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When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today

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The New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia tells the little-known story of four trailblazing women in the early days of television who laid the foundation of the industry we know today. It was the Golden Age of Radio and powerful men were making millions in advertising dollars reaching thousands of listeners every day. When television arrived, few radio moguls were The New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia tells the little-known story of four trailblazing women in the early days of television who laid the foundation of the industry we know today. It was the Golden Age of Radio and powerful men were making millions in advertising dollars reaching thousands of listeners every day. When television arrived, few radio moguls were interested in the upstart industry and its tiny production budgets, and expensive television sets were out of reach for most families. But four women—each an independent visionary— saw an opportunity and carved their own paths, and in so doing invented the way we watch tv today. Irna Phillips turned real-life tragedy into daytime serials featuring female dominated casts. Gertrude Berg turned her radio show into a Jewish family comedy that spawned a play, a musical, an advice column, a line of house dresses, and other products. Hazel Scott, already a renowned musician, was the first African American to host a national evening variety program. Betty White became a daytime talk show fan favorite and one of the first women to produce, write, and star in her own show. Together, their stories chronicle a forgotten chapter in the history of television and popular culture. But as the medium became more popular—and lucrative—in the wake of World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee arose to threaten entertainers, blacklisting many as communist sympathizers. As politics, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and money collided, the women who invented television found themselves fighting from the margins, as men took control. But these women were true survivors who never gave up—and thus their legacies remain with us in our television-dominated era. It's time we reclaimed their forgotten histories and the work they did to pioneer the medium that now rules our lives. This amazing and heartbreaking history, illustrated with photos, tells it all for the first time. 


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The New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia tells the little-known story of four trailblazing women in the early days of television who laid the foundation of the industry we know today. It was the Golden Age of Radio and powerful men were making millions in advertising dollars reaching thousands of listeners every day. When television arrived, few radio moguls were The New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia tells the little-known story of four trailblazing women in the early days of television who laid the foundation of the industry we know today. It was the Golden Age of Radio and powerful men were making millions in advertising dollars reaching thousands of listeners every day. When television arrived, few radio moguls were interested in the upstart industry and its tiny production budgets, and expensive television sets were out of reach for most families. But four women—each an independent visionary— saw an opportunity and carved their own paths, and in so doing invented the way we watch tv today. Irna Phillips turned real-life tragedy into daytime serials featuring female dominated casts. Gertrude Berg turned her radio show into a Jewish family comedy that spawned a play, a musical, an advice column, a line of house dresses, and other products. Hazel Scott, already a renowned musician, was the first African American to host a national evening variety program. Betty White became a daytime talk show fan favorite and one of the first women to produce, write, and star in her own show. Together, their stories chronicle a forgotten chapter in the history of television and popular culture. But as the medium became more popular—and lucrative—in the wake of World War II, the House Un-American Activities Committee arose to threaten entertainers, blacklisting many as communist sympathizers. As politics, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and money collided, the women who invented television found themselves fighting from the margins, as men took control. But these women were true survivors who never gave up—and thus their legacies remain with us in our television-dominated era. It's time we reclaimed their forgotten histories and the work they did to pioneer the medium that now rules our lives. This amazing and heartbreaking history, illustrated with photos, tells it all for the first time. 

30 review for When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today

  1. 5 out of 5

    Morgan

    Of the four women on the cover of this book the only one familiar to me is Betty White. The book was a huge revelation. I didn’t know there was so much I didn’t know. Here are a few: I’ve been watching soap operas since the 1960’s and still watch one today and live in fear of it going off the air. I suppose because I never looked it up I didn’t know soap operas were envisioned and created by a woman – Irna Phillips. I didn’t know that a Black performer had her own show on TV in 1950 – Hazel Scott. I Of the four women on the cover of this book the only one familiar to me is Betty White. The book was a huge revelation. I didn’t know there was so much I didn’t know. Here are a few: I’ve been watching soap operas since the 1960’s and still watch one today and live in fear of it going off the air. I suppose because I never looked it up I didn’t know soap operas were envisioned and created by a woman – Irna Phillips. I didn’t know that a Black performer had her own show on TV in 1950 – Hazel Scott. I had never heard of the DuMont Television Network. I knew about the ‘Hollywood 10”, but I didn’t know that there was another blacklist "Red Channels" “Men have dominated TV in every decade after these women ruled the airwaves. But they have done so in formats invented and perfected by women.” (Pg.274) This book is a lesson in TV history and how women shaped much of what we watch even today. It’s informative as well as entertaining. Thanks to the author for preserving this essential history.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Niamh

    What an excellent book about television and the women who, ultimately, pioneered its evolution as the prominent little box in the corner. So much of television and film studies is dominated by men, because the contributions of women - as Armstrong points out - are often poorly recorded and archived, as was the case for Hazel Scott, one of the first African-Americans to host her own show. While some, Lucille Ball (not explored in this book), have been well preserved, Armstrong picks out true pion What an excellent book about television and the women who, ultimately, pioneered its evolution as the prominent little box in the corner. So much of television and film studies is dominated by men, because the contributions of women - as Armstrong points out - are often poorly recorded and archived, as was the case for Hazel Scott, one of the first African-Americans to host her own show. While some, Lucille Ball (not explored in this book), have been well preserved, Armstrong picks out true pioneers whose contributions to television have been consistently ignored or undermined. If you're the least bit interested in women in media or in TV - this is a great read filled with fascinating stories of Hazel Scott, Betty White, Irna Phillips and Gertrude Berg - four women who invented television.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

    Such an interesting book about early television. The author cleverly focuses on a few women and their impact on television. Armstrong has also woven in the background of the tumultuous post WWII years and the HUAC hearings. I was totally fascinated by this book and I admire the authors discipline in limiting the focus to four women. Those are Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips, Gertrude Berg and Betty White. She has thrown in a bit about Lucille Ball. The anecdotal reportage is delightful. I remember Ge Such an interesting book about early television. The author cleverly focuses on a few women and their impact on television. Armstrong has also woven in the background of the tumultuous post WWII years and the HUAC hearings. I was totally fascinated by this book and I admire the authors discipline in limiting the focus to four women. Those are Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips, Gertrude Berg and Betty White. She has thrown in a bit about Lucille Ball. The anecdotal reportage is delightful. I remember Gertrude Berg from my own childhood and certainly Betty White is still a national treasure. This is a historians’ dream, reading so much about the social and media history within a delightful framework. The author has done a remarkable job and I highly recommend this to college classes interested in media history and women’s studies. Bravo! A fine piece of scholarship wrapped in an easily read non-fiction book. .

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Galloway

    Even though I'm not much of a tv watcher, I found this completely fascinating. I had no idea that television started out with such an opportunity to be more diverse and equal (though the women in this story all had to fight for their places) before all that was quashed. These are women to be admired and remembered. I listened to this one as an audiobook and found the narrator to be fantastic. Even though I'm not much of a tv watcher, I found this completely fascinating. I had no idea that television started out with such an opportunity to be more diverse and equal (though the women in this story all had to fight for their places) before all that was quashed. These are women to be admired and remembered. I listened to this one as an audiobook and found the narrator to be fantastic.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Annette

    Interesting account of four women who pioneered early television. Two are mostly forgotten, one defined daytime tv, and one still shows up on the airwaves. Gertrude Berg brought her sitcom from radio to television before Lucy. She had the first sitcom, the first ethnic character (Jewish household) and the first to film before a live audience. Hazel Scott was the first Black person to have a television show, the first Black female on tv, and is now largely forgotten. Daytime television was shaped Interesting account of four women who pioneered early television. Two are mostly forgotten, one defined daytime tv, and one still shows up on the airwaves. Gertrude Berg brought her sitcom from radio to television before Lucy. She had the first sitcom, the first ethnic character (Jewish household) and the first to film before a live audience. Hazel Scott was the first Black person to have a television show, the first Black female on tv, and is now largely forgotten. Daytime television was shaped by two powerhouses- Irna Phillips and Betty White. Phillips is the mother of ALL soaps. She brought Guiding Light to tv from radio and she mentored both Agnes Nixon and Bill Bell (who both went on to create their own soaps with input from Phillips.) She wrote for most, and convinced the network that soaps needed 30 minutes to tell their stories. Betty White is a cultural icon for so many reasons, but her biggest contribution is her start on television hosting morning shows, afternoon shows and evening sketch comedy. She starred in an early sitcom, got offered a job on the Today Show and her longevity, work ethic and feminism are legendary. Nice to see the women of early television getting their due.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rae Gray

    I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. (Thank you, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong!) Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott, and Betty White: Four women who are responsible for TV as we know it, yet I'm familiar with only one-- the amazing Betty White. Still, she did so much more than I ever realized. This book is a fascinating read, detailing what these women accomplished and how their impact is still felt in the 21st Century. The sitcom, the soap opera, evening variety progr I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. (Thank you, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong!) Gertrude Berg, Irna Phillips, Hazel Scott, and Betty White: Four women who are responsible for TV as we know it, yet I'm familiar with only one-- the amazing Betty White. Still, she did so much more than I ever realized. This book is a fascinating read, detailing what these women accomplished and how their impact is still felt in the 21st Century. The sitcom, the soap opera, evening variety programs, and daytime talk shows owe their existence to these four incredible women. The fact that sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and politics tried to erase their legacies is both sad and infuriating. Hopefully, this book will help correct this insult. I very much enjoyed "When Women Invented Television," and would recommend it to anyone interested in "the dawn of television." I look forward to checking out Ms. Armstrong's other works.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sabrina

    Interesting listen. I feel like had I'd know the other three main females I would have enjoyed the book more. But it was still worth the read to learn about the early days of television and the women who had a hand in shaping it. Interesting listen. I feel like had I'd know the other three main females I would have enjoyed the book more. But it was still worth the read to learn about the early days of television and the women who had a hand in shaping it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    3.5 stars. I think the title is somewhat misleading. Armstrong focuses on four women who were pioneers in the early days of television, but I wouldn't say they were solely responsible for its development. Nevertheless, she makes a strong case that individually each of them were early successes in the era when many men hadn't yet made the jump from radio to television. Some of the profiles are more developed than others; I'm not convinced that Hazel Scott's contribution was on the same level as B 3.5 stars. I think the title is somewhat misleading. Armstrong focuses on four women who were pioneers in the early days of television, but I wouldn't say they were solely responsible for its development. Nevertheless, she makes a strong case that individually each of them were early successes in the era when many men hadn't yet made the jump from radio to television. Some of the profiles are more developed than others; I'm not convinced that Hazel Scott's contribution was on the same level as Betty White's or Gertrude Berg's, but her inclusion highlights the added level of discrimination she faced as a Black woman. Armstrong does make a strong case that today's situation comedies, variety shows, soap operas, and talk shows owe a big debt to these women, and the fact that their accomplishments happened despite anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, and the growing tide of conservatism and anti-Communist fervor is even more impressive. The tragic impact of the House Unamerican Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy was especially poignant, as Armstrong portrays Berg's increasingly futile attempts to stave off efforts by the networks and advertisers to fire the blacklisted actor who played her husband. On a lighter note, I now know why soap operas used to have that cheesy organ music and the rationale behind all of those dramatic pauses (aka Joey Tribbiani's "Smell the fart" acting technique from Friends). Other than Betty White, I would guess most of these women's names and stories will be unfamiliar to readers, and most people will be surprised to learn about White's early days in television (she is so much more than a Golden Girl). Armstrong moves beyond her previous books about popular television shows that have a built-in audience (Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love, etc.), but this one deserves to even more widely read to honor the women who managed such amazing feats in a man's world.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Magaly C.

    In the mid-1950s, Irna Philips, Hazel Scott, Gertrude Berg, and Betty White laid down the foundations of what television is today--and many people don't know who they are (aside from White, I sure didn't). From radio to television, these visionary women led the charge in entertainment and echoes of their impact are still present today: soap operas, sit-coms, late night, and talk-shows. This was definitely an interesting read in the evolution of television and how these four women impacted entert In the mid-1950s, Irna Philips, Hazel Scott, Gertrude Berg, and Betty White laid down the foundations of what television is today--and many people don't know who they are (aside from White, I sure didn't). From radio to television, these visionary women led the charge in entertainment and echoes of their impact are still present today: soap operas, sit-coms, late night, and talk-shows. This was definitely an interesting read in the evolution of television and how these four women impacted entertainment without much interaction with each other and within their genre. Being the 1950s, sexism, racism, and McCarthyism affected the personal lives and careers of each woman in different ways. Hazel Scott was the first Black woman to host an evening variety show and, of course, was met with racism (Jim Crow, blackface, and racial stereotypes in entertainment were at their peak). Gertrude Berg, though successful in creating a sit-com highlighting a Jewish family, was also under scrutiny in the majority-Christian society and tried to fight for co-workers who were blacklisted as communists. Irna Philips used her hardships and experiences as material for her soaps, but was scrutinized for being a single mom of two adopted children and had her work criticized constantly. Betty White was also scrutinized for never marrying, was devoted to her work as writer, producer, and star, but was also undercut by TV production companies who wanted to change her. It was fascinating learning more about these women who were so impactful and visionaries, but are not recognized enough in the modern entertainment industry. There were times in the book where the timeline and person emphasized got a bit muddled as Armstrong tells the histories of these women as a parallel line rather than sections with only one of the subjects at a time. However, this was a great read about the little known history of revolutionary women.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    ⭐ 4.5 stars! I'm delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. A lot of the non-fiction I've picked up this year has ranged between awful and okay, but finally I've found one of my favorite non-fiction reads of the year. When Women Invented Television discusses the early beginnings of television in America by focusing on some of the women who helped to revolutionize the medium - Gertrude Berg, Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips and Betty White. One of the reasons I loved this book was simply be ⭐ 4.5 stars! I'm delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. A lot of the non-fiction I've picked up this year has ranged between awful and okay, but finally I've found one of my favorite non-fiction reads of the year. When Women Invented Television discusses the early beginnings of television in America by focusing on some of the women who helped to revolutionize the medium - Gertrude Berg, Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips and Betty White. One of the reasons I loved this book was simply because it falls into my personal area of academic interest. I took a module at uni about iconic women in media in the latter half of the twentieth century (which is a very broad subject range as it was meant to be an introduction) in which we went through various examples ranging from the 1950s to the late 1990s. In it we only briefly talked about the 1950s focusing more on the movie scene of the time so this book filled in a lot of knowledge I didn't have. It was so interesting seeing how television has changed and developed at the hands of these influential women. It was also just really well written and even prioritized this over my current fiction read which is unheard from me.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bailey Adams

    I love niche American female history so when I saw this cheery yellow cover full of black and white photos of smiling ladies I knew this was a must read for me. When Women Invented Television 📺 by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a non fiction account of four women in early TV. One of the women (Betty White!) I was familiar with but the other three were new to me. The four women had very different personalities and specialized in different genres. Irna Phillips was a single mom from Chicago who use I love niche American female history so when I saw this cheery yellow cover full of black and white photos of smiling ladies I knew this was a must read for me. When Women Invented Television 📺 by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a non fiction account of four women in early TV. One of the women (Betty White!) I was familiar with but the other three were new to me. The four women had very different personalities and specialized in different genres. Irna Phillips was a single mom from Chicago who used her life stories and invented the modern soap opera, organ music and all! Betty White was a 20 yr old sweet wholesome (and quietly twice divorced) daytime talkshow personality. Gertrude Berg was a 40 something Jewish radio star who parlayed her popular radio show to an even more successful nighttime sitcom. Hazel Scott was a famous Black singer married to a congressman and was the first African American to host a national variety special. I loved learning about these women who have mostly been forgotten by time. Their earliest shows were all live so no footage of them exists, but they pioneered and invented some of the television tropes and genres that are still around today. If you’re interested in the red scare and McCarthyism this book also delves into those topics, and some of these women’s lives were destroyed because of the anti communist sentiment raging through the country in the 50s. My only hangup with this book is there were parts that seemed a little repetitive but on the whole I loved it and I’m so glad to know about these women and their impact on modern culture. 📺📺📺📺

  12. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    I loved this book. I loved the detailed biographies that never got bogged down in minutiae. I loved the details of the early history of television. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong writes in a wonderful, conversational tone making the book impossible to put down; five more minutes became 10 more minutes, etc. Some of my love for this book is because the early history of television is the history of my childhood, so the historical aspects meant so much to me. My only disappointment with the book was wh I loved this book. I loved the detailed biographies that never got bogged down in minutiae. I loved the details of the early history of television. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong writes in a wonderful, conversational tone making the book impossible to put down; five more minutes became 10 more minutes, etc. Some of my love for this book is because the early history of television is the history of my childhood, so the historical aspects meant so much to me. My only disappointment with the book was when I flipped the page and hit the Acknowledgements. I could have read a lot more by this author. Thank you to Edelweiss and HarperCollins Canada for the advance reader copy.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    Absolutely remarkable! The book focuses on 4 women that made their careers in entertainment, specifically television. Seriously, they did it themselves by sheer determination and talent. Hearing about Betty White and just how long she has been on television is amazing but reading about how she did it is even more amazing. Hazel Scott a very talented pianist that was also black made huge inroads into television and she did it her way. Gertrude Berg wrote, starred in and produced a show about Jewi Absolutely remarkable! The book focuses on 4 women that made their careers in entertainment, specifically television. Seriously, they did it themselves by sheer determination and talent. Hearing about Betty White and just how long she has been on television is amazing but reading about how she did it is even more amazing. Hazel Scott a very talented pianist that was also black made huge inroads into television and she did it her way. Gertrude Berg wrote, starred in and produced a show about Jewish life in New York and Irma Phillips creating soap operas for television. This is truly a remarkable story and includes the challenges they faced politically and personally.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Bev Sturgis

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. interesting non-fiction of women's contributions to early television. Many of them moved from radio shows (some soap operas) to television. The book talks about Gertrude Berg, a Jewish woman, who pretty much owned daytime radio with her show "The Goldberg's. She moved it to TV and then ran into McCarthyism when her male lead was accused of being a communist. Hazel Scott, a talented black musician, who was very successful moving to TV. Irna Phillips, a successful writer and producer, who made the interesting non-fiction of women's contributions to early television. Many of them moved from radio shows (some soap operas) to television. The book talks about Gertrude Berg, a Jewish woman, who pretty much owned daytime radio with her show "The Goldberg's. She moved it to TV and then ran into McCarthyism when her male lead was accused of being a communist. Hazel Scott, a talented black musician, who was very successful moving to TV. Irna Phillips, a successful writer and producer, who made the transaction from radio to tv. And Betty White, everyone's darling, who is still preforming today!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ang

    I didn't know ANY of this, so from that angle, this book was a hit! However, it felt weirdly lopsided, and seemed to spend the most time on Gertrude Berg (who, admittedly, was a great subject!), and weirdly little time on Betty White by the end of the book. But still, essential reading for anyone interested in the history of TV. I didn't know ANY of this, so from that angle, this book was a hit! However, it felt weirdly lopsided, and seemed to spend the most time on Gertrude Berg (who, admittedly, was a great subject!), and weirdly little time on Betty White by the end of the book. But still, essential reading for anyone interested in the history of TV.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Carri

    Ugh. Fucking men ruin everything, lol. This is another book to add to the curriculum for the course on how women are completely disregarded in and/or written out of history. So far, that reading list includes... Invisible Women The Only Woman in the Room The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks When Women Invented Television Hidden Figures

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    While I admire the author’s dedication to uncovering female histories that have been largely forgotten, I didn’t find the stories as compelling as the premise suggests. In fact I found that the author had to work overtime to connect the women to each other and it just got tiring to read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Cathleen

    I knew nothing about most of these women. And nothing about Betty White prior to MTM, except that she's the only person who could have lived her early television life. Definitely will be purchasing this in pulp form for my collection. I knew nothing about most of these women. And nothing about Betty White prior to MTM, except that she's the only person who could have lived her early television life. Definitely will be purchasing this in pulp form for my collection.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Interesting and informative. There were times when the timeline of events was less clear to me, but I was interested in the four women who are featured. I would recommend this to someone interested in the topic.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Gary Shapiro

    This is the best book yet from this chronicler of television history. Well researched and expertly told.

  22. 4 out of 5

    B.

    3.5 stars

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jen

    Fascinating!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Devann

    This was a really interesting book and I definitely learned a lot about it. Betty White was the only one of these women that I knew about and even with her I didn't really know how she got started so it was still mostly new information there. Part of me kind of wishes that the book had been split into four sections for each woman instead of kind of just following all of them year by year because I did get a bit confused at times, but a lot of their career developments were very dependent on thin This was a really interesting book and I definitely learned a lot about it. Betty White was the only one of these women that I knew about and even with her I didn't really know how she got started so it was still mostly new information there. Part of me kind of wishes that the book had been split into four sections for each woman instead of kind of just following all of them year by year because I did get a bit confused at times, but a lot of their career developments were very dependent on things that were happening at the time so I get why the author chose to arrange it as she did.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jackie

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gloria

  27. 5 out of 5

    Holly Hughes

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mackenzie Walton

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

  30. 5 out of 5

    Laura Gillooly

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