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BOOK REVIEW

Recalling a medium’s first ladies in ‘When Women Invented Television’

A new group biography considers four pioneers

Katy Lemay for The Boston Globe

In 1951, two of television’s original leading ladies, Betty White and Gertrude Berg, were nominated in the new Emmy category of best actress. Groucho Marx was also nominated for an Emmy that year. When he won, he grabbed the presenter, the former Miss America Rosemary LaPlanche, and carried her off the stage. He thought she was the Emmy, he later explained. It was a sign of the times. Berg won the best actress Emmy, but only Marx’s legacy would live on. Women were making strides in the nascent television industry, but all around them patriarchal norms were as entrenched as ever. Marx is considered one of America’s greatest comedians, while the contributions of Berg and many of the other female pioneers of television would be all but forgotten.

In her fifth book, “When Women Invented Television,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong “aims to reclaim television history for the women who made it.” Her depth of knowledge and easy command of the material make her subjects compelling from the first beat. Her writing — propulsive, and neatly scene-oriented — can feel almost like watching television. There is Gertrude Berg charging into CBS offices, demanding they give her radio program a chance on television. And Betty White, ad-libbing and improvising on daytime television for 5½ hours a day. There is Hazel Scott, playing two pianos at the same time, combining jazz and Tchaikovsky. And Irna Phillips, inventing the soap opera.

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All four women were colossal talents, and the relatively progressive mores of the late 1940s gave them a window of opportunity. But by the mid-1950s, a tidal wave of anti-communist paranoia had swept the nation, threatening their careers. Scott, who was Black, was stymied most of all. Though her talent initially allowed her to “slip past certain racial barriers,” Armstrong writes, she was blacklisted and prevented from working in television when her name appeared in an anti-communist publication. Scott had a long history of successfully combating racism and discrimination, so she was optimistic she could get herself un-blacklisted. She insisted upon appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where she made her case before Chairman John Wood, a congressman with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. She was unsuccessful, and it ended her television career. Scott suffered enormously as a result. Armstrong puts it bluntly: The US government “critically injured her career and her psyche.”

Berg, who was Jewish, also had to battle anti-communist forces when her TV-husband Philip Loeb was blacklisted. She even threatened to launch a public campaign against her sponsor, General Foods, if they did not back down from their blacklisting policy. It was a bold move at a time when “sponsors determined which shows lived or died, and what went into their scripts every week,” Armstrong writes. Ultimately, she was unable to save Loeb’s career and the conflict marked the beginning of a decline in her own.

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Berg and Scott represented a progressive vision of a multicultural America while they were on the air. Fans wrote to tell Berg how her show “The Goldbergs” had changed their preconceptions about Jewish families. After Berg, Armstrong notes, there “would be no overtly Jewish main characters on TV again until the 1970s.” Meanwhile, Ebony magazine celebrated Scott’s success, noting how on her television show she didn’t have to stoop to the demeaning “Uncle Tom pattern” then common on radio and in movies.

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White and Phillips on the other hand weren’t seen as explicitly progressive in the same way. They were, after all, both white and Christian. Although they faced their fair share of condescending misogyny, it was much less virulent and damaging than what Berg and Scott faced. White faced sexist critics (one implied she was overweight and prudish, causing her to cry for three days) and constant questions about her dating life. Phillips struggled with the challenges of raising two adopted children alone while managing a full-time job. As legitimate as those challenges were, they pale in comparison to the aggressive and destructive bigotry Berg and Scott faced.

While Armstrong is clear about how Scott and Berg were subjected to prejudiced treatment because of their Black and Jewish identities, she is less quick to point out how much easier Phillips and White had it. Though meticulous in cataloging their intersecting identities, she returns repeatedly to their shared gender. As a framing device, this can feel slightly at odds with very deep and detailed accounts of disparate treatment and outcomes for each of them. The question of how to think about women as a group with a shared identity is nothing new. Scott herself was inspired by Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” but “felt trapped between the civil rights movement and the nascent feminist movement.” Armstrong finds herself in a similarly awkward position at times. Though she doesn’t always handle the juxtapositions perfectly, Armstrong successfully crafts an intersectional feminist history, one with room for four very different women in it.

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Armstrong succeeds in her goal of dusting off these women’s contributions and restoring them to their place in the pantheon of television giants. In prose as charming as the women she writes about, she makes her subjects feel knowable. Although we may never see some of these women’s work (television was often live and unrecorded in the early years), Armstrong makes you feel their genius and charisma, almost like you were there when they invented television.

WHEN WOMEN INVENTED TELEVISION: The Untold Story of the Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered the Way We Watch Today

By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Harper, 352 pages, $27.99

Emma McAleavy is a freelance writer and book critic based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow her on Twitter @emmamcaleavy.