EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

Nothing sent the message about women's limited options more forcefully than television, which had just finished conquering the nation with a speed that made Alexander the Great look like an underachiever. In 1950, only about nine percent of American homes boasted a set, but by 1960, nearly 90 percent of families had a TV and those who didn't were feeling very deprived indeed. Beverly Burton, a Wyoming farm wife, had been estranged throughout the 1950s from a mother who had once told her she was sorry Beverly had ever been born. When her mother decided to mend fences, she sent Burton a note saying "I hope this will cover the past" – attached to a television set. And it did indeed turn out to be a turning point in the relationship.

The postwar generation that was entering adolescence in the 1960s had grown up watching Howdy Doody, the must-see TV for the first wave of baby boomers. Howdy was a raucous puppet show in which the human performers interspersed broad physical comedy with endless pitches for the sponsors' products. "But all the slapstick stopped when they brought out Princess Summerfall Winterspring," remembered Stephen Davis, a childhood fan whose father worked on the show. The Princess, played by a teenage singer named Judy Tyler, was the only long-running female in Howdy Doody's crowded cast. The character had been created when a producer realized "we could sell a lot of dresses if only we had a girl on the show" and spent most of her time expressing concern about plot developments taking place while she was offstage. Adults approved. "The harshness and crudeness which so many parents objected to in Howdy Doody now appears to have largely been a case of too much masculinity," said Variety. But the stuff that made kids love the show – the broad comedy and bizarre plots -- were all on the male side of the equation. Princess Summerfall Winterspring sang an occasional song, and watched.

The more popular and influential television got, the more efficiently women were swept off the screen. In the 1950s, when the medium was still feeling its way, there were a number of shows built around women – mainly low-budget comedies like Our Miss Brooks, Private Secretary and My Little Margie. None of them were exactly role models – Miss Brooks was a teacher who spent most of her time mooning over a hunky biology instructor and Margie lived off her rich father. But the shows were unquestionably about them. And the most popular program of all was I Love Lucy, in which Lucille Ball was the focus of every plotline, ever striving to get out of her three-room apartment and into her husband Ricky's nightclub show.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...