM, Inc.) is a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the general public about the diverse historic contributions of women and raising awareness about the critical need for a national women’s history museum in our nation’s capital. Currently located online at www.nwhm.org, the Museum’s goal is to build a world-class, permanent museum on or near the National Mall that will herald and display the collective history of American women. A Congressional Commission has been established that is charged with producing a feasible plan, which would include the governance, fundraising, location and organizational structure of the museum. For additional information visit NWHM.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.



About Glamour 

Glamour is one of the biggest women’s media brands in its competitive set, reaching an all-time high of one out of eight American women, with 10 million print readers and 10 million unique users online. Glamour has received a record number of National Magazine Awards, including Magazine of the Year, honoring print and digital excellence, and General Excellence for its category. Its content is available in an iPad edition, apps, podcasts, and books—including two New York Times best sellers. Glamour’s video channel boasts 49 video series and has received substantial critical accolades, including a 2014 National Magazine Award for Video and a 2015 Emmy. With a robust social strategy across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Tumblr, Glamour’s total social media footprint is at a record high of 95 million touchpoints. For more information, visit Glamour.com.

About Lifeway Foods

Lifeway Foods, Inc. (LWAY), recently named one of Forbes’ Best Small Companies, is America’s leading supplier of the probiotic fermented beverage known as kefir. In addition to its line of drinkable kefir, the company also produces frozen kefir, specialty cheeses and a ProBugs line for kids. Lifeway’s tart and tangy cultured dairy products are now sold across the United States, Canada, Latin America and the United Kingdom. Learn how Lifeway is good for more than just you at Lifewaykefir.com.


The Puppeteers

September 26th, 2016


Tuning in to Women on Television

September 21st, 2016


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


Recommended Readings


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.




Women in Television: Promoting and Advocating for Change

September 20th, 2016


“It defies culture in so many ways. It affects the way we see ourselves and the way we are seen by others. It gets into the DNA of how we treat each other, the policies we make, what we’re able to say and do to each other. For there only to be one dominant voice determining what’s said and saying it is something that all like-minded people who believe in the dignity of everyone should be concerned about.” – Ava DuVernay

By Melissa Hougton



Ida Lupino, famous mid-20th century film actress, who was also a trailblazing director and producer.

The narrative of women working behind the camera in television is one that begins with pioneering women directors like Joan Darling (the first female director nominated for an Emmy Award), Joan Tewkesbury, Lesli Linka Glatter, Randa Haines, Martha Cooley, Elaine May, and Ida Lupino. It continues with powerhouses Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Mindy Kaling, Elizabeth Meriwether, Courtney Kemp Agboh, Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, Tina Fey, Jenji Kohan, and Julie Plec.

Historically, women have been underrepresented behind the camera, and often left out of television roles that are complex and powerful. The 2016 Boxed In study from the San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reports that these trends continue today: 9 percent of male characters were portrayed as leaders, compared to only 5 percent of female characters. Ninety-one percent of shows across screen-based platforms employed no women directors, 76 percent had no women creators, and 71 percent no female writers (Lauzen; Boxed In).

Changing the Ecosystem

It is possible to change these dismal statistics. As more women fill above-the-line roles in television, they can employ other women and write more diverse and relatable roles for women. Director/screenwriter Ava DuVernay recently hired only women as directors for OWN’s new TV series, QUEEN SUGAR. These directors, So Yong Kim, Neema Barnette (the first black woman to direct an episode of sitcom television), Kat Candler, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Victoria Mahoney, and Tanya Hamilton have all booked other gigs because of this opportunity. ([1])

Geena Davis, who was the first woman to depict the U.S. President on TV and founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, reasons that the answer to shaking up the gender divide in film and in television roles is to simply write more women into scripts, as lead and minor characters (Davis; Make Hollywood Less Sexist). This idea is being explored more explicitly by actress Rose McGowan, whose production company, Damage Inc., is partnering with Series Fest to help sponsor emerging female writers who are writing episodic content about, for, and featuring women. “Society is in dire need of voices that are not from within the Hollywood ecosystem” (Sandberg; Rose McGowan and Series Fest).

Equal Pay


(From left, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Lynne Littman, Vicki Hochberg, and Susan Nimoy at the 35th anniversary of the Women’s Steering Committee, held at the Director’s Guild of America. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lynne Littman)

Along with representation disparities, women suffer from pay disparity. In 1979, a group of crusaders known as “The Original Six” called Hollywood studio’s to task when they formed the Women’s Steering Committee at the Directors Guild of America.

The original committee founders, Susan Bay Nimoy, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro, Victoria Hochberg, and Lynne Littman,  started their activism when only 0.5 percent of all films and TV shows were directed by women. Their research led to a gender discrimination suit against Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures in 1983 that was dismissed on a technicality in 1985. That dismissal continues to have economic ramifications for women. The Directors Guild rewards “points” to directors who work on films; this determines the amount of their pensions and health benefits upon retirement. If you don’t have an equal opportunity to work, you don’t have an equal opportunity for a well-pensioned retirement (Syme, The Original Six).

Gillian Anderson was shocked to realize that pay disparity was still an issue when she revealed in The Hollywood Reporter recently that she was offered half of her co-star’s pay to reprise her role as “Scully” on the X-FILES revival. While Anderson eventually received equal pay for the series, she has become more of an activist for equal compensation (Rich; Gillan Anderson Fought Inequality).

What About the News?

Non-fiction media doesn’t have a better record when it comes to equal opportunity. The Women’s Media Center reported in 2014 that 63 percent of men receive byline credits, and while some broadcast television outlets have women as primary anchors, the news is still reported by men 60 percent of the time. One should wonder if this influences the news we receive.

With the explosion of on-screen content and new distributors such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, there should be more opportunities for women working in television, and for audiences clamoring to see more inclusiveness in media.

What’s Next?

Currently, women have renewed their protest for equal opportunities on both sides of the camera, but it may be up to audiences and consumers to vote with their eyes and pocketbooks and support the programs and depictions that represent their experiences.

Why should we be content when the stories of half the population are disregarded or told by people with little actual experience of those stories?

Want to learn more? Read “Tuning in to Women on Television.”


Melissa Hougton is executive director of Women in Film and Video DC office. Special thanks to Gabrielle Mitchell (George Mason University) and Read Masino (Georgetown University) for their research for this article.



Gertz, Matt. Stagnant American Newsroom Diversity In Charts. N.p., 2013. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. < A census done by ASNE reveals that women in newsrooms have never exceeded 38% (Stagnant American Newsrooms).>.

Davis, Geena. Geena Davis Two Easy Steps to Make Hollywood Less Sexist. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/geena-davis-two-easy-steps-664573>.

Desta, Yohana. Ava DuVernay and Queen Sugar Look Like the Future of Television. Vanity Fair, n.d. Web. 13 Sept. 2016. <http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/09/ava-duvernay-queen-sugar-interview>.

Lauzen, Martha M. Boxed In 2015-16: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Sept. 2016. <http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2015-16-Boxed-In-Report.pdf>.

Rich, Katey. How Gillian Anderson Fought Inequality on The X-Files Twice, and Won. Vanity Fair, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/01/gillian-anderson-x-files-equal-pay>.

Sandberg, Elise. Rose McGowan and SeriesFest Partner on Women’s Script Competition. The Hollywood Reporter, n.d. Web. 2016. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/rose-mcgowan-seriesfest-partner-womens-915514>.

Syme, Rachel. The Original Six: The Story of Hollywood’s Forgotten Feminist Crusaders. Pacific Standard, 2016. Web. Sept. 2016.<https://psmag.com/the-original-six-the-story-of-hollywood-s-forgotten-feminist-crusaders-54002cf57d0e#.vo2j2s4gt>.


[1] See IMDB for more information about the directors of Queen Sugar – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4419214/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast