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Radio entered American homes about a century ago. It changed life everywhere. It transformed rural life most of all, giving listeners a tenuous, vital connection to the wider world. At first it offered morning farm market prices, news, prayer, and a separate evening session of music before signoff, which in most of the country came early. Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished. Relatively few women worked outside the home in those days, so the afternoon became the traditional time for radio sponsors to reach and entertain them. Women, generally being more sociable than men, were especially glad to have radio’s substitute companionship during long hours of housework. Serial dramas with appealing and/or hissable characters instantly became popular.
Being a homemaker has always been a tough job, but 70-100 years ago it required physical labor to a degree that few of us lucky moderns realize. Hanging the wash, keeping an anxious eye on the clouds, and bringing it in were tiring enough, but the washing was also done by hand, scrubbing on a washboard. Variety had a once-amusing, condescending 1920s term for daytime drama, which it continued to use for three decades: “women’s washboard weepers.” That general line of midcentury wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.
Now-commonplace appliances like refrigerators and washing machines were luxuries in the ’20s, and for many people, the Depression kept them coveted right up through the ’30s. It was the woman of the house who kept fires going for cooking, and hot water for cleaning. Up until then, meat, eggs, and produce had to be brought home fresh and cooked that day or the next. Big, general-purpose supermarkets didn’t fully catch on until after the war. More American women had drivers’ licenses than in any other country in the world, but few families of the FDR era were well off enough to have a second car for the wife’s daytime use. That would come later.
There were more children at home. Families were bigger than today’s, with no day care or kindergarten. Kids scuffed up their clothes and grew out of them. The sewing basket and its pile of needed mending was something that could be worked on while listening to afternoon radio’s extravagant tales of honest, true-hearted women confronting daily dramas of unrequited love, obedience to duty, and selfless devotion.
Daytime’s rules permitted twice the number of commercial minutes that evening radio did. Back then, sponsors actually owned the programs, with far fewer rules about blatant on-air “plugs.” Ads were relentless with endless pitches to buy Borden, Armour Star meats, Reynolds aluminum foil, Kellogg’s, Jell-O, and a thousand other products.
In the ’50s, audiences for daytime radio drama held up better and longer than the evening shows, which began to suffer crippling ratings losses to television. Most of the nighttime radio entertainment schedule was off the air by 1955, and all but one show was gone by 1960. Television soaps like CBS’s “The Guiding Light” (1952) and “Search for Tomorrow” were slower to displace their radio counterparts. One obvious issue compared to radio was you had to watch TV to follow what was going on, so it wasn’t as useful a companion for housework. Another was a semi-fact flatly declared by one of the dads in a “Back to the Future” scene set in 1955: “Nobody has more than one TV set.” That one set was in the living room, not the kitchen. There wouldn’t be small TVs suitable for a kitchen countertop until the late ’60s.
But as the ’50s rolled on, that was okay, less and less of a handicap, because things like clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric rotisseries, television as a babysitter, and great postwar advances in marketing prepared, instant foods like Minute Rice and Swanson TV Dinners made it possible for moms to spend less time doing housework.
By the ’60s, new hits like ABC’s “General Hospital” were attracting audiences and advertisers. The newer shows, many of them created by writer Agnes Nixon, maintained a dignified, ladylike tone, but they were more realistic than radio’s daytime dramas and touched on more up-to-date issues like divorce, broken families, and remarriage.
And that brings up one strong comparative advantage of TV: The guys looked as good as they sounded. Women have always been unfairly judged or dismissed because of their looks, but if there’s one field of entertainment where women have always had it their way, it’s daytime drama, where male roles are cast on looks alone. Anyone can be a movie star, but the term “matinee idol” refers only to a man. Traditionally, who goes to weekday matinees? Women. Napoleon once sourly noted that he would not permit his wife to go to the theater in the afternoon because he wanted to know that all her children would be his. Afternoon television became the home of matinee idols.
When I moved to California, one of my early days co-workers had a lucrative side job working for one of the young actors on “Y&R,” “The Young and the Restless.” She wrote personalized answers to his voluminous fan mail, responses as formulaic as today’s send-me-money political emails and texts, always with the objective of getting his often lovestruck fans to write letters directly to CBS, demanding more of him in Y&R plotlines.
By the late ’70s, soaps were getting a little racier, paralleling similar changes in romance paperbacks like Harlequin and women’s magazines. It wasn’t just Ms. and Cosmo; by then, even the covers of McCall’s and Redbook were earnestly talking up the goal of perfect sex. This was a messy transitional time, piously aware of sexism but unwilling to stop exploiting it. TV Guide, a covert cultural conservative in those days, actually agreed with lib/left/les magazines like Ms.: An awful lot of daytime’s hunky men were acting on screen like real bodice rippers, not the metaphorical ones of Harlequin covers, and this might not turn out to be healthy in the long run.
Show producers prudently toned it down a little, for a while. The controversy was one of the few times when daytime soap operas became a mainstream news story. Occasionally, a rare phenomenon like “Dark Shadows” (1966) would be featured in Time or Newsweek. When Luke and Laura got married on “General Hospital” in 1981, it attracted a now-incredible 30 million viewers. Susan Lucci being snubbed by the Emmys was a subject of late-night comedy. But mostly, soaps stayed under the cultural radar.
Of course, the soaps weren’t the only female-friendly shows on daytime. Talk shows had always been around. In radio days they were often nondenominational religious or self-improvement talks that were meant to be uplifting. There were practical shows about cooking and housework. And even back then, there was a type of woman-oriented, high-minded public affairs program about polio or child poverty that would be recognizable to any NPR listener today. These traditions carried over to television, just as the soaps did. Daytime hosts like Mike Douglas were like friendly uncles who did a lighter, sunnier version of late-night shows.
This all changed with the arrival of Phil Donahue. He had on the same singers and bestselling authors and visiting performers as the other shows, but Donahue was more provocative, especially about sexual relationships, and he had an immediate effect of changing women’s TV. Rob Long once wrote a column about it, and he was right. Men came home from work, heard their wives talking about onstage homosexuality or open marriages in Sweden, and wondered where the hell did that come from?
Donahue led to Oprah, and from there Sally Jessy Raphael, Ricki Lake, Queen Latifah, and Ellen. Gradually, the soaps began to lose out. New genres like courtroom shows attracted daytime audiences. After generations of being able to keep transforming in ways that kept women tuning in, daytime drama was reduced to 60-90 minutes per Big Three broadcast network, in informal rotation so no soap was competing with another. Even in their weakened states, the afternoon lineup of women’s washboard weepers is still one of the best places to sell cereal, fabric softener, diapers, back to school supplies, cosmetics, or discount shoes.
Male readers may ask, “What about us guys? In the great daytime battle of sponsors seeking eyeballs, where do men stand?” Well, what kind of man is watching weekday TV midday? Grouchy old retired guys whose wives do most of the shopping. (They toss us baseball games and reruns of “Mannix.”) Or younger men who attract ads for for-profit vocational schools teaching job-winning skills or for drug and alcohol rehab centers; attorneys who specialize in drunk-driving defense or winning custody battles for dads. From an advertiser’s point of view, rarely desirable demographics, let’s face it.
Have you ever heard of a TV director named Lela Swift? Me neither, and after decades of reading television history, you’d think I would have run across her before. Starting way back in 1950, when she was only 31, she directed more than 1,400 television shows, rarely drawing critical or public attention. In a rare interview in 1953, she said, “Above all, don’t let anybody tell you it can’t be done. I did it. You can, too. What’s it like for a woman to do a man’s job such as directing? Well, I don’t rightly know, because I don’t think about being a woman when I do my job. I work with actors, stagehands and technicians as artists and artisans, not as men and women.”
“When you go into the business of television, expect the exhilaration of a difficult job well done, the agony of a carefully planned effect ruined by an on-the-air accident, the happiness and the heartache that goes with show business everywhere. Expect to care about everything a great deal. Expect to love it. I do.”
Lela Swift died only six years ago, at age 96. You’d think an industry that’s become obsessed with documenting pioneering women would have noticed or remembered her, but after all, she only worked in low-prestige daytime. Even to today’s women in the industry, it’s like she never existed.Published in