Women writers forged many key genres of primetime postwar television, but their collective efforts have been largely ignored in histories of television’s first Golden Age.
In the 2020 film, Sylvie’s Love, Sylvie is young, Black and living in 1960s Harlem. She works in her father’s record shop but dreams of a career in television, transfixed by the chocolate assembly line scene from I Love Lucy. This slapstick sequence presents the figure of the working woman as impossible, even unsustainable. But a quiet, domestic life is not in the cards for Sylvie—nor did Lucille Ball or Lucy’s female staff writer, Madelyn Pugh, choose it for themselves.
While doing research for my book, Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, forthcoming 2022), I discovered scores of such women writing for television in the 1950s, some wielding great industry power and circulating as public personalities to boot. These women were not exceptions to the masculine rule but comprised an essential, if outnumbered, creative contingent of early television.
In no moment of television history was women writers’ participation more central—and more subsequently overlooked—than in the medium’s beginnings. But even though women writers forged many key genres of primetime postwar television, including the situation comedy, the comedy-variety program, and the anthology drama, their collective efforts have been largely ignored in histories of television’s first Golden Age.
Navigating the Boys’ Club of 1950s TV
Networks and sponsors often hired woman writers to speak directly to female viewer-consumers. Most shows were sponsored by single companies shilling household products, like Carnation condensed milk or Alcoa aluminum foil, so women writers were overwhelmingly white, middle-class, college-educated proxies for the housewives at home. Lois Balk and Carol Honig were two such Barnard graduates on the writing staff of The Steve Allen Show. According to one reporter profiling the pair, “It [was] cheaper to hire them permanently—or until they get married, at any rate.”
Many women had to navigate these thorny postwar gender tropes to solidify their place in the field. Your Show of Shows’ Lucille Kallen served as the writers’ room’s typist and scribe, leveraging a stereotypically feminine role into one of creative authority; Caesar’s Hour’s Selma Diamond exaggerated her role as the resident tomboy-spinster, a schtick she parlayed into a solo comedy career. (Diamond was also the primary inspiration for the character of Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show.) Still others, including Marian Cockrell (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and Helen Levitt (Lassie), teamed up with their husbands as collaborators.
Those women who wanted to run the show themselves, however, faced a different set of challenges.
Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.
“Only a Mother Could”: Television Writing as Women’s Work
Both Gertrude Berg of The Goldbergs and Peg Lynch of Ethel and Albert began in radio but found success translating their homey serials to the small screen. Berg and Lynch not only wrote the entire runs of their respective shows but starred in them as well. Their approachable, unglamorous performances as Molly Goldberg and Ethel Arbuckle rendered Berg and Lynch’s real-life ambitions less threatening to viewers at home.
Berg and Lynch’s names graced the broadcast credit crawls, their personal lives and creative processes detailed in outlets including Variety, The Saturday Evening Post and TV Guide. For the woman who wrote for postwar television, the personal was not yet political, but it certainly was professional. As Berg said in a 1940 radio interview: “A woman’s career doesn’t necessarily have to cause her to neglect her other responsibilities…. I really believe that being a wife and mother made it possible for me to write in a manner which only a mother could.”
What might these women’s devoted fan bases have made of Berg’s statement taken alongside the misadventures of Molly, a meddler who choreographs her family’s movements like an accomplished television writer-producer? And what did viewers think of the episode in which Ethel supports her husband’s short-lived dreams of becoming a novelist, knowing that the woman playing her was the writer herself?
Lynch and Berg, through their fictional and public lives, equated running the home with running the show. In this way, they anticipated the figure of the television showrunner, while affording respect to the emotional labor and creative ingenuity demanded of the hard-working American homemaker.
Losing—and Finding—Television’s Hidden Meanings
So, if people knew about women television writers then, why do so few know about them now? This is, in part, a problem of access and archives. Much of early television was broadcast live, and the few kinescope recordings that remain are fragile and grainy.
Plus, the network paper trail is incomplete and ill-equipped to showcase the contributions of women writers. If a woman wrote under an assumed or gender-neutral name, or if she changed her name after marriage, she could fall through the historical cracks. (The latter, it must be said, is not exclusively a television problem.)
But postwar women writers’ erasure is also a matter of cultural amnesia. Stephanie Coontz explains how “the actual complexity of our history… gets buried under the weight of the ideal image.” The ideal of postwar femininity has long been a white-washed vision of suburban bliss. Some recall this imagined past with nostalgia for a so-called “simpler time,” while others see it as a distasteful, even traumatic, exhibit of sexism past. Either way, it being an ideal, it is also a fiction.
In reality, as authored by the savvy public-facing women writers, 1950s television slyly lay the groundwork for second-wave feminism. After all, the happy housewife archetype of Donna Stone was in part the conception of The Donna Reed Show’s female staff writers, including the blacklisted Levitt and Cagney and Lacey creator Barbara Avedon. Avedon even wrote an episode in which Donna considers a career in writing—imagine that.
A comprehensive look at these women writers, then, transforms how we watch these classics now. I Love Lucy’s assembly line sequence is transformed from the mockery of working women to something more empowering: a testament to the versatility of women like Madelyn Pugh and Sylvie Parker, women television professionals who persevered in the face of an ever-changing industry machinery.
You may also like:
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.