It is rewarding to acknowledge that women paved the way for television as we know it today! In addition to being in front of the camera as actresses, they ran production studios, innovated with new types of programming and set the stage for the television industry. Let’s learn about some of those trailblazers.
Lucille Ball was an actress, comedienne, studio executive and producer who began her career as a model. She then garnered roles on Broadway in the 1930s and small film roles in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1951, she and her husband Desi Arnaz premiered what became one of the best loved shows in television history, I Love Lucy. During the run of the show, her real-life pregnancy was written into the show; heretofore pregnant women were not shown on television. In 1962, she became the first woman to run a television studio, Desilu Productions, and is known for producing major television series including Star Trek and Mission Impossible. Ball won four Emmys, received the Kennedy Center Honors and has been inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Diahann Carroll won a Tony and a Grammy, received multiple Emmy nominations, was nominated for an Oscar and made television history when her show Julia premiered in 1968. Julia became the first television show to feature an African-American woman in a non-traditional role – meaning not as a maid. Carroll played a widowed middle class nurse raising a young son. During the three seasons that the show ran on television, Carroll was nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe for her work in the show. Carroll began modeling when she was 15 years old. Her movie debut and her Broadway debut were both in 1954. Carroll continued to perform on the stage, on television and on the screen for the rest of her career. Carroll received an Oscar nomination for the title role in the movie Claudine (1974). She was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 1958 when Joyce Chen opened her first restaurant in Massachusetts and thus introduced northern Chinese cooking to the U.S., it was decidedly ‘foreign’ food. But quite quickly, her marketing skills made it less so. Chen introduced the numbering of menu items so that customers could communicate with the Chinese-speaking staff. She patented the flat bottom wok. She introduced all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets to draw in business on slow nights. And, in 1967, PBS began broadcasting Joyce Chen Cooks, filmed on the same set as that used by Julia Child. In 2014, when Chen was posthumously featured on a U.S. postage stamp, the United States Postal Service said, “Joyce Chen is one of the great popularizers of Chinese food. From her landmark restaurant in the Boston area to her cookbooks and trailblazing PBS television show, Chen invited newcomers to sample unfamiliar dishes in ways that firmly established Chinese cuisine in the United States.”
Comedian Carol Burnett broke new ground when her comedy variety show The Carol Burnett Show began airing in 1967. It was the first variety show hosted by a woman. Burnett performed on Broadway, in films and on television throughout her career starting with a Tony nomination for her role in the 1959 Broadway play Once Upon a Mattress. She then began appearing on television earning her first Emmy in 1962. The Carol Burnett Show featured comedy sketches with song and dance; many of them were cleverly crafted parodies. Burnett won multiple Emmy and Golden Globe Awards during her show’s eleven-year run. The recipient of numerous Grammy nominations, Burnett has received many honors including the President Medal of Freedom, induction into the Television Hall of Fame, and the Kennedy Center Honors.
When Joan Ganz Cooney decided to start the Children’s Television Workshop in 1968 (today known as the Sesame Workshop), she was told that she could be the deputy, but that a man should be in charge. Her response was that if a man were in charge, she would not be involved. Today, Sesame Street has run for over 50 years, reaches hundreds of millions of children in over 100 countries, has won more than 60 Emmys, and the Kennedy Center Honors. Sesame Street was the first preschool program to integrate education and entertainment and featured a multicultural cast. Cooney also created The Electric Company, 3-2-1 Contact, and Dragon Tales. Her many honors include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
The first Native American to win an Oscar, Buffy Sainte-Marie is a musician, singer, songwriter, social activist and visual artist. Her Best Original Song Oscar was for the song Up Where We Belong from the movie An Officer and a Gentleman. From 1976 to 1981, Sainte-Marie appeared regularly on Sesame Street. Her breastfeeding of her son during a 1977 episode is believed to be the first time breastfeeding was aired on public television. Sainte-Marie is active today writing music, touring and advocating for Native Americans and human rights.
Actress, media executive, talk show host, television producer, and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey broke new ground with her talk show. The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for 25 years (1986-2011) and was the highest rated show of its kind in television history. Winfrey is credited with pioneering a more personal, confessional form of television. Her show also opened the way for diversity and provided a television platform for members of the LGBT (now LGBTQIA) community. Winfrey is noted as the richest African American in the 20th century, the first black multi-billionaire and is sometimes referred to as the most influential woman in the world. She is the recipient of many honors including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and she has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives. These women in television, as well as many others, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.