This article examines how the writers and publicists behind the pioneering radio serial Clara, Lu 'n' Em circulated representations of gendered labor in early prime-time and daytime network radio. Through their satiric impersonations of “syntax-scrambling” midwestern housewives, the careful promotion of the three young stars, and their sale of Super Suds to American housewives, they established gender norms for both the production and the consumption of commercial messages in early radio. The creative team supporting Clara, Lu 'n' Em helped write the script for how broadcasters and sponsors could negotiate economic pressures and cultural concerns about women's paid work in the young medium. By embracing domesticity, the program negotiated the division then developing between prime-time and daytime programming, modeled modern consumer behavior for a mass female audience, and pledged its support for gendered spheres of labor.
In June 1930, three Northwestern sorority sisters arrived at Chicago radio station WGN for an audition. When asked about their act, Helen King, Louise Starkey, and Isobel Carothers exclaimed, “We talk!” WGN manager Henry Selinger named a topic (Rudy Vallée), gave them a microphone, and listened as they riffed on the famous crooner.1 Within minutes, the trio had talked their way into a two-week trial run and, subsequently, a four-year radio contract.2,Clara, Lu 'n' Em was pitched as a prime-time comedy series featuring three “syntax-scrambling” midwestern housewives: the sensible Republican Clara (Starkey), the overworked Democrat Em (King), and the confused member of the “Social” party, Lu (Carothers). The show broadcast their gossip on issues both domestic and international, delivering what their announcer called the most “cheerful, earful hour that ever settled the nation's problems.”3 Soap manufacturer Colgate-Palmolive-Peet sponsored the act, and in January 1931 the team premiered on the prime-time schedule of NBC, the network where the show would last for much of the next six years until Carothers’ untimely death in 1937.
Clara, Lu 'n' Em was produced during the Great Depression, a historical moment characterized by debates about gender and work in the public sector. As unemployment rose and men struggled to find work, women increasingly sought paid labor to support their families. In the 1930s, roughly eleven million American women—about one quarter of the female population—were employed outside the home.4 These events prompted subtle, yet significant, shifts in male authority within the American family that strained what had formerly been tight ideological links between gender roles and paid labor.5 The conceptual system of sharply divided, mutually constitutive gendered spheres that organized the lives of many Americans—the private domestic sphere in which many women worked without pay, and the public sphere where men labored for pay—seemed ripe for renegotiation.
Radio intervened powerfully in these cultural discourses about women and their varied workplaces. Female voices broadcast over the ether into private homes were aural reminders of the reality of women's paid labor and of radio's ability to blur traditional boundaries between public and private spaces—an ability that intensified as networks like NBC and CBS capitalized on women's consumer leverage to fuel their expansion into daytime programming. To emphasize their public service, the networks featured prestigious, big-budget shows aimed at male-headed households in the evening hours to impress government regulators and mass audiences. In daytime, the industry assembled a schedule of highly commercialized programs directed at female consumers to generate profits. The development of daytime broadcasting became the industry's central preoccupation throughout the 1930s. This emphasis gave women new economic and cultural power in this emerging media system.
Several broadcast historians note that one of the key hurdles in the development of daytime was a practical challenge: how to fit radio into the rhythms and routines of women's daily housework.6 The industrial segmentation of the schedule thus depended on negotiating a central paradox in daytime's address. The growth of daytime relied on both continual commercial interruptions in a woman's workday and the continued labor of women in their homes. To build financial interest in radio, the networks needed to entice sponsors with an audience of consumers receptive to commercial messages. To organize women laboring in America's homes into a consumer audience, the networks needed female audiences to tune in daily to entertaining programs and advertising. At the same time, the broadcast industry depended on women's domestic devotion in order to cultivate its attendant consumer spending. Thus, to mitigate the threat posed by commercial programs to the productivity of housewives, the new mass medium needed to validate the consumption of both radio messages and their advertised goods as essential parts of women's unpaid responsibilities.
The radio industry's solution to this dilemma was twofold: first, it worked to craft an image of impressionable female listeners who relied on sponsors’ advice to direct household purchases; and second, it developed programming that would only momentarily distract housewives from their domestic duties. In this way, the industry assured itself of an audience available to listen in the daytime and integrated housewives into the economic machinery of broadcasting. Although daytime radio challenged gender ideologies and practices by offering programming attractive and responsive to women, radio also worked to contain these challenges through the content and structure of its programming and the “ghettoization” of shows aimed at women during the day.7 With radio (and its sponsors) playing the role of helpful guide, broadcasters imagined that they could attract women to their radio sets, make them attentive to commercial announcements, and still maintain the strict division between public and private space upon which the industrial machinery of broadcasting came to depend. The successful development of daytime was contingent, then, upon a tenuous and contentious compromise that both acknowledged and contained women's economic power.
Within this industrial and social context, the “all-girl” radio show Clara, Lu 'n' Em rose to prominence. Notable for its many firsts—the first network daytime serial, the first soap-sponsored program, the first show to offer an advertising premium—this serial was also one of the earliest examples of female radio production.8 Perhaps more importantly for this study, Clara, Lu 'n' Em, airing alternatively at night and in the day, was one of the few series to navigate the gendered programming divide that emerged in radio's earliest days. Revisionist radio scholars like Michele Hilmes have discussed how the gendered programming divide emerged in 1930s network radio. But broadcast historians have not studied how production and promotional practices shifted as radio shows moved back and forth across this metaphorical divide. Given King, Starkey, and Carothers's creative power to craft images of working women in their program, a sustained analysis of Clara, Lu 'n' Em offers us insight into the dynamic interplay between cultural and industrial logics shaping female representation at times when both logics were in flux.
Using the radio papers of Clara, Lu 'n' Em's creators and trade press archives, this paper examines how representations of gendered labor circulated in early prime-time and daytime radio during an experimental period for the industry. As broadcasters, creators, sponsors, and advertising agencies negotiated Depression-era gendered hierarchies and the economic imperatives of early radio, this series broadcast depictions of women working in the home and behind the microphone to female listeners. Through its representations of gendered labor—the impersonation of midwestern housewives, the careful promotion of the three young stars, and instructions on how listeners could participate in radio's consumer economy—the creative team behind Clara, Lu 'n' Em helped write the script for how broadcasters and sponsors would navigate economic realities and cultural concerns about women's paid work in Depression-era America.
Furthermore, an examination of this groundbreaking radio program demonstrates how gendered norms for both the production and the consumption of commercial messages were established in contemporaneous discourse, both in the representation of working women and in program scheduling. When the series was moved to daytime, the program's promotional team rewrote the stories circulating about Clara, Lu, and Em to craft a more cohesive relationship between these female radio stars and their listeners. Using the labor of women behind the scenes, in the nation's homes, and in front of the microphone to grease the economic machinery of daytime, the young radio industry married the economic demands of this new daytime space with the cultural logics of gendered norms still under negotiation. Moreover, the promotional history of Clara, Lu 'n' Em exposes the personal and professional costs of modeling modern consumer behavior for a mass female audience as it was experienced by the show's stars. While Starkey, King, and Carothers benefited from peddling radio, radio listening, and Super Suds detergent to their female listeners, they also paid a price for their success—the erasure of their creative work as comedians, writers, and producers, and the prioritization of their private, unpaid labor over their very public accomplishments.
CLARA, LU 'N' EM TO AIR: THE LABOR OF EARLY RADIO
For their first two weeks of broadcasting, Starkey, King, and Carothers performed nightly, without pay, under the stage name “The Three Question Marks.” As the moniker suggests, WGN manager Henry Selinger seemed unsure that the trio had commercial potential.9 But audience reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and a sponsorship was quickly secured from Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. The trio, now performing as Clara, Lu, and Em, was tasked with selling the company's new dishwashing detergent, Super Suds, and they did so for the entirety of their initial network run.10 In addition to attracting the attention of a major national advertiser, Clara, Lu 'n' Em was a popular nighttime program on WGN and NBC. Six months in, WGN's owner, the Chicago Tribune, declared, “Chicagoland had taken Clara, Lu 'n' Em to its heart.”11 The originality of its concept (all-female sketch comedy) and the unpredictability of freewheeling female conversation kept evening audiences tuning in. In another article, the Chicago Tribune suggested, “Tonight you'll hear them discuss Babe Ruth, Rufus Dawes, or President Hoover; tomorrow it may be—but who knows what Clara, Lu 'n' Em are going to say?”12 If audiences embraced the program for its novelty, its sponsor and local station did so because Clara, Lu 'n' Em moved product. The trio, popularly referred to as the “Super Suds Girls” or “The Girls,” established the brand as a major soap competitor.13 And for the Chicago Tribune, “The Girls’” habit of incorporating the latest news into their nightly act effectively sold newspapers.14
Through the economic uncertainty of radio's earliest days, Clara, Lu 'n' Em's popularity and commercial reliability sustained the program, while the comic formula perfected by Starkey, King, and Carothers ensured the program's mass appeal. Although upper-class audiences might have chuckled at “The Girls’” naive understanding of the world around them, lower-class housewives could laugh along with their radio friends.15 “Tired business men relaxed,” claimed the Chicago Tribune, “as they heard Clara tell about the stock market, Lu orate on matrimony, or Em discuss Mussolini.”16 The program's flexibility—its ability to resonate with and be marketed to different audiences—contributed to its success in either day part and with both sexes. As suggested by the women's magazine Redbook, “Every woman in the world likes nothing better than to have a good gossip. Every man likes nothing better than to scoff at this feminine trait. So both are amused by Clara, Lu 'n' Em—the women laugh with them and the men at them.”17 The serial's ability to appeal consistently to different constituencies assured its longevity on air.
Although the show could be adapted for many audiences, the evening program was specifically sold to the listening public as a “burlesque of washtub queens.”18 Benton & Bowles, the advertising agency in charge of the Super Suds account, publicized the satiric nature of their comedy act with profiles of the trio, reporting that “The Girls” were not the middle-aged matrons they portrayed on air, but recent graduates from Northwestern University's School of Speech.19 This admission only enhanced the trio's reputation; these young women were praised in the press for their “sophisticated comedy,” their “splendid craftsmanship,” and their keen observational skills shaping their impersonations of midwestern housewives.20 Their blend of sophisticated yet lowbrow humor was not unique in early radio. NBC already offered several serialized prime-time programs like Amos 'n' Andy and Lum 'n' Abner featuring African Americans and rural hillbillies as the butts of jokes for the elite audiences who were the most avid adopters of radio.21 From the start, the youth, education, and middle-to-upper-class background of the stars were central elements of their publicity plans. Indeed, most photos of the characters distributed to the press in these early years were headshots of three modern young women (fig. 1). Taking the class critique at the heart of the series as a given, one reporter suggested that it “would seem apparent to anyone that ‘The Girls’ would have to be the brilliant, cultured women they are to portray their delightful illiteracy.”22 From its inception, then, Starkey, King, and Carothers were recognized as highly skilled performers who married working-class identity to productivity and respectability.
Not only were “The Girls” identified as comedians, but the press also frequently acknowledged their roles as writers and producers. In 1931, Clara, Lu 'n' Em's announcer Jean Paul King detailed in the fan magazine Radio Digest the blood, sweat, and tears squeezed from the trio to produce a fifteen-minute radio program each night. Without personal experiences or real-life working-class models from which to draw, he noted, “The Girls” used only their imaginations to compose their evening sketches. In their first year of broadcast, King claimed, the trio had already produced “over 425,000 words of radio continuity,” roughly equivalent to “four good length novels.”23 Interestingly, the production demands of other shows were not always publicized similarly, even on the same network. Media historian Kathy Fuller-Seeley, in her discussion of comedian Jack Benny's early foray into radio in 1932, recounts how the need to hire writers to produce material for Benny's twice-weekly musical comedy program did not register as remarkable to NBC, nor to Benny's sponsor.24 In contrast, the public emphasis on Starkey, King, and Carothers's creativity as work suggests how unusual it was to have women working in radio and implies that “The Girls’” legitimacy as radio performers needed to be established in a way that Benny's labor did not.
Although the trio's impersonation of lower-class housewives was widely praised, there was still popular concern about these public performances. In December 1930, a Radio Digest reporter hinted at the cultural disorientation prompted by the women's political chitchat and the public's inability to verify the characters’ authenticity:
Almost everybody in the Middle West is talking about Clara, Lu 'n' Em, “The Girls.” In a nice way, of course. Everybody is saying, “Who are they?” “What are they like?” … Nobody ever knows what they are going to talk about but one is always sure, at any rate, of the largest number of laughs that any fifteen minutes can bring.25
Such anxiety about both the visibility and the invisibility of these women was reiterated by a writer from the Dayton Herald, who described Clara, Lu 'n' Em's re-creation of working-class vernacular as “broadcasts of blackface chatter.”26 Perhaps, as this allusion suggests, Clara, Lu 'n' Em shared more than a format with the minstrelsy-based Amos 'n' Andy. On the one hand, the term “blackface chatter” may refer to the unsophisticated speech of lower-class housewives. But on the other hand, the juxtaposition of racial blackface with the sound of women's chatter, invoking both an image and an auditory experience, reflects cultural anxieties about the disconnect between the aural and visual regimes of knowledge in radio. Without visuals, how could an audience determine the precise “otherness” of the voices coming into their homes?
The phrase “blackface chatter” also signals a broader uneasiness in early radio with women acting on-air. Another journalist expressed this concern, describing “The Girls’” pre-broadcast routine as a transformation from “the ‘Dr. Jekyll’ of three cultured college girls … [to] the ‘Mr. Hyde’ of Clara, Lu 'n' Em.” Imagining their preparation as mysterious and disturbing precisely because it was unseen, the writer suggested:
It must be really dramatic to hear the suave voices of these three intelligent women change suddenly to the unsophisticated accents of their puppets. But nobody has ever heard it! There they sit, talk, make notes. What else goes on? Do they get up and walk around the room—make gestures—knit between notes? Nobody knows.27
In vocalizing his inability to see the work shaping these performances, this reporter revealed a wider cultural unease with women's voices on radio.28 When Starkey, King, and Carothers disappeared into character, listeners wondered who these women really were. Outside of direct male supervision, the culture's management of women and their radio voices was fraught. Thus, from its inception, this prime-time comedy proved popular, profitable, and potentially problematic to a Depression-era society unsure how women's paid labor should look or sound.
“ACTRESSES, AUTHORS AND HOUSEWIVES”: PROMOTING “THE GIRLS” IN EARLY RADIO
The successes of these talented women were by no means inevitable.29 Auditioning during the depths of the Great Depression, King, Starkey, and Carothers had been told by more than one executive that there was no place for an act like theirs in radio.30 Three women together could be singers, perhaps, but not comedians, and certainly not writers or producers of their own series. Nevertheless, despite the dearth of female speaking voices in early radio, they persisted, and secured an unusual amount of production autonomy.31 After each broadcast, the three would sketch out the next day's script. Grabbing topics from newspapers and magazines, they mapped out their timely takes on small-town life and national politics together, before separating to further develop their parts individually. The next day they would arrive at the Chicago studio thirty minutes in advance to assemble the broadcast, piecing the lines together “like a jigsaw puzzle.”32 If the script did not fill the entire fifteen minutes, the performers improvised their chatter on-air. For well more than nine hundred broadcasts, King, Starkey, and Carothers were the sole writers and performers of every line of dialogue.33 Even on summer break, they wrote letters about their vacations for their announcer to read over the air.34 Remarkably, during its initial run, “The Girls” broadcast their program without having to submit their scripts in advance to station management, the network, or their sponsors.35
Such editorial freedom enabled timely, uncensored commentary on the latest political events, and this topicality contributed to the trio's cultural and political influence. As a marker of their stature, in 1933 “The Girls” were invited to report in character from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first presidential inauguration and from the Century of Progress Chicago fairgrounds in special broadcasts to their listeners. In fact, one Texas politician believed Clara, Lu, and Em had so much political influence that she wrote them a letter asking if they would “boost her campaign on the air.”36 Another letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune in 1935 even suggested that the Republican party should sponsor comedians like Clara, Lu, and Em to resist Roosevelt's New Deal, arguing that a satiric program like theirs would “have more influence and cause more talk on the street corner the next morning than a hundred dry political speeches.”37 King, Starkey, and Carothers were also three of the five women (among more than two dozen men) to make the list of radio's highest-paid entertainers during its first decade.38 However, although their comic personas were successful and their pay was lucrative, their prime-time radio personalities would need a makeover when NBC moved “The Girls” hours earlier on its schedule.
The program's switch to a daytime slot in 1932 prompted a shift in how King, Starkey, and Carothers were sold to radio audiences. As the industry developed daytime as a space to talk directly to female consumers, the parodic nature of the trio's portrayal of three simple housewives confused by current events was out of tune with the close, intimate relationships between characters and listeners sought by sponsors. In January 1934, Variety reported a change in Benton & Bowles's promotional strategy for the series. Aimed squarely at daytime audiences, the agency sought to “exploit the girls as regular everyday women instead of portraying them to the public in a burlesque of washtub queens.” The idea, Variety reported, was to “tell the public that the women are just acting and that offstage they're upstanding femmes.”39 In a letter to a press agent in early 1934, Clara, Lu, and Em's personal representative, Kathryn Owen, tried to rewrite the trio's reputation in the press. She worked to soften what had distinguished “The Girls” just a few years earlier, now reassuring readers that although the trio was educated at Northwestern, their college careers “were unmarked with superior distinction.” Despite this elite education, says Owen, they are really “the salt of the earth,” having been “reared simply, in an unpretentious fashion.” Although they are professional comedians, Clara, Lu, and Em are simply “‘play-acting,’ and not ‘acting’ in its orthodox sense on the radio.” Moreover, Owen declares their determination to cultivate their lives away from radio, realizing the “dynamite their success could be to the ultimate happiness of their private lives.”40 Following these behind-the-scenes discussions were a flurry of fan-magazine profiles in 1934 with titles like “Three Matrons of Evanston,” “Clara, Lu 'n' Em Are Happiest of Homebodies in Private Life,” and “They Turned Their Backs on Broadway.”41 To make these radio stars more relatable to a female mass audience, it suddenly seemed necessary to downplay the trio's comic talent and professional accomplishments.
Clara, Lu 'n' Em's promotional team recrafted the trio's public image to appeal to daytime listeners, meet the economic demands of the industry, and engage with larger cultural discussions about women in the workforce. For example, as one radio writer queried, how can King, Starkey, and Carothers be “independent and capable without sacrificing their essential femininity?”42 Donna Halper, in her study of women in broadcasting, suggests that appearing as a wife or mother in popular magazines was one strategy to resolve this incongruity.43 For instance, in February 1934, NBC and Benton & Bowles released a story about Clara, Lu, and Em's habit of getting “up with the early birds to make their hubby's breakfast before their commute to the city for their daily broadcast,” insisting that
making breakfast for their husbands is more than a gesture on the part of Clara, Lu 'n' Em. They are determined not to let their professional activities interfere in the slightest degree with their real careers—which, each of them says, is marriage. As Em sums it up: “Radio is just work, after all. Sometime it will come to an end like any other job. Marriage is for life.”44
In an August 1934 piece in Tower Radio magazine, writer Elizabeth Walker assured readers that Clara, Lu, and Em more strongly resembled three “‘young marrieds’ from the suburbs, taking time out from a shopping spree” than high-powered radio stars.45 In Microphone magazine, their press agent proclaimed the trio “unpretentious homebodies” whose “chief joy” was “keeping homes for their husbands.”46 Even the money the three earned from their radio work was presented as secondary to their husbands’, with press agents claiming that “The Girls’” salaries were trivial contributions to the family income.47 Each of the publicity pieces produced in this period exalted the trio's devotion to home and family and tempered any hint of professional ambitions.
Through this trade discourse, King, Starkey, and Carothers's star personas began to more closely resemble their fictional characters. At the height of their popularity, they were more likely to be described in the press as “demure domestic artists” than as gifted political commentators.48 When the trio took a summer break from broadcasting in 1935, Carothers reported her intent to “[vacation] as a housewife” in her new Evanston home.49 One press release even suggested that “The Girls” could not resume their show after a summer break until their housework was done, and a 1935 publicity picture of Starkey dressed in character and mopping a kitchen floor was accompanied by the announcement that the trio would soon return to radio (fig. 2). “Don't bother Clara!” declared the Detroit News, since “can't you see she's got her housework to finish so she can settle down to a gab fest with Lu 'n' Em, five times a week, over WWJ?”50 For these stars and their female listeners, the headline of a 1935 Minneapolis newspaper— “‘Domestics’ to Return to the Air”—explained it all.51 In promotional rhetoric, any distinction between the radio stars and their alter egos collapsed in deference to daytime's desire to make its female celebrities appear more relevant to their listeners.
“The Girls’” balance of work and home life was a particular area of concern in the press, and numerous articles obsessively detailed the intricacies of their daily schedules. Profiles on the trio recounted not only how each made their husbands breakfast before traveling to the studio, but also how they wrote their scripts in the morning while their husbands were at work, and how they lived as “just the wives of three grand husbands” until it was time the next day to leave for the studio.52 Even maternity leave fit into the broadcasting schedule. King gave birth during their summer break in 1935; and when Starkey was due to give birth in December 1935, the women installed a private wire from her parlor to WGN's studio so the three could still broadcast daily without leaving Starkey's home.53 Popular accounts of their schedules were clearly aspirational, suggesting that a radio career need not compromise women's responsibilities at home, but can fit in and around them.
The press surrounding these radio stars also obscured the work required to manage their homes and careers successfully. Among the thousands of press pieces on this talkative trio, only one mentioned the work of Ida Green, Alberta Andry, or Allie Mae Jones, the African American maids hired respectively by Carothers, Starkey, and King to cook, clean, and care for their homes as “The Girls” pursued their radio careers.54 As necessary as it is for scholars to identify how white women's labor out of the home was diminished in popular discourse, it is even more important to make visible the ways in which the invisible labor of African American women working in white, middle-class homes supported more economically privileged women's movement into the workforce. Additionally, the work of the largely female publicity team—the press agents, personal assistants, and advertising representatives—was erased from any public account of how “The Girls” managed radio fame and a household. The reality of a domestic and promotional staff did help foster the aspirational fantasy represented by these stars. Yet satisfying the culture's interest in how contemporary women could “have it all” required hiding the labor of the many women who supported the trio's success.
Furthermore, the proof of their balance of home and career was a public performance of domestic labor. Although their declaration that “we are housewives even before we are radio performers” seemed genuine, the actresses did knowingly participate in some stagecraft to emphasize their domestic prowess.55 In 1935, a photographer snapped pictures of the three making batches of jelly from the first strawberries of the season.56 These pictures, an account of the jelly making, and a few of “The Girls’” favorite recipes were released to dozens of newspapers around the country. In an interview a year later, Starkey admitted that this publicity stunt romanticized their own limited domestic skills, declaring, “Land knows we'd like to live up to this reputation of ‘Clara, Lu 'n' Em’ in our own lives, but we don't believe we're veteran cooks, and what's more, we are all like you—either we buy our strawberry jelly or have someone make it for us.” Although Starkey declared that such domestic performances were “a necessary part of the Show that ‘Must Go On,’” she and the other actors were clearly not immune to the ideological pressures placed on working women. Starkey admitted that “it is true, we often wish we could be a little more like Clara, Lu, and Em in private life.”57 Even as the trio staged housework to advance their radio careers, their own voices reclaimed this work as performative. Yet these moments of acknowledgment, which made explicit their role in crafting an image of working women in both the professional and the domestic sense, pointed to the cultural ambiguities of women's labor. In order to sustain their paid endeavors, female actresses felt compelled to demonstrate their domestic devotion. This unpaid promotional labor was thus their price of admission to Depression-era radio stardom.
Contemporary popular discourse in fan magazines often emphasized a woman's embrace of homemaking as an important component of female radio celebrity. In other words, framing female radio personas in traditional hegemonic terms was not unique in the world of daytime. Susan Smulyan discusses how the homemaking programs that briefly dominated the daytime air in the early 1930s certainly influenced this impulse to connect with audiences through domesticity, providing a model of personalized selling amenable to both audiences and advertisers.58 We must also understand these representations, in part, as a backlash against the movement of many women into the workforce during this period. In one 1935 exposé, journalist Elizabeth Walker analyzed the careers of five contemporary radio stars, five “goddaughters of the depression” as she called them, to determine what led them to radio fame. The women featured, the creators of the serials Myrt & Marge and Clara, Lu 'n' Em, all credited “Ol’ Debbil Depression” for prompting their radio careers.59 In another article, Carothers explained how economic desperation forced the three to put their beloved alter egos on air: “When the opportunity first presented itself to us to put our stunt on the radio, we all felt that we were violating the confidence of some dear friends. We didn't really want to commercialize them, but at the time we were all out of work, and you know how it is.”60 To negotiate Depression-era ambivalence with women's paid labor, it was common to view women's work as “temporary, not reflecting a permanent shift in the nature of women's roles in the family.”61 In fact, the head of the Federal Bureau of Home Economics boasted that homemaking was the most stable career for women, arguing that “none of the nation's 28 million housewives lost their jobs because of the economic crisis.”62 And as this article demonstrates, even the work of female radio stars, the most spectacular examples of women's paid labor, were carefully reframed as reluctant responses to a desperate financial situation.
Depression-era popular culture producers wrestled with the problem of creating what Laura Hapke describes as “culturally palatable images of breadwinning womanhood.”63 This kind of discursive labor, encouraged by the intimate relationship desired between celebrity and listener, led the public relations experts supporting Clara, Lu 'n' Em to create a public image for “The Girls” that closely resembled the characters they played. The characters, Clara, Lu, and Em, were three housewives who, despite economic anxieties, maintained homes and family. In this process of rebranding, the stars disavowed much of what distinguished their act in early radio—their class stature, their education, their political acumen, their comic tone—and adopted their alter egos’ limited and limiting domestic focus. What was “culturally palatable” then was the actresses’ performative embrace of their private lives and satisfaction with a life that closely resembled that of their listeners.
SELLING RADIO, RADIO LISTENING, AND SUPER SUDS: SEPARATE SPHERES AND DAYTIME
“Woman's place may or may not be in the home,” declared one writer in 1925, “but as a matter of fact that is where many of them are, and the radio broadcasters know it and build their programs on it.”64 Even before daytime network schedules were introduced, the claim that programming schedules formed naturally and mimicked actual audience practices was presented as an established truism. The gendered divide between daytime and evening programming emerging in the 1930s reinforced this rhetoric and obscured how gender hierarchies and economic imperatives shaped broadcasting practices. As Michele Hilmes points out, the distinction that emerged throughout the first decade of radio between daytime and nighttime audiences was somewhat arbitrary, “with the ratio of women to men in the daytime only slightly higher than prime time.”65 A significant difference in gender composition between the dayparts was even less clear during the worst of the Depression, when record numbers of men were un- or underemployed and available to listen during the day.66 The belief that commercial messages aimed at women at home during the day would be the most effective strategy to reach consumers was even contradicted by demographic research at the time.67 Indeed, some researchers concluded that the best way to address the female consumer was to reach her in the evening.68 The data amassed by these researchers—pointing to the fact that 95 percent of all the housewives listened attentively in the evenings, as compared to the 79 percent who claimed to give complete attention to the radio in the daytime—were generally ignored by broadcasters, who resolutely pursued the commercial development of daytime programming throughout the 1930s.69
Thus, the division of the broadcasting schedule was motivated less by the actual gender composition of the audience than by assumptions about women's appropriate role as consumers, radio listeners, and housewives. Moreover, in its embrace of gendered spheres of labor, as suggested by Jason Loviglio, radio played a significant role in maintaining the boundaries between the public and private spheres and the gender roles appropriate to them.70 The production history of Clara, Lu 'n' Em illustrates how this divide was sustained. Perhaps no other series was as skillful in negotiating these boundaries as Clara, Lu 'n' Em, which was one of the few programs in the history of radio to move back and forth across dayparts. From 1930 to 1932 the show aired on WGN and NBC's Blue network in the evening.71 From 1932 through 1936 it broadcast during the day to more than forty-two stations on NBC's Red network.72 The series was revived briefly as a prime-time musical program in June 1936, and then again in 1942 as a thrice-weekly daytime offering. By examining the series’ treatment of gendered labor, its promotion of its radio stars, and its commercial appeals to consumers, the discursive changes prompted by the move to daytime expose the extent to which gendered norms shaped early broadcasting.
There was a more immediate industrial motive for Clara, Lu 'n' Em's move from prime time in 1932. In 1928 NBC established a Sales Promotion Department, headed by E. P. H. James, to stabilize its programming schedule.73 James proposed that the network would profit if current sponsors aggressively merchandized their programs and if NBC developed a regular roster of daytime programming. As prime-time slots sold out, his plan was “to transfer evening accounts with ‘distinct day-time appeal’ to the daytime, thus freeing up hours of valuable prime time for commercial sponsorship.”74 An all-girl team selling dish soap was surely more amenable to such a switch than the male-hosted musical and comedy programs that filled the night air.
Yet an examination of Clara, Lu 'n' Em's promotional materials demonstrates how economic motivations for this shift were consistently deflected. According to the network, the show's swing from late evening to early morning was the result of “months of investigation by the sponsors” into thousands of fan requests for better availability and a “more convenient listening time.”75 Additionally, in a letter written to fans who had complained about the schedule change, the characters Clara, Lu, and Em took personal responsibility for the decision. Listening to the program in the evening, they argued, interfered with the sleep and housework of their female fans:
Dear Friend, what kin us wimmen say accept we ask you … to ask us what would you 'uv done what with peepul writ in they was getting no sleep ac count our … late hr. An how did we expect they'd git there work done next day when we kep em up so late. Etshetrah. So we sez to the broadcasting peepul would they plez change us.76
The very existence of this letter suggests that enough fans were upset about the schedule change to necessitate a formal response. More telling, however, is the way that listeners’ attention to evening programming and the resulting disruption of women's work the following day was framed as the problem to be solved. The network positioned itself as beholden to the “real” needs of its audience, and thus as having no choice but to move this serial to the daytime. Although its explicit purpose was to assemble female consumers into a commercial audience, a fact already accomplished in the evening, early broadcasters overlooked those female consumers gathered at night and chose to align their programming with traditional gendered spheres of labor during the day. By promoting this fictional requirement, a gendered space in daytime listening was structured as “natural” and the industry's economic interests were concealed.
Furthermore, the series demonstrated to daytime listeners how seamlessly radio programs fit within a woman's workday. The format of the show—three neighbors pausing in their work to chat—modeled appropriate radio usage for housewives new to radio. At times, the program implied that taking a break to listen to your radio friends might renew your productivity. For example, in one early episode, Clara and Em come by Lu's kitchen while she is ironing. They gab about the recent earthquake in Italy, Mussolini, and the neighbors. After gossiping a spell, Clara returns to her household duties: “Lu, I've set here and watched you work, till you get me all worked up about goin’ downstairs and getting busy.” Lu ends the show by thanking Clara and Em for coming, saying, “It helps the day to pass.”77 Such framing eased the tensions caused by radio's disruption to a woman's work when Clara, Lu 'n' Em was moved to the daytime. Format, characterization, and scheduling come together here to illustrate how a brief radio break can not only fit in a woman's day, but also return her energized to her housework. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was what “The Girls” were also encouraged to do after their daily broadcast.
During the series’ transition from prime-time property to daytime destination, advertising continuity educated female listeners about their role in the daytime economy. In clear language, the announcer spelled out the expectations for the commercial relationship desired between listeners, program creators, and sponsors:
Clara, Lu 'n' Em! Brought you by the makers of Super Suds. As you know, the entire cost of bringing you Clara, Lu 'n' Em every day is sustained by the makers of this product. Therefore the program must win new customers for Super Suds. We should like to know how many listeners Clara, Lu 'n' Em have and how many of you use Super Suds. Will you give us a vote? … Just mail the tops of two packages of Super Suds to Super Suds the Palmolive Building, Chicago. Your package tops are your votes for this program.78
With little subtlety, the announcer walks listeners through the economic process being institutionalized by broadcasting companies. If its bald clarity did not compel action, the announcement concluded with a word from Em herself, who promised a personal gift “sent right from the heart” to listeners in return for box tops. Whereas an earlier tradition of “indirect” advertising eschewed overt commercial influence on radio content, Clara, Lu 'n' Em ushered in a more explicit and personal sales relationship that would soon be replicated across daytime genres and would naturalize the economic ties binding listener, character, and sponsor.79
In July 1932, after the program moved to a daytime slot, Clara, Lu 'n' Em's promotional team began their work of assembling their radio fans into an audience by instituting a club for their friends, near and far, called the Ladies’ Liberty League. In a fictional newspaper entitled the Ladies’ Clarion Blast, the league demanded “more freedom for homemakers.”80 But this cri de coeur was not so revolutionary. Housewives, they argued, should demand freedom not from housework, but from men underfoot who dirty up towels and interfere with meal preparations. Two box tops of Super Suds and a letter to Clara, Lu, and Em were all that was required to receive your membership certificate and to pay your debt to the sponsor; according to one source, nearly half a million women gained membership to this club.81 Promotion for Clara, Lu 'n' Em neatly integrated the purchase of Super Suds, fan loyalty, and the arrangement of daytime hours into an exclusively female sphere, all in one fifteen-minute radio show. At a time when the Depression destabilized the ideologies underpinning separate spheres as fixed arenas of gendered labor, daytime radio worked simultaneously to create commercial spaces that reinforced those traditional structures.
Colgate-Palmolive-Peet and “The Girls” also unabashedly appealed to female solidarity to sell their products. In a letter to fans, Clara, Lu, and Em challenged listeners to help them promote their sponsor's new product, Palmolive Beads:
We want to help sell it fer them like we done Super Suds. But they sez No. We dont believe wimmen like you kin sell a soap fer silks. An we sez Leave us try. So now we're asking will you try just one box of Palmolive Beads fer your silks an then write us how you like it. Please remember the writ in part as that proves to these men that you're tryin Palmolive Beads.82
These sales pleas leaned heavily on the rapport nurtured by the characters in the series, actresses in popular magazines, and the friendly relationship suggested between the characters and their sponsor. In appreciation for these regular fifteen minutes of airtime, Clara, Lu, and Em's impulse to help their sponsor felt personal and not contractually obligated. By dissolving the class politics so integral to the earliest incarnations of the program, this commercial appeal focused on gender solidarity as its primary sales strategy. In cultivating an imagined space in which women of different classes could gather over the shared experience of domestic work, the advertising agency effectively organized Clara, Lu 'n' Em's listeners into a consumer audience by gender and established daytime as a commercialized space for appealing to that consumer.83 Furthermore, the listeners’ loyalty to their radio friends was framed as empowering; by purchasing Palmolive Beads, listeners could help “The Girls” prove their worth to their sponsor and, subsequently, prove their worth as consumers. In this appeal, the message that consumerism is empowering was more prominent than the familiar role imagined for women by daytime radio.
Shortly before Clara, Lu 'n' Em's move to daytime, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet developed a print advertising campaign in a comic-strip style that established Super Suds, Clara, Lu 'n' Em, and radio as powerful sales agents. As Roland Marchand points out, the trend toward cartoon strip print ads in the early 1930s allowed sponsors to find a way to “publicize and personify fictional characters from popular radio programs.” The comic-strip style helped listeners visualize radio characters as real figures giving “down-to-earth, personalized sales pitch[es]” about the products they sponsored.84 Depicted in a multi-scene strip as black-and-white photographic cutouts often set against a brightly colored background, the cartoon figures of Clara, Lu, and Em dispensed advice to women in different domestic situations about how Super Suds could make their housework more efficient and effective. These comic strip ads were multitasking promotional vehicles: they advertised radio's ability to sell Super Suds, they publicized the ability of Super Suds to relieve the drudgery of women's housework, and they confirmed “The Girls’” domestic expertise.
A Super Suds cartoon print ad from 1933 offers a particularly compelling depiction of radio's role in reinforcing the home as a gendered sphere of labor (fig. 3). This advertisement centers on a female stenographer at the radio station where Clara, Lu, and Em broadcast who is leaving her job to get married. By the second frame of the cartoon, the former stenographer appears at the station asking for her job back, having discovered that “house-work is just dishes-dishes-dishes.”85 Gathered around the NBC mic, the ink-drawn Clara, Lu, and Em counsel the newlywed to try Super Suds to save both dishwashing time and her new marriage. The cartoon ends with an ecstatic ex-stenographer, saved from the workplace and from domestic drudgery by Super Suds, NBC, and the wise Clara, Lu, and Em. Also illustrated in this cartoon strip is one of the deep ironies of Clara, Lu 'n' Em: although at times the trio's comic skills were discounted, their gossipy conversations dismissed, and their political opinions ignored, in the frames of the show's cartoon ads and in the program, “The Girls” were promoted as authorities in one area of expertise, namely, housework.
“THEY BUILT A BETTER MOUSETRAP”
In an opinion piece entitled “Women on the Radio,” noted radio researchers Gordon Allport and Hadley Cantril repeated the oft-told tale that “the American public has a distinct partiality for men on the radio,” finding female broadcasters generally both “affected and unnatural.” “The fact remains,” said the researchers, “that most of us like our women radio artists beautiful, as Jessica Dragonette presumably is, or funny, as Clara, Lu and Em certainly are.” They predicted that “women with vulgar and uncouth-sounding voices” would be “more likely to succeed on the air than their more fastidious sisters” on homemaking shows.86
As the economic pressures of the Great Depression grew and the commercialization of daytime became essential, radio needed emissaries who could take the industry beyond the discursive limits of a sponsorship-only approach to advertising toward more personalized selling. In Clara, Lu 'n' Em, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet and NBC found useful pitchwomen for female consumers, authoritative guides to the world of housewives, and career women willing to celebrate their devotion to one gendered sphere even while laboring in another. As sponsors and network executives soon discovered, the lower-class, nasal twang of Clara, Lu, and Em sold products more effectively and carried commercial messages much further than the more sophisticated patois of the household experts who briefly crowded daytime airwaves in the early 1930s.
The economic realities of the Depression challenged the gendered division of space and labor upon which much in American society had been organized. Although the ideology of separate spheres of labor was tested during this period, the American broadcasting industry chose to sustain a more traditional division of labor. As evidenced by the promotional history of Clara, Lu 'n' Em, radio found a way to fashion and then profit from “culturally palatable images of breadwinning womanhood.”87 Radio allowed working women on-air, but actively endorsed the idea of women working at home to maintain the crucial audience needed by the networks to thrive. Through program content, advertisements, and publicity materials, broadcasters promoted “The Girls” (and the products they sold) as helpful guides for American housewives. When King, Starkey, and Carothers created fictional versions of themselves as housewives for the airwaves and for the press, these depictions reinforced the program's alignment with traditional gender norms. By minimizing publicly their professional ambitions, the trio managed to navigate through a decade of radio's expansion and experimentation and blur the intentionality of radio's economic and ideological work. In essence, as expressed in a 1934 press release, Clara, Lu 'n' Em helped the American broadcast industry “build a better mousetrap.”88
The promotional history of Clara, Lu 'n' Em thus points to the paradoxical problem of women's labor for the radio industry, which was at once central to the show's success and a stumbling block to be overcome. As the creators and the network resolved these conflicts, the rhetorical strategies they developed through advertising and promotional materials shifted attention from the trio's work in creating the show to the performance of work as the show. Clara, Lu 'n' Em illustrates vividly how the intensity of these gendered discourses, which worked to naturalize associations between the show and its audience, also worked to naturalize the emerging market logic of daytime radio.
Clara, Lu 'n' Em's ability to survive during this transitional period is a testament to its ability to meet the diverse needs of the radio industry, Depression-era society, and daytime listeners. The vocal stylings of Helen King, Louise Starkey, and Isobel Carothers, their satiric sensibility, and the careful marketing of their private lives gave the program an extraordinary flexibility to negotiate cultural acceptance of women's talk over the air. The series’ format—its comic combination of women's domestic expertise and misinformed gossip on world events—also afforded it an elasticity not available to many other radio texts. Its gossipy “pots-and-pans humor” also made it an ideal vehicle for establishing a gendered sphere of expertise and commercialized domesticity during the daytime.89 Simultaneously, the strategic promotion of King, Starkey, and Carothers's private lives blunted the impact of their paid labor and fetishized an image of domestic labor inaccessible to many women in Depression-era America.
In this brief peek at the production dynamics informing this pioneering radio serial, we can glimpse the narrow parameters within which female vocal expression, identity formation, and bodily representation were permitted on radio at this critical juncture in radio history. In her study of radio consumers, Kathy Newman discusses how radio fan letters from the 1930s provided insight into the “social and cultural meanings of ‘women's work’—the work of shopping, the work of patronizing the sponsors’ products, the work of homemaking, and women's work outside the home.”90 The cost for Louise Starkey, Helen King, and Isobel Carothers to sustain their radio careers, however, was considerable: the erasure of the comic labor involved in producing their life's work and the commercialization of their private lives. And sponsors’ dependency on daytime female listeners, whose unpaid consumptive labor expanded and whose paid labor was minimized, would only grow through broadcasting's next decades.