How the Blacklist Shut Progressive Women Out of TV and Created a Leave It to Beaver Lie

In Depth

It’s common to evoke the notion of a simpler time, as evidenced by television programs like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, depicting white nuclear families cozy in freshly built suburbs. But really, those shows were an imaginary universe created by a very specific set of conditions—and not by widespread cultural consensus.

That comes through clearly in The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist, an academic book by University of Oregon professor Carol A. Stabile. While the Hollywood Ten are the most famously blacklisted creatives of the postwar era, they certainly weren’t alone. Stabile has taken a list of people in the nascent broadcasting industry who were named in the anti-communist newsletter Red Channels—a fairly sketchy enterprise whose founders were nevertheless able to leverage FBI connections to make an outsized amount of trouble—and focused on the 41 women who appeared.

“These women had worked hard to get where they were by the late 1940s. As we will see, they had ideas that could have transformed the medium. In 1950, they were denied the means to do so,” Stabile writes. While television became dominated by a set of very specific, conservative storylines—Westerns, cop shows, extremely normative sitcoms—it wasn’t inevitable. After all, New York City was the emerging capital of broadcasting, and New York City was full of progressives from the intertwined worlds of theater, music, and the arts. The medium could very well have hewn closer to the example of Gertrude Berg’s landmark sitcom The Goldbergs. Stabile delves into the stories of women like Shirley Graham, Fredi Washington, and Hazel Scott, inviting us to imagine what could have been instead.

I discussed the book with Stabile; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

JEZEBEL: Who were the Broadcast 41?

CAROLE A. STABILE: The Broadcast 41 were a group of women who had been working across media industries—television was still in its infancy, so it wasn’t clear what roles would be available for people. But they had been working across this wide swath of fields. They had had many successes across the 1930s and ’40s in theater, in radio, in publishing, and were really poised at the end of World War II to move into television. Some of them were very well-known in broadcasting, some of them were well known in film. Some were also well-known writers and choreographers and producers. In 1950, they were all listed in a book that was published by anti-communists called Red Channels. They were 41 people out of 151 names, and because of this book, they found it in most cases impossible to get work after 1950. They found opportunities drying up for them and basically the majority of them, along with their male progressive counterparts, were eliminated from the new industry of television in 1950.

The Broadcast 41—they wouldn’t have called themselves that. I call them that because I think it’s really important to understand that it isn’t a single exceptional woman story. It’s a whole cohort of women, many of whom knew each other and worked with each other and loved working with each other, that basically became unemployable between 1950 and 1952.

Just to pull back and look at the context of this—the thesis of the book talks about how people call back to this idea of when America was Leave It to Beaver. And there’s this assumption that it was a cultural consensus that produced that Leave It to Beaver and the Donna Reed Show or whatever. And you’re talking about how really the reason we get this TV universe is that it’s the product of anti-communist forces realizing how powerful TV was going to be and working to suppress any alternative vision. I was wondering if you could talk about how that came about.

It really was a very carefully crafted mythology about what it meant to be American and to be Americans at the beginning of the Cold War. And living as we do, in a moment where we can see mythologies being created, crafted, disseminated, and challenged, you get a sense of what the stakes were back in 1950. This is nothing less than the ability to say who counted as an American and what it meant to be an American. And as the book shows, it was a very, very narrow vision of Americanism, one that was promoted by anti-communists and their allies in government and industry that was meant to suppress rising forces of resistance and dissent in the years following the end of World War II.

It’s also interesting—I use the term anti-communist, but as you also make very clear, there were a lot of things that got caught under their umbrella, and oftentimes when they said, “We’re anticommunist,” what they meant was, “Let’s actually not have black people on TV who aren’t maids.”

This is nothing less than the ability to say who counted as an American and what it meant to be an American.

I think that that’s really important, and thinking about it having finished the book, I think I would be clearer about what “anti-communism” meant. Because it didn’t mean that these were people who were unified in their criticism of communism. In a lot of ways, and as Harry Belafonte put it, they were racist witch hunters who were fighting several battles at the same time. One against communism, keeping in mind of course that the Communist Party is on the wane in the years after World War II. It’s not the threat it had been, if it ever had been in the United States. But they used this as a convenient attack on civil rights in particular, as well as the labor movement and basically anyone who had supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. It is kind of worrisome when you think about this now, because it has a similar feeling around the rhetoric of Barack Obama. Right? There’s a purpose of a lot of the Trumpian rhetoric to demonize that regime, to demonize its more progressive elements in particular, and to install a vision of American identity that’s based on these kinds of white supremacist, masculinist values.

There definitely are a lot of echoes that came through very clearly. And you draw this very straight line—a lot of time conservative politicians will explicitly be like, what happened to Leave It to Beaver? And the answer is that the better question is what produced Leave It to Beaver?

Or why that vision of family came to dominate in the years after World War II, when people’s experiences of families, of immigrant families, of multi-generational families, of ethnic families, were so heterogeneous across the ’30s and ’40s, in part because the Depression meant that family forms had to be more flexible and accommodating. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but there were these incipient organizational tendencies in power structures that really favored the production of that one narrative over others that challenged it.

I think the story that was the most interesting to me—I know I keep going back to Leave It to Beaver, because it’s the stereotypical example of this supposedly family-friendly era of television. But in the book, you talk a lot about The Goldbergs, which is a sitcom about family and warm family values, and also pioneered TV advertising. And it’s interesting that one falls by the wayside and one is still what we think of as being this era of television.

Well it goes to show, for me, that the old story about how it’s really about money, and it’s about markets, that wasn’t entirely true. Because The Goldbergs was a huge success story over 20 years, but they kept trying to cancel it. At every step when they would try to cancel it, Gertrude Berg, who was this incredibly savvy businesswoman, would leverage all the fan mail she got, thousands and thousands of letters from all across the United States, not just so-called liberal enclaves like New York City, and she’d go to producers and she’d say, well, you can cancel the show, but these people are going to be on the phone tomorrow morning about it.

She was successful in doing that, but the fact she had to so many times, despite her being a consummate pitchwoman, really meant that they didn’t like that she was representing a Jewish matriarch who didn’t conform to what they considered to be appropriate codes of femininity and ethnic identity.

I think what’s interesting to me, too, is not only does it disappear from the airwaves eventually, it disappears from our memory of early broadcast history. Obviously, it’s really well-known among experts and aficionados, but in terms of the broader stereotype of the era. Why do you think it’s disappeared from the history of the way we talk about early television?

That’s such an important question. I think, in part, Gertrude Berg picked up on this herself when she said in the 1960s, well, people don’t like telling the story of the Blacklist. They don’t like telling stories about the heterogeneity of American identity or anything that might be “controversial” or upset people. And so I think what the blacklist built into the routines of television was this belief that there were certain topics that were controversial and you simply didn’t touch them. I think the other thing is that the people who wrote the histories and the people whose memories became institutionalized were people who didn’t look like Gertrude Berg or Shirley Graham or Fredi Washington. And they told stories that affirmed their experiences of an industry that presumably had a golden age in the 1950s. The other thing is, people were afraid of the FBI, and if you knew that someone had been blacklisted, to talk about them was to almost certainly call attention to yourself and run the risk of being blacklisted, too.

There were a lot of elements that contributed to the suppression of those stories. I always think about—you know the series Mad Men? Which starts in the 1960s. I think that’s the perfect example of what these forms of suppression get you. Because Mad Men, the women are only just waking up to the fact that they might be professionals. Mad Men isn’t a world that even acknowledges the fact that there were all these powerful women who’d been in those industries who’d effectively been eliminated by 1960. And that’s messed up!

It’s amazing how you often hear this same old story that comes up in a million different places—suddenly Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and everybody woke up simultaneously and they left their beautiful suburban homes and they got jobs. But what you see here is women who wanted to work, who had to work, who were in this space 15 years before whatever happens in Mad Men happens.

It really makes you think about the price of suppressing creative talent. I went to New York City in October and was doing more archival research for a website I’ve been working on about film, and I was just amazed at the work they wanted in the 1930s and the work they did do in the 1930s and the 1940s that was effectively prevented from reproducing itself, from happening again, until the late 1970s. If you think about Roots [which premiered in 1977]—Shirley Graham is writing narratives about people of color’s contributions to history and biographies in the 1940s. If she hadn’t been blacklisted in the 1950s, you could have really had this flowering of television programming that provided a better representation of America than what actually happened.

I would love it if you would talk a little bit more about that, because that was one of the most interesting things about the book to me—this idea that there’s this entire shadow timeline where TV looks totally different and it’s not a sea of Westerns and beautiful homes on Long Island.

I read a lot of feminist science fiction, so I love alternative histories and counterfactual histories, and I started thinking as I was looking in the archives and reading these materials about what these women had dreamed of doing and of writing. And I thought that this really does add up to a counterfactual history that’s only possible to tell if you’re not looking at television itself. If you’re looking at what’s on television, what you’re going to see is consensus. But you have to look at the places that people were relegated to.

I think soap operas are a great example of this. So many talented writers and actresses wound up working in soaps, so what you see in soaps is that all these social issues are being discussed on soap operas decades before they hit primetime. And part of that is because soap operas are a devalued form. The advertising isn’t as pricey; people are really paying attention to primetime television. At least the censors were. I look and that and I think: there’s this place where all these concerns that women had, mostly women, not people of color, that could only be told in these devalued regions of television.

I think children’s shows are also a good example of that. I talk a little bit about Lassie. What was so interesting to me about Lassie is you could see the traces of progressivism in that show. It was written by a lot of blacklisted writers—Joan Scott and her husband Adrian Scott, who was a member of the Hollywood Ten. They would write these scripts that were about nontraditional families, multigenerational families; they would have characters who would be doing work to improve crop yield in South America or to redistribute goods in a way that was much more evocative of the New Deal than the Cold War. And so by looking in those places, and reading what people had written in the places that they could, what they dreamt of writing and contributing, you get a much better sense, or at least I got a much better sense of what could have been possible, and what had been possible, in the years before the Blacklist.

One of my favorite examples is Margaret Webster’s production of Othello, in 1943. She’s a lesbian director, producer, and actor, and she wanted to produce this version of Othello with Paul Robeson as the star. And everyone in the theater said, well, no one’s going to come to see a black man play Othello. So she self-financed it, by and large, and produced it with Paul Robeson and Jose Ferrer as Iago. And it was enormously popular. The first night there was a 20-minute standing ovation and it still holds the record for the number of Shakespeare performances on Broadway. I think a lot of that creative output was prevented from happening because of the Blacklist.

All these social issues are being discussed on soap operas decades before they hit primetime.

The thing about the soaps is particularly interesting—was it the creator of General Hospital whose father had been a socialist mayor of Milwaukee? I had no idea!

I lived in Milwaukee for three years, and I had no idea. I knew who he was, and I knew who she was, but it took time to piece that together. And then there were other indications—Fredi Washington, who was in the original Imitation of Life, kept scripts for film versions of the Nat Turner rebellion and the Denmark Vesey rebellion in her papers. Clearly, people like Horne and Fredi Washington had hoped to be able to play roles that were about African Americans’ contributions to history, and not just roles that cast them as maids or exotics or prostitutes. But that couldn’t happen until much later.

I think sometimes there’s this ahistorical tendency in the way people talk about cultural production, where people act like these efforts are new, so you can’t expect “too much too fast” because we’ve just started trying to do this. But that’s total bullshit.

It is total bullshit.

I was thinking about this morning when I was reading something about Larry Nasser and Michigan State. That old logic—why are people suddenly complaining now? And the journalist pointed out that no, people had been complaining all along. It’s just that nobody listened to them, and their reports were suppressed. I feel like it’s similar to that with MeToo and Hollywood and the media industry. Women have been complaining and protesting all along, but what has happened to them—and this turns up in the story I tell, too—is that people who complain get transformed into the source of the problem. So Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker are difficult and they’re drunks. But Howard Hughes, who beat up women, and Alfred Hitchcock, who stalked them and was also abusive, get discussed as eccentric geniuses.

I remember Harvey Weinstein saying about Ashley Judd, she was nightmarish and difficult. And I thought, you know, this is the old strategy, right? You pretend that no one’s woke, so you can continue to do the things you’ve always done.

Your emphasis in the book was women, and often women of color. And it’s interesting to me that when this is talked about—the way that the Blacklist is presented to you in high school is that you read The Crucible and you learn about the Hollywood Ten. That’s the way even this story is presented to you. And Arthur Miller probably survived the whole period a lot better than Shirley Graham, or Fredi Washington, or Hazel Scott. It’s not a competition, of course, but I’m sure these women often paid a higher price than even the men who were persecuted.

That’s interesting, and it was interesting to me to think about the five African American women and the one Mexican American woman who were listed in Red Channels, because I think for the black women in particular, the Blacklist had been such persistent feature of their lives that they weren’t as undone by it as the white women. Because they had developed other strategies. Hazel Scott and Lena Horne, for example, performed across Europe. They had developed survival strategies. And I think because of their comparative privilege, the white women were shocked and undone, because they had illusions about history, about work, and about the state, that African American women didn’t have. Shirley Graham finally has to leave the United States, because of the attacks by the government on she and W.E.B. du Bois. But she goes to Ghana, and she founds a national television network—the only woman, to my knowledge, who’s done that. They survived and prevailed in ways that they could. And I think again for the white women, that was such a shock to them that they could get turned on in that way.

That’s really interesting to think about. Now that you’re saying that, I’m thinking about the different stories.

It’s something that I really started thinking about after finishing the book. It’s there in the book a little bit, but I was reminded of that when I was looking at a documentary interview with Hazel Scott that I found at the Schomburg. She was incredible. She did not back down from a fight. She tells this story in the interview where she had been performing in a USO show, and they stopped in Pasco, Washington. It was cold, everyone was tired. They were miserable. And she and her traveling companion were refused service at a restaurant because they were black. She went to the police station, and she tells this story about the police chief saying to her, you better just leave this alone or I’ll arrest you for disturbing the peace. But then she went back to the hotel, talked to her agent and said to her agent, I want three things: I want a hot bath, I want a cold drink, and I want a lawyer. And she sued the state of Washington, she got a record settlement, and she gave all the money to the NAACP.

It is such a great story, and it’s typical of the courage and the strength and the perseverance of these women, which makes it even sadder that these are stories people don’t know about.

The original version of this story misspelled Professor Stabile’s first name and misstated the university where she works; we regret the error.

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