Book Reviews

TV's Founding Mothers

The women who turned the small screen into a cultural phenomenon

By Jayne Ross | April 5, 2021
Pianist, singer, and actress Hazel Scott, who briefly hosted her own TV variety show. (Everett Collection)
Pianist, singer, and actress Hazel Scott, who briefly hosted her own TV variety show. (Everett Collection)

When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong; Harper Collins, 352 pp., $27.99

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s new book, When Women Invented Television, narrows its seemingly insurmountable subject to four players who made indelible, early marks on the industry: Gertrude Berg, who for 17 years played Jewish sitcom matriarch Molly Goldberg; Hazel Scott, piano prodigy and the first Black woman to host a prime-time television show; Irna Phillips, who almost singlehandedly created the soap opera; and Betty White, who, years before becoming known as a master of sarcasm, climbed the ranks of daytime TV with what some called a “sickly sweet” stage persona. Armstrong, an entertainment journalist and historian of pop culture, follows the highlights of the women’s lives and careers only from 1948 to 1955, when, she argues, the conservative groundswell set in motion by McCarthyism rose to a flood, wiping most of these women’s early contributions from the cultural lexicon.

For me, perhaps the book’s biggest revelation was that in television’s earliest days—20-some years before the airing of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and other groundbreaking sitcoms—the industry was arguably even more progressive than it is now. That progressivism was thanks, in large part, to the medium’s fledgling status—few households owned TV sets in 1948, and new shows were experimental by default.

That year, Berg and Phillips jumped at the chance to transition their wildly popular radio shows (The Goldbergs for Berg, The Guiding Light for Phillips) to the screen. White’s move to Hollywood was more impromptu—her “always say yes” attitude led to a televised screen test, one of the first anywhere, just after high school graduation. It kickstarted a lifelong love affair with the camera. And Scott’s logic-defying talent (her signature trick was to play two pianos at once) helped small television network DuMont, looking to compete with powerhouses like NBC and CBS,  boost its own appeal while capitalizing on Black households’ rising buying power—even if her variety show, The Hazel Scott Show, ran only from July to September 1950.

On The Goldbergs, Berg threaded the needle between humorous caricature and positive representation. The show managed to capture the hearts of Jewish and non-Jewish viewers alike without overtly advocating for inter-religious harmony. The Guiding Light made Phillips the indisputable queen of a genre that, despite critical disdain, resonated with a huge and passionately loyal audience. White’s charm and can-do spirit propelled her to hosting her own daytime talk show and later starring in her own sitcom, Life with Elizabeth. The Hazel Scott Show was widely praised, and as Scott’s star rose across the racial divide, so too did her frequent, vocal support of other Black entertainers.

But these successes came at a cost. Long nights and familial stresses led to illness or nervous breakdown, and Armstrong deftly weaves the Red Scare throughout the book, describing the heavy toll it took on her subjects’ lives. Berg and Scott appear to have been affected most painfully by the anti-Communist panic, which forced a devastating shakeup of The Goldbergs’s cast and dealt a fatal blow to Scott’s show when her name appeared on a celebrity blacklist. White and Phillips were not so overtly targeted by McCarthy and his cronies, but the subsequent wave of white-male-led conservatism affected them, too: Phillips reckoned with executives who didn’t believe in her vision even after years of success, and White wondered if she would ever find work in Hollywood again after Life in Elizabeth ended in 1955 (a seemingly unthinkable fear for the woman who would one day be called the “First Lady of Television”). Many of the recordings of their shows were lost, and along came the shows of the ’50s and ’60s that we tend to think of as the real TV classics—idealized, patriarchal versions of family life like Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

Armstrong, the author of six other books on pop culture, also adeptly, if not explicitly, acknowledges each woman’s own complicated version of feminism. While White openly admitted that she loved her career so much that she could not imagine balancing it with a marriage, and Scott frequently and brazenly stood up to racist policies and powerful men like Columbia Pictures cofounder Harry Cohn, Berg and Phillips held more traditional attitudes. Phillips especially longed for a husband throughout her life, so much so that she eventually came to regret adopting her two children, concluding that she “couldn’t begin to make up in any way for the absence of a father.” This internal battle was one of many that led her to create her seemingly frivolous, absurd soap opera plots, which, through Armstrong’s careful lens, are granted the respect they so infrequently received from the men who ultimately controlled their futures.

Some readers might fault Armstrong for naming just four women as the inventors of television, and condensing their stories into a few years and a few hundred pages inevitably means leaving a lot out. Still, Armstrong’s case for why these four belong in her book is strong, as are the parallels she finds in their lives. Stronger still is her argument that television does more than entertain; it provides real emotional substance and transcends cultural fault lines. Her prose is intelligent, lively, and itself wonderfully entertaining—especially the tidbits scattered throughout, like Berg’s not-so-subtle Sanka coffee promotions in Goldbergs scripts (an early attempt at in-show product placement), or White’s habit of wearing days-of-the-week panties, provided by her mother, while hosting Hollywood on Television.

Armstrong succeeds in her primary aim: to “reclaim television history for the women who made it.” Her book also invites reflection on the countless other men and women who have contributed to the medium over the decades, many of whom owe no small debt to Berg, Phillips, Scott, and White. Without Berg, Armstrong points out, there might have been no explicitly Jewish-led shows like Rhoda, Seinfeld, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Without Phillips, not only no traditional soap operas, but no Shonda Rhimes churning out massively popular modern melodramas like Grey’s Anatomy and How to Get Away with Murder. Without Scott, no prime-time variety show hosted by her friend Nat King Cole (who conveniently seemed to forget that Scott paved the way for him), no multifaceted Black female characters like Clair Huxtable or Aunt Viv. And without White, no Ellen, no The View, or even, arguably, no I Love Lucy.

With Armstrong, each of these women gets her due—and not a moment too soon.

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