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American Women: Resources from the Recorded Sound Collections

Women on the Radio

Much is already known about the legendary women performers, comedians, and actors who have had their own shows or appeared as guests on the radio, but such stars as Judy Canova (1916-1983), Marian Jordan (1897-1961) of Fibber McGee and Molly, Gracie Allen (1902-1964), and Eve Arden (1912-1990) represent only a fraction of the female stars found in the Library's collections. Perhaps all of the major newsmakers of the day in all professions have appeared on the radio—Mamie Eisenhower (1896-1979), Bess Truman (1885-1982), birth control advocate Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), pilot Amelia Earhart, athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias (1911-1956), writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), and religious leader Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944)—whose skillful use of the radio made her one of the most famous evangelists of her time, are among them. The ubiquitous Eleanor Roosevelt, an extremely effective communicator on the radio, used this skill to great political and social advantage and can be heard on hundreds of broadcasts.

Mary Margaret McBride Collection

Harris & Ewing. Leading Figures at Tonight's Jamboree for Prominent Women by Newspaperwomen...L to R: Rosa Ponselle, who sang for the group; Mrs. Thomas E. Dewey; Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt; Ruby Black, President of the club, and Gracie Allen. 1940. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Other once-influential radio personalities, such as Mary Margaret McBride (1899-1976), are not as well known today. Originally employed as a print journalist, McBride hosted an extremely popular daily radio program during the late 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. Her audience was composed mainly of women.1 Her show mixed spontaneous interviews with notable guests, many of whom were women, and useful information with a heavy dose of advertising targeted at women. Topics discussed on her show included prostitution, unwed mothers, marriage in the modern world, and pioneering women. The program offered an alternative to the afternoon soap operas and demonstrated that women's interests ranged beyond cleaning tips and recipes. McBride maintained complete editorial and commercial control over her program and in doing so made lasting changes in the style of radio talk shows.

The Cynthia Lowry/Mary Margaret McBride Collection at the Library of Congress includes more than twelve hundred hours of interview programs and related broadcasts. All phases of McBride's radio career, from 1935 to the 1970s, are represented. Access to the collection is available through SONIC, where you can search by guest name or date of broadcast. The collection also includes photographs and accompanying papers, which include portrait, publicity, and family photographs of Mary Margaret McBride; pictures of McBride and her guests, such as Omar Bradley, Mike Wallace, Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey, and Mary Martin; shots of her radio program's anniversary celebrations; images relating to her 1960 autobiography, Out of the Air, and of various products and locations; and depictions of broadcasting both in and outside of the studio. A finding aid for the photographs and accompanying papers is available in the Using the Collections section of this guide.

Beyond the Microphone

From radio's earliest pre-network days, women worked in almost every capacity, both at the microphone and behind the scenes. Women have been among radio's most imaginative and productive writers and producers. Eva vom Baur Hansl (1888?-1978), a journalist who worked with several different broadcasting organizations, produced such educational programs as Women in the Making of America (1939), a Federal Radio Theatre project written by Jane Ashman (n.d.); Gallant American Women (1939-40); and Womanpower (1942). Virginia Safford Lynne (n.d.) and Ruth Adams Knight (1898-1974) wrote for, among other programs, The Great Gildersleeve (1941-49, 1952-57, 1966) and Those We Love (1942, 1944), respectively. Writers Ann Barley (n.d.) and Ruth Barth (n.d.) contributed to the docudrama series March of Time (1937-39, 1941-45). Helen Mack (1913-1986) directed The Saint (1950-51) and The Alan Young Show (1944-47, 1949-50). In 1930, actress-turned-writer Edith Meiser (1898-1993) persuaded the National Broadcasting Company to produce Sherlock Holmes (1939-40), which she had adapted for radio from the original stories. She continued to work on the series as script editor, writer, and adapter through the late 1940s.2

Daytime Programming

Beginning in the 1930s, women dominated daytime programming both as creators and as listeners. Radio programs aimed at women's perceived needs and interests filled the airwaves between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Programs dealing with topics such as cooking, childcare, health, fashion, civic news, and women's business news competed with soap operas and light musical programs for women's attention. As a means of sharing information about common problems and issues and offering encouraging messages, these programs enabled homemakers to communicate indirectly with one another.

The Rise of the Soap Opera

The rise of the radio soap opera in the mid-1930s demonstrated the power of the female audience. Before that time, little research went into program development for the daytime lineup, which was made up of “throw-away hours” and therefore considered unworthy of much attention. The popularity of the soap opera and the serial drama proved that daytime radio had a devoted audience and could be extremely profitable for sponsors whose products appealed to these listeners. The number of serials burgeoned to such a degree that in the spring of 1941 a women's serial could be heard during all but a single quarter-hour between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.3

The importance of the radio soap opera to American women cannot be overemphasized. Indeed, according to Muriel G. Cantor and Suzanne Pingree, “soap operas, more than any other genre, have reflected the economic and social conditions under which they were produced. Individualistic values are interspersed with problems and suffering most likely to be encountered by women . . . regardless of their similarity and diversity as to subjects, soap operas are about women and their place in the social world.”4 During the golden age of the radio soap operas, that social world for the most part revolved around the home.

The “soaps” offered the homebound listener a dramatization of the conflict that she might be expected to have in her own mind about the nature of men, marriage, and the woman's role. They also suggested that they might have useful answers to such questions [as were heard in a soap opera introduction], “To hold a man's love, what should a young wife be? . . . Should she place her home and her children above all else? . . . These are some of the questions the modern woman faces . . . when a girl marries.”5

Hummert, Phillips, and Carrington

Anne Hummert (1905-1996), Irna Phillips (1901-1973), and Elaine Sterne Carrington (1892-1958) were three of the most creative and prolific women writing soap operas during the genre's heyday on the radio.

Anne Hummert and her husband Frank, often credited with perfecting the soap opera formula, supervised a stable of writers who wrote dialogue from sketches provided by Anne Hummert.6 Some of their more famous programs were Stella Dallas (1937-55), John's Other Wife (1936-42), and Young Widder Brown (1938-56).

Irna Phillips, who actually wrote most of her own scripts, created Guiding Light, one of the longest-running soap operas in 1937. The Library holds recordings for 1942 and 1944 to 1946. The fact that Guiding Light made a successful transfer to television is a testament to the writer's skills, foresight, and imagination. Phillips was a pioneer who created many techniques—cliffhangers, organ-music bridges between scenes, and characters appearing concurrently in different serials—that are taken for granted in soaps today.7

National Photo Company. Miss Catherine [i.e. Katharine] Lenroot, 8/26/22.

Elaine Sterne Carrington was a successful short story writer in the 1920s before her switch to radio. She is known for realistic dialogue, which she wrote herself, and for strong characterizations.8 Of her soap operas, the Library holds Pepper Young's Family (1932-59) and When a Girl Marries (1939-55).

Alternatives to Soaps

Homemaker or talk shows, educational programs, and variety shows were some of the most popular daytime genres produced for and by women. Alma Kitchell (1893-1997) and Nellie Revell (1872-1958) both had talk shows that provided women with pertinent news, information, advice, gossip, and topical discussions, and the Library holds a selection of their shows from the 1930s and 1940s. Isabel Manning Hewson hosted Morning Market Basket (1940, 1942), a consumer-information show for women. Nutritionist and chef Mary Lee Taylor tried out recipes and shared tips on shopping and cooking. Her program, The Mary Lee Taylor Show, (1948-49) was the longest-running cooking program on radio. Pickens Party (1951-52), starring Jane Pickens (1908-1992) and her sisters, featured musical variety and light entertainment.

Children's Programs

Women took the lead in creating and producing educational and entertainment programs for children. Madge Tucker (b. 1900), who headed up NBC's children's programming department, produced the children's show Coast-to-Coast on a Bus (1937-41). Helen Walpole (b. 1911) and Margaret Leaf (1909?-1988) wrote Adventures in Reading (1939-40), an educational series for children. Dr. Katharine Lenroot (1891-1982), head of the United States Children's Bureau, hosted two programs on child rearing, The Child Grows Up (1938-40) and Children in Wartime (1942), the latter of which examined the effects of war on children. Madge Tucker directed and Jean Peterson wrote for Our Barn (1936-41), a children's storytelling program.

American Women in World War II

The division's radio collections are an especially valuable source for studying the lives of American women during the Second World War. During that time, radio served many functions for women both at home and abroad. The comedies and entertainment programs provided an escape mechanism by which women on both fronts could escape the realities of war. It was also an excellent communications device that helped bolster confidence, reminding women at home why their family members were off fighting a war. Most important, radio was used to recruit middle-class white women into wartime service, thereby expanding their previously, rather limited, realm of experience. The Office of War Information (OWI) launched the “Womanpower” campaign in 1942. In addition, OWI's American Women Speak (1942-43) and Women Can Take It (1942) told women's stories, described their contributions to the war effort, and praised them for jobs well done. Oveta Culp Hobby (1905-1995), commander of the Women's Army Corps (earlier called Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAACs), was often heard on the radio describing the role of women in wartime. To mark her 1943 participation in the program The Pause That Refreshes on the Air, the host, Andre Kostelanetz, included a choral rendition of Lt. Ruby J. Douglas's "The WAAC Is a Soldier Too." These broadcasts can be found in SONIC.


  1. Michele Hilmes. Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 278. Back to text.
  2. John Dunning.Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925-1976 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 549. Back to text.
  3. Raymond Stedman,The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment, 2nd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977), 306-7. Back to text.
  4. Muriel G. Cantor and Suzanne Pingree, The Soap Opera(Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1983), 44-45. Back to text.
  5. Madeleine Edmondson and David Rounds, From Mary Noble to Mary Hartman (New York: Stein and Day, 1976), 89. Back to text.
  6. Dunning, Tune in Yesterday, 55. Back to text.
  7. Ibid., 257-58. Back to text.
  8. Ibid., 474-76. Back to text.