This article examines how women's broadcasting promoted consciousness and appreciation of the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. These were decades in which Australians had limited access to US news and culture, and Hollywood dominated local imaginings of US society. In this climate, Australians who had lived Stateside were hailed as authorities on the nation and its people, and they often spoke on radio. Among these “America educators” were significant numbers of women. Armed with firsthand knowledge of the wider world, these female travelers could claim space in a broadcasting landscape otherwise dominated by men. Through their radio broadcasts, they aspired to foster transpacific understanding and friendship. Women's broadcasting was therefore a cultural force at the vanguard of Australia's “turn to America.” More than a manifestation of US popular culture, radio depicted the United States as an ally of and model for Australia during an era of entrenched British allegiance.
In June 1941, Irene Greenwood of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) proposed a broadcast on women's activities in the United States. Greenwood had run weekly talks on “Women in the International News” for the past four years, and the fan mail she received alerted her to a deep hunger for US content. She was conscious that US books and periodicals were difficult to obtain, making radio a crucial source of information. Since the outbreak of war, meanwhile, Australians had looked to the United States as a prospective military ally, creating “an awakened reciprocal interest between our two nations.” The United States also held special interest for female listeners as a global mecca of women's activity and leadership. For all these reasons and more, Greenwood was determined to feature a US-centered talk. She knew that women broadcasters wanted to discuss the United States, and that this topic was “of great listener interest.”1
Although her proposal was dismissed by ABC Talks director B. H. Molesworth, Greenwood's analysis was on point. During the mid-twentieth century, Australians were indeed eager to learn about the nation that now rivaled Britain as the world's preeminent superpower, yet a range of cultural and geopolitical factors inhibited the flow of people and information between Australia and the United States. In this climate, radio broadcasts about the United States—especially those created by Australians who had visited or lived there—constituted rare and powerful sources of information about the nation and its people. At once intimate and massified, radio played an important but hitherto unrecognized role in bridging the cultural and geographic gulf between the two countries. Women were pivotal to this process. Despite the gendered hierarchies that marginalized female voices within early Australian radio, many women with firsthand experience of the United States would develop broadcasts about that country. These programs ranged from one-off talks to weekly or fortnightly programs, and included travelogue, social and political commentary, and even a pen-pal club. The common ambition was to foster transpacific understanding and friendship. Audiences proved enthusiastic, and some programs continued for years, even decades.
These programs are the focus of this article, which argues that Australian women's broadcasting was a site of ad hoc US boosterism that both reflected and promoted Australia's midcentury cultural and geopolitical reorientation toward the United States. In what follows I discuss a range of programs broadcast on both public and commercial radio between the 1930s and the 1960s, with particular attention to Jean Wilmot Bemis's fortnightly ABC show American Letter, which ran from 1943 to circa 1965. American Letter was the most prominent and longest-lasting program of its kind, and many of its scripts are preserved at the ABC archives. Whereas much radio broadcasting is ephemeral and eludes close textual analysis, Bemis's American Letter is one of the rare programs whose content and language can be scrutinized in depth. By analyzing the scripts, as well as a range of other archival and periodical sources, I will show how radio women promoted consciousness and appreciation of the United States, and demonstrate how during an era of entrenched British allegiance, women's broadcasting figured among a coalition of forces that together nudged Australia into the US orbit.
This argument has several significant implications. First, it contributes to a larger conversation on the importance of radio within international relations. This is a burgeoning field of scholarship that encompasses sizable literature on the European broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of America during World War II and the Cold War, as well as Michele Hilmes's work on radio as a “propaganda vehicle” within British-US relations and Derek Vaillaint's recent monograph on transatlantic radio as a “field in which modern US-French relations could be instituted and transacted.”2 Though focused on different periods and nation-states, these works are united by the conviction that radio was both conceived of and functioned as a medium with power to shape how nations imagined and related to one another. In times of war and peace, both state institutions such as the BBC and a range of individual broadcasters leveraged this potential in an attempt to sway publics and thereby influence international politics. Radio was therefore part of a larger suite of vernacular forces that together constituted what has been called cultural or popular diplomacy. Together with tourism, student exchange, migration, cinema, sport, consumption, and advertising, transnational radio constituted an everyday site of international encounter that, alongside formal diplomacy and trade, was instrumental in the sphere of foreign relations.
To date, Australian radio has rarely been understood in these terms. Although scholarship on the ABC and BBC has examined how these public broadcasters sustained the British race patriotism that infused local society, there is little literature that considers Australian radio as a vector for ideas and information about other countries.3 Yet radio was, in many ways, a natural platform for US-related content there. It was, as existing work has shown, a medium that drew heavily upon US technologies and modes of delivery. Starting in the 1930s, many Australian broadcasters went on study tours in the United States to learn about and import the latest methods.4 Commercial radio in particular played a prominent role in midcentury anxieties about the incursion of US mass culture, as its popular music, informal tone, and commercial content were seen to epitomize a “crass Americanism” that compared unfavorably to the “highbrow” Britishness of the ABC.5 This article thus extends existing recognition of the “Americanness” of Australian radio by revealing that within Australia, as elsewhere, broadcasting shone a flattering light on US culture and society in the decades during which the United States emerged as a global hegemon. Not only did the radio medium itself emulate and evoke US innovations, but many individual broadcasts also positioned the United States as an ally and model to Australia that promised to complement or even usurp the historic orientation toward Britain. Both the container and the content, therefore, beamed “America” into Australian homes. Yet whereas the Voice of America broadcasts that promoted the United States in other national contexts were state-orchestrated propaganda weapons, the Australian broadcasts discussed below were more ad hoc efforts created by private citizens.
The second intervention made by this article is to push against the entrenched masculinism of international relations history by foregrounding women's broadcasts about the United States. Although scholars such as Kristin Hoganson and Whitney Walton have shown civilian women to be instrumental actors on the world stage, dominant narratives of international relations continue to privilege masculine agency.6 This is especially true of the history of Australian-US relations, which remains structured around the machinations of soldiers, politicians, and diplomats during World War II and the Cold War. Through an account of women broadcasters like Bemis, I rewrite women into this narrative and demonstrate that radio was one sphere in which women flexed cultural muscle that contributed to Australian imaginings of the United States. These contributions varied in form and content, yet shared a similar gendered logic in which female agency and feminized topics such as family, children, food, and the home were invested with geopolitical meaning. In this way, female broadcasters could conform to the constraints of “women's broadcasting” while simultaneously making interventions in the sphere of cultural diplomacy. The ostensible subject might be marriage or milk, but the underlying idea was a narrative of the United States as friend and leader to Australia.
In documenting these interventions, this research extends what has been a recent yet nonetheless decisive reappraisal of the role of women in Australian radio. Whereas foundational radio histories by Ken Inglis and Lesley Johnson depicted women as little more than producers and consumers of domestic-oriented “women's sessions,” in the last decade this truism has come under scrutiny from a critical mass of younger scholars.7 Following in the wake of similar work focused on Britain, Europe, and the Americas, Australian researchers Jeannine Baker, Justine Lloyd, Catherine Fisher, and Kylie Andrews have recast Australian women broadcasters as figures of cultural and political influence.8 Like their international counterparts, these Australian scholars demonstrate that, contrary to earlier assumptions, women broadcasters used radio to “contribute to public discourse, enact social and political change, help their communities, and legitimise themselves as informed and persuasive leaders in their chosen field.”9 Even though radio women were indeed largely confined to daytime programming targeted at women and children, these sessions often defied conventional notions of “feminine” content. Alongside discussions of fashion, food, and housewifery, broadcasters such as Linda Littlejohn, Irene Greenwood, Constance Duncan, Catherine King, Enid Lyons, and Ruby Rich engaged in political and social commentary that included topics such as feminism, the League of Nations, Zionism, and pacifism.10
The US broadcasts considered below constitute a further, as-yet-unexplored aspect of this serious and often cosmopolitan women's programming. Analysis of these US programs also introduces new individuals—including Jean Wilmot Bemis, Muriel Valli, and Doreen McKay—into the growing pantheon of women broadcasters who used radio to educate and evangelize rather than just entertain. Although still “womanly” in form and content, their broadcasts nonetheless had clear geopolitical aspirations. Viewed together, these interventions in Australian-US relations confirm that women's radio was indeed an “alternative public space” that, in Baker's words, “worked to make women's voices audible in the political public sphere.”11 Throughout the midcentury decades, women broadcasters went “under the cover of daytime” to challenge the anti-Americanism that pervaded Australian culture and reimagine Australia's place in the world.12
CONNECTIONS ACROSS THE PACIFIC
Up until the 1960s, Australia was a British-oriented society overwhelmingly peopled by white settlers of British descent, many of whom still identified as Britons. These enduring ties to the mother country stunted the development of cultural and political links between Australia and the United States. Although mutual transpacific influence was a consistent and well-documented undercurrent throughout Australia's settler history, the dominance of Britain in local culture and society went little questioned until the postwar decades.13 This focus on London was especially true of the interwar period. Following a fin-de-siècle spike in “transpacific identifications” among Australian and US progressives invested in “New World” innovation, World War I ushered in renewed imperial sentiment that saw Australia recommit itself to Great Britannia.14
True to this trend, formal diplomatic relations between Canberra and Washington, DC, were not established until 1939, when Richard Casey was appointed Australian minister to the United States.15 In addition, before 1941, there was no cable or wireless telegraphy link across the Pacific. Prior to this date, Australians received only the scanty—and often sensationalized—supply of US news that arrived via the cable link with London.16 Nor did Australians have ready access to US books. Under the British Traditional Market Agreement, formally enforced starting in 1947 but in practice decades earlier, books published in the United States were barred from circulation in the former British colonies, which were considered part of the British publishing market.17 US periodicals such as the Saturday Evening Post were available for purchase at metropolitan newsagents, but these represented only an estimated 5 percent of available titles in Australia, compared to the 90 percent that came from Britain.18 And although regular steamship service between Sydney and San Francisco began in 1875, this transpacific artery struggled to compete with the gravitational pull of London. In 1930, twenty thousand Australians undertook the “secular pilgrimage” to Britain, and only 1,124 headed to the United States.19 Only at the picture palace did US culture occupy center stage. During the late 1920s Hollywood imports represented 90 percent of the films screened at Australian cinemas, which sold 110 million tickets per annum among a national population of only six million. As a result, Australians’ images of “America” were typically forged via a heavy and near-undiluted consumption of Hollywood's “dumb … beautiful blondes” and “cops, gunmen and sheriffs,” leading to caricatured and often pejorative visions of the United States that fueled anti-US sentiment.20
In light of this informational deficit, firsthand reportage by Australians who had visited the United States was a hot commodity. Reporters met returned travelers at the docks, and audiences flocked to their public lectures. In the absence of other authorities, even otherwise unknown travelers were able to fashion themselves as “America experts” and win public recognition. “Australians were still entranced with Overseas with a capital O,” actress and journalist Dorothy Jenner recalled. Her 1935 lunchtime address on New York, held at Sydney's David Jones department store, drew four hundred “business girls” who listened with “undivided attention.” “You'd have thought I came from another planet bearing irrefutable words of wisdom,” Jenner noted.21
Once radio broadcasting commenced in 1923, it became the most effective means to transmit this “irrefutable” wisdom to a mass audience. Broadcasting had a sluggish start in Australia, but by 1937 an estimated two-thirds of all homes owned a radio set.22 By this point the nation had a dual broadcasting system, split between B class, or commercial stations, and A class, or public-service radio. Established in 1932, the Australian Broadcasting Commission was closely modeled on the BBC and positioned itself as a bastion of Britishness and elite culture. Yet while the ABC captured the “highbrow” market, the commercial stations retained the greatest audience share, with an estimated 70 to 80 percent of sets tuned to one of the forty-four B-class stations.23
Returned travelers of both sexes addressed this new mass audience with stories about the United States, but women in particular were conspicuous for the regularity and enthusiasm with which they assumed the role of “America educator” on the airwaves.24 At least two factors underpinned this trend. First, as existing research has shown, the midcentury United States was particularly attractive to female Australians because its fabled modernity was believed to make it a “comparatively congenial environment for women with ambitions beyond the domestic sphere.” Imagined as a mecca for modern womanhood, even a “woman's paradise,” it held a gendered appeal that thrust Australian women into the vanguard of local efforts to foster transpacific dialogue and friendship. Although these efforts were diverse, ranging from pedagogic reforms to artistic innovations, radio broadcasts were among the most widely utilized and high-profile ways in which women sought to thicken Australian-US bonds.25 The second factor that explains the notable number of women broadcasting about the United States is the authority conferred by international experience. At a time when women struggled to be taken seriously as experts, overseas travel conferred rare—and hence prestigious—forms of knowledge that did much to counteract the gendered prejudice that otherwise kept women's voices marginalized in the public sphere. Equipped with this new knowledge, women were better able to claim space in otherwise male-dominated media, including radio. Broadcast media therefore not only provided an effective vehicle for women to disseminate their own understandings of the United States, but the cachet of US experience was indeed often the precise factor that gave them access to this public platform in the first place.
Among the first Australian women to appear as “America educators” on radio were the various professionals whose interest in modern methods led them to the United States. These “study tours” were a fixture of midcentury Australian professional education, especially among the emergent “women's professions” such as social work, dietetics, librarianship, and early childhood education. These fields had not yet attained full professional status in Australia or Britain, so local pioneers instead looked to the United States for credentialing and work experience.26 Back home in Australia, these professional pioneers shared their enthusiasm for US methods over the airwaves. Harvard-trained Lorna Hodgkinson, for instance, enthused about US approaches to “mentally defective children” on leading Sydney commercial station 2GB as early as 1926, while during May 1935 both M. C. Davis and Elsie Asher-Smith discussed US social work on 2FC, Sydney's ABC station.27 The common thread of these talks was that the United States was home to the most “modern” and “up-to-date” ideas and professional practices. Here was a vision of “America” that emphasized scientific modernity and technological prowess—the United States as a quasi-utopian land of the future. As such, these professionals’ talks offered a counter-narrative to the Hollywood America of sex and sensation, and also engaged in implicit (sometimes explicit) critique of the continued wisdom of following British professional and educational models.
Typical of this cohort was dietician Alice Caporn, who disseminated “advanced American views” on “Modern Food Science” via Perth commercial stations 6IX and 6PR in the late 1930s.28 Originally from South Australia, Caporn was a nurse and Christian Scientist who in 1917 relocated to Boston, headquarters of the Christian Science faith. In the United States she developed an interest in the emergent field of naturopathy, pursuing qualifications with leading proponents of the “nature cure” in Boston, New Jersey, and New York before returning to Australia in 1937.29 At a time when the Australian diet was dominated by the British staples of meat, sugar, and dairy, Caporn intervened in larger debates about “food and national progress” by taking to the airwaves to proclaim the nutritive qualities of “American” innovations such as salads, vegetable juices, and almond milk.30 This was a controversial campaign that attracted a fierce backlash from the male medical establishment. By mid-1939, Caporn was derided as a “food faddist” who traded in the “pernicious virus of American ‘hooey.’” That June, her “Yankee” credentials were mocked in the local press after she dared to question the pro-dairy stance of the British Advisory Council of Nutrition.31 As would often be the case when Australian women attempted to promote US ideas, the ensuing debate descended into a battle between male institutional authority sanctioned by Britain and female cultural activism inspired by the United States.32 By questioning received wisdom about the family diet, Caporn also challenged norms about the appropriate source and vectors of Australian expertise.
Alongside professionals’ talks on US expertise and trends, returned women travelers also provided more general accounts of the nation and its people. “Across America by Car,” “An Australian in America,” and “The American Woman” were typical examples of the interwar vogue for US travelogues.33 Although no scripts survive, it is reasonable to assume that such talks replicated the breathless enthusiasm that characterized similarly titled contemporaneous written accounts. Such was the appetite for US content that an initial radio appearance would often spawn subsequent invitations and even ongoing work. The exemplar of this trajectory was Helen Jean Beegling, who traveled to California in 1925 with dreams of Hollywood stardom. Like most aspiring film stars, her dreams remained just that, and she returned home within a year. But once back in Sydney, Beegling's Hollywood experience got her invited onto local station 2FC, where her US material was a hit with listeners, leading her to be appointed the inaugural host of the women's session on the same station. By the 1930s Beegling was a “well-known radio announcer,” heralded as a “pioneer” of women's broadcasting in Australia.34 Other radio guests, meanwhile, were induced to expand their travel reflections on the page. Mavis Riley's acclaimed US travel memoir In the Lap of the Yanks (1949) had its genesis in material broadcast over the airwaves, as did Doris Hayball's Strawberries in the Jam (1940).35
The first more sustained effort to couple radio and Australian-US relations was a pen-pal club called Pen Friends of the Air. This club was a joint initiative of Muriel Valli, known as Aunty Val, from Sydney's 2GB (fig. 1), and her US-based counterpart Dorothy Dunstan, known as Dede or Aunty Dot on Seattle station KFL. Both women were Australian, and both were veterans of the US vaudeville circuit. After fifteen years on US stages Valli returned to Sydney in 1923, where she taught elocution and organized children's theatrical clubs. This work propelled her into children's radio, and in 1931 Valli established the Bluebirds’ program on 2GB. Targeted at younger children, the show broadcast daily at 8:15 a.m.36 Valli was soon one of the nation's favorite radio “aunts,” renowned as a wholesome figure who exuded “the milk of human kindness.”37 Meanwhile, back in Washington, Dunstan launched an Australian Session that featured tales of the little-known “Land Down Under,” a program that won a strong fan base and many requests for Australian pen pals. Encouraged by this audience response, Dunstan passed on these requests to her friend and colleague Valli, who then proposed a pen-pal club that would unite their respective audiences. As a result, in 1935, the duo established Pen Friends of the Air, a transpacific radio club that aimed to lessen the mutual ignorance that each had encountered on their respective side of the Pacific. By facilitating correspondence between ordinary citizens, Valli and Dunstan aspired to foster “closer links” and “understanding between the people of English-speaking nations.”38 Here was a model of international relations structured around interpersonal intimacies between private individuals, an intervention in the masculinized sphere of international politics that privileged female actors and feminized behaviors.
Pen Friends of the Air launched amid a wider interwar vogue for radio clubs, with an estimated 117 such clubs operational throughout Australia in 1939. Women's and children's clubs were especially popular; a 1941–42 inquiry recorded forty women's clubs with a total membership of 150,000, while 400,000 children belonged to youth-focused clubs. Valli's own station of 2GB was at the center of this trend. The Happiness Club launched by women's session presenter Eunice Stelzer in 1929 soon became the nation's “most notable,” while Valli's Bluebirds’ Club had close to five thousand members by March 1934.39 Given this preexisting culture of radio club membership, Pen Friends of the Air had little trouble attracting participants. From early 1935, both Valli and Dunstan began recruiting members via their regular programs. Prospective pen pals were invited to write to 2GB or KFL, and were then matched “with people of similar tastes or hobbies” on the other side of the Pacific.40 By early April the club was “growing rapidly,” with five hundred letters already posted from Australia to US recipients.41 Early participants were concentrated in Sydney and Seattle, but later that year the club was extended to “leading Los Angeles station” KFL, where Dunstan now had a regular Monday show.42 Valli also visited Hobart to recruit Tasmanian members.43 By January 1936 the club had “quite a reputation in America” and also operated in New Zealand.44
At first, Pen Friends of the Air was targeted at children, but the concept proved so popular that it was soon expanded to adults. Participants ranged from school teachers keen to exchange professional tips, to lonesome retirees in search of connection, to a “San Diego business woman” in quest of a husband.45 In 1936 Valli made a return visit to the United States to study US radio and further promote her scheme.46 It is unclear how long the club maintained its official existence, but the relationships it spawned continue until the present day. As of 2016, Sydney twins Dulcie Grose and Nancy Varley had corresponded with their Los Angeles pen pals Barbara and Beatrice for more than eighty years, leading their respective families to become deeply enmeshed.47 In this instance, at least, Pen Friends of the Air did indeed foster enduring connections across the Pacific.
AMERICAN LETTER AND WARTIME CONNECTIONS
A more public transpacific correspondence was launched in 1943, when the ABC began a regular program known as American Letter. This was the work of Jean Wilmot Bemis, a long-term Australian resident of Boston (fig. 2). Wilmot was born in 1903 into a Melbourne media dynasty, the daughter of legendary sports journalist “Bung” Wilmot and sister of ABC and BBC broadcaster Chester Wilmot.48 At a time when women encountered scant opportunities within the Australian media landscape, these family connections helped her become one of the few women to embark on a journalistic career.49 This began in the early 1920s, when, while studying at the University of Melbourne, Wilmot joined her father on the staff of Melbourne's twin conservative newspapers: the daily Argus and the weekly Australasian. In 1923–24 Wilmot was one of five women assigned to the newspapers’ women's editor, Stella May Allan, a pioneering female journalist known as Vesta who also served as Australian substitute delegate to the League of Nations.50 As a reporter working under Allan, Wilmot established a reputation as a “clever young Australian scribe.”51 By 1925 she had set sail for London, joining a long line of Australian journalists who sought the prestige of a metropolitan career.52 On the steamship journey over, however, these plans were disrupted when Wilmot began a romance with fellow passenger George Bemis, a wealthy US banker. By late 1926 she had married him and commenced a new life in Boston.
From this point onward, Wilmot—now Mrs. Bemis—acted as a self-appointed intermediary between Australia and the United States. She wrote articles about US customs for the Australian press, and also hosted prominent Australians who visited the United States. Long before the two nations first exchanged ambassadors, Bemis acted in a quasi-ambassadorial role. In many respects she was the ideal person for this job. Articulate and highly educated, Bemis was also free from the demands of motherhood and connected to elite circles in both Melbourne and Boston. Although an outsider in New England, her husband's wealth smoothed her path into local society, and she was soon a leading figure in Boston's women's clubs.53 These ambassadorial efforts took on new urgency when war broke out. During the anxious two years before Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the conflict, Bemis was one of many US-based Britons who campaigned for US involvement. From 1939, she was chair of the Boston English-Speaking Union's war relief committee, and used this position to promote a British-US military alliance through reference to the linguistic and cultural bonds between the two English-speaking peoples.54
In December 1941 this longed-for alliance was finally realized. After the United States declared war on Japan, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin announced a geopolitical “turn to America.”55 From early 1942 almost a million US troops poured into Australian cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. This US-Australian mass contact was without precedent, and proved far from seamless. Mutual ignorance prevailed, and racial, economic, and sexual tensions proliferated. In November 1942 these tensions bubbled over into a riot between US and Australian military personnel known as the Battle of Brisbane.56 In this climate, therefore, the likes of Bemis now faced a new challenge: creating the understanding and goodwill necessary to situate the hastily constructed Australian-US alliance on more solid ground.
It was in this context that American Letter began. Starting on July 8, 1943, Bemis penned a fortnightly letter about life in wartime Boston to be broadcast over the national ABC network on Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. While her brother Chester Wilmot reported on the Australian Infantry Force from the Middle East, Bemis documented a different type of war experience: the home front.57 As a freelancer, she was able to circumvent the marriage bar that otherwise excluded married women from the ABC, and she henceforth became a regular voice on the national broadcaster, earning four guineas per episode.58 Like her contemporary Frank Clune, who provided the ABC with reports from Asia, Bemis was now a “prototype of the foreign correspondent.”59,American Letter was intended to complement the ABC's London Letter launched by Maie Stevens in 1940, and mirrored the BBC's Letter from America program that Olive Shapley had pioneered in 1942.60 It also anticipated the iconic American Letter (later Letter from America) that British-born Alistair Cooke wrote for the BBC from 1946 until 2004.61
Twice each month, Bemis provided updates on the hardships endured by people in the United States toward the cause of victory, and detailed the warm welcome extended to visiting Australian military personnel. Although featured on the state broadcaster, the program was developed and scripted without any significant editorial input from the ABC or other state authorities. Once American Letter successfully launched, Bemis was given free rein to select topics and themes as she saw fit. The tone was intimate and chatty, a feminized patois of international diplomacy that dwelled on everyday lived experience and resembled a private correspondence between old friends. The initial scripts ran from three to five typed pages, and were structured around a digressive account of Bemis's own activities and observations, interspersed with news items extracted from the US print and broadcast media. This format gave American Letter a disarming informality, aligning Bemis with the tradition of the radio “aunt”—a beloved de facto relative entrusted to speak with “benign superiority” within the family home.62
At first, Bemis composed each episode's script in Boston and cabled the text to Australia. In late 1943, however, the ABC began experimenting with technologies that would allow Bemis to broadcast American Letter in her own voice, a more intimate format that collapsed the distance between the two countries by projecting a sonic artifact of Boston into Australian homes. At first, Bemis would prerecord each nine-minute episode in a Boston studio, and the US Office of War Information would fly the discs to Australia. Following a spate of technical problems, this method was replaced by a radiophone system in 1944. Bemis would now radio American Letter to the ABC studios, where it was recorded in preparation for national broadcast the following day.63 During her 1945 visit to Australia, Bemis recorded American Letter in the ABC studio in person.64
Early episodes focused on the activities of the Anzac Club, a voluntary organization that established canteens and organized billets for “Anzacs”—Australian servicemen—on recreation leave in the United States. The first Anzac Club branches were in New York and Boston, with subsequent branches established in Detroit and Chicago.65 Bemis was an active figure in the Boston club and provided firsthand accounts of excursions to the Boston Symphony and New York's Radio City Music Hall.66 These regular updates assured listeners that the United States was a home away from home for Australian troops. In a reciprocal gesture regarding Australians’ hospitality toward US GIs, US homes provided substitute families for Anzacs abroad, stepping in to provide the physical and emotional sustenance their natal kin could not. In keeping with the domestic focus expected of women's broadcasting, Bemis grounded the new transpacific alliance in the realm of familial relations and home life. As she explained in the opening episode, Australians “receive a grand welcome wherever they go,” as “Americans are anxious to meet them so that they can repay some of the kindness shown to their boys in Australia.”67 When in March 1945 two airmen from the Royal Australian Air Force became engaged to US women, the Boston Anzac Club threw a party to celebrate, attended by a large crowd from both countries. This figurative and literal transpacific coupling inspired an exhaustive report from Bemis, who went into raptures at the sight of the two nations breaking bread. “I kept thinking how pleased the families of the two men would be if they could have seen their son surrounded by so many friends and countrymen,” she enthused.68 When the war ended several months later, Bemis lamented the departure of Australian troops from Boston, noting “regrets on all sides that no more of these splendid Anzacs were coming through here.”69
Another major wartime theme of American Letter was rationing and shortages. In an implicit rejoinder to the resentment that festered over the United States’ belated entry into the war, Bemis made it clear that the country was now a wholehearted combatant prepared to share in the suffering and sacrifices endured by Britain and Australia since 1939. Meat was scarce in restaurants, butter was rationed, fish supplies threatened by strikes.70 Housing, elastic, underwear, paper, telephones, and even alarm clocks were likewise in short supply. Yet despite these myriad hardships, Bemis stressed that citizens were not “complaining,” but rather “accept[ed] shortages in good part.”71 There were also frequent accounts of Red Cross fund-raising, war bonds, and women munitions workers. Through such content, American Letter spun a narrative of transpacific solidarity and shared suffering that gave cultural and affective substance to the newfound military alliance. In a manner akin to the BBC's Alistair Cooke, Bemis fashioned herself into an “unofficial … ambassador for Anglo-American relations.”72
Bemis's broadcasting efforts were unmatched in longevity and ambition, but she was not the only Australian radio woman to promote pro-US sentiment during wartime. Back in 1941, during the apprehensive days before the United States joined the Allied war effort, Doreen McKay launched a weekly program called Australia Greets America (fig. 3). McKay was a well-known Sydney broadcaster who had joined Catholic station 2SM in 1934, and in 1938 claimed the Wireless Weekly award for most popular announcer.73 In early 1939, 2SM management sent her on a US study tour, and McKay spent three months gaining radio experience in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.74 When war broke out, she drew upon this US sojourn to develop a new 2SM program that would “foster in an attractive manner Australian and American relations” in a way akin to American Letter. Beginning in June 1941, Australia Greets America was a weekly educational program cohosted by McKay and US-born Anita Vale. Each Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., the pair instructed listeners on “Australian and American customs, habits, personalities, topicalities, geographical science features, great personalities,” and “historical aspects.”75 McKay's popularity as a radio personality gave Australia Greets America a readymade listenership—who were, given the early afternoon hour, for the most part presumably women and children.76 When it launched, the program was hailed as a “timely debut,” reflecting the idea that “the future of these two great Pacific countries must surely be more and more linked together.”77 The very next year, however, McKay wed Captain Kevin Clifford and retired from radio, marking the program's premature demise.
The transpacific wartime alliance also gave rise to numerous one-off talks that echoed the boosterish tone of American Letter and Australia Greets America. As the fall of Singapore created invasion fears that prompted Australians to question their historic reliance on Britain, female broadcasters with US experience added fuel to the fire by promoting Australian-US affinity and friendship over the airwaves. Veteran broadcaster Linda Littlejohn, a prominent feminist and host on Sydney commercial station 2UW who had lectured extensively in the United States, told ABC listeners in 1940 that “Australians are more akin to Americans in spirit than to any other people.”78 In May 1941, 2UW women's session host Hope Suttor returned from three years working in US radio and soon appeared on the ABC general talks program with a broadcast entitled “Our Friends the Americans.”79 The transpacific alliance was also promoted by actress Alice Bolger, who visited the United States in 1941 and the following year gave an ABC address on “The American Woman and Democracy.”80 In 1942 their efforts were replicated by renowned journalist Pat Jarrett, who had just returned home after two years as a trusted aide at the new Australian embassy in Washington, DC. Alongside a spate of newspaper articles that detailed the “warm friendly feeling of the American people toward Australia,” Jarrett spoke on the ABC about “Australia's Home in the United States.”81
American Letter after World War II
Although the flurry of US boosterism died down after 1945, Bemis continued to use broadcasting to build connections between her natal and adoptive homes. She was a regular on Boston station WGBH-FM, where she discussed topics such as “An Australian Looks at New England” and the “American Scene.”82 Bemis's American Letter also continued on the ABC, evolving into a Cold War vehicle of transpacific friendship indicative of Australia's new “Pacific-Mindedness” unleashed by the war.83 Although first broadcast during the ABC's morning Women's Session, each American Letter was repeated during the more prestigious evening time slot, thereby straddling the “counterpublic sphere of women's programming” and the “masculine public sphere of primetime programming” in a manner akin to contemporaneous politician-cum-broadcaster Enid Lyons, the first woman elected to Australia's federal House of Representatives.84,American Letter also resonated beyond its immediate listenership, with extracts regularly published in newspapers and magazines. Bemis's account of “air-minded” US youth featured in Construction in 1946, while in 1954 the Sydney Morning Herald republished her analysis of “childhood delinquency.”85 Apart from a pause between 1951 and 1953, the program continued until at least 1965. Although Bemis had, by this point, lived in the United States for nearly four decades, she kept in touch with the “Australian point of view” via sustained contact with Australia and its people. As well as regularly hosting Australian visitors to the United States, she corresponded with family in Melbourne and returned to Australia in 1929, 1934, 1945, 1949, and 1965.
During the postwar years Bemis reverted to sending written scripts, and the fortnightly American Letter was now recorded in ABC studios using the voice of US actress Julie Hamil, whose accent gave the program an authentic “American” flavor.86 This practice came to an end on August 6, 1951, when Bemis announced, “This is to be the last American Letter,” and bid her listeners adieu.87 No explanation was given, and the ABC archives are silent on the reason for the show's suspension. Yet this farewell proved premature, as the program had resumed by September 1953, though the reason why is again unclear. From this date onward, Bemis recorded American Letter in Boston, and had each “tape … flown out” to Australia via the new commercial San Francisco–Sydney air route.88 By this point Bemis had accumulated personal honors that gave her “letters” added influence and authority. As a recipient of the King's Medal (1946) and an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1953), this former “girl journalist” was now a grande dame of British broadcasting and philanthropy whose words commanded respect.89
As during the war, each American Letter was arranged into a series of brief news items running over three to five pages, ranging from personal anecdotes to discussions of international politics and current affairs. Although the topics varied widely, there were several consistent themes. The first and most conspicuous was a celebration of US technological innovation and consumer culture. Week after week, Bemis waxed lyrical over washing machines, freezer technology, television, nylon clothes, dehydrated foods, supermarkets, drive-through banking, prefabricated housing, and slot machines—all of which arrived on the US scene long before Australia. For her listeners, then, most of whom would not encounter washing machines or supermarkets until at least the late 1950s, Bemis's pen portraits were akin to a missive from the future.90 Written with a magpie sensibility that took inspiration from both the masculinized spheres of science and industry as well as the feminized realm of the home, Bemis juxtaposed private and public manifestations of US modernity to create a metanarrative of unrelenting progress in which stain-proof wallpaper and asbestos-derived kitchen towels claimed equal space alongside cornea transplants, insecticides, and fluoride. The cumulative effect was a breathless technological utopianism, perfectly pitched to excite the imagination of a home-oriented but still worldly woman listener. In Bemis's universe, the United States was the frontrunner in a new postwar order that would employ the wonders of science to eradicate suffering and inequality. “Life seems to be getting easier for Americans every day!” was her unceasing refrain.91 Australian listeners learned that the world of tomorrow was bright, and that it was headquartered in the United States.
A further bright spot in this brave new world was enhanced opportunities for women. Although Bemis shied away from explicit feminist politics, and the ABC discouraged politicized content in women's programming, American Letter nonetheless depicted female emancipation as among the most conspicuous and thrilling manifestations of the US modernity poised to remake the entire world.92 During the war, Bemis took part in the widespread enthusiasm about women's recruitment into masculinized industries, yet she also—more unusually—continued to celebrate trailblazing career women into the postwar years. During the late 1940s and 1950s, American Letter was littered with pen portraits of businesswomen and women doctors, bankers, and university professors, and closely documented the rise of dual-income families. In Bemis's telling, the US woman worker was not just an aberration of war but rather a central expression of the nation's commitment to innovation and progress. American Letter also presented US women as powerful and engaged political actors. In the lead-up to the 1944 presidential election, Bemis explained that the female vote was predicted to be the decisive factor. Conscious that “mothers and girls are now a force to be reckoned with” and that “women are becoming much more politically minded,” candidates were “laying plans to watch women's interest and votes.”93 Later, she reported on several women-led political campaigns, including 1950 Senate debates about a proposed constitutional amendment “which would give [women] equal rights with men.”94 American Letter hence presented Australian women listeners with an expanded vision of women's citizenship that gave added weight to Bemis's pro-US messaging. With modern womanhood presented as intrinsic to US modernity, female ABC listeners with dreams of a larger life were given reason to imagine an Americanized future as a potential route to their own emancipation.
As a corollary to this acclamation of US modernity, Bemis worked against the pejorative associations of the United States. At a time when “America” was a veritable metonym for the populist and commercialized dimensions of modern life, Bemis filled her letters with accounts of ballet, art, libraries, and classical music. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Modern Art, Paul Revere objets d'art, Shakespeare performances, and lectures by T. S. Eliot were all staples of her United States. Family and community life were other prominent features, with frequent discussion of Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas caroling, philanthropic work, and summer sports. In short, Bemis's United States was a nation of wholesome nuclear families, enamored of uplift and high culture—far from the den of sex and vice projected by mass culture. As she made explicit in August 1949, “Hollywood and New York [are] NOT America.”95
Bemis also used American Letter to promote “bonds of comradeship between the United States and the British Empire”—a geopolitical imaginary in which Australia sat within a British imperial world bound by deep historical and cultural ties to the United States. In accordance with the British inclinations of the ABC and its audience, Bemis occupied the persona of a fervent British race patriot whose Australian birth and US residence had done little to dampen a passionate and personal identification with Mother England. She remained active within the English-Speaking Union, and each year joined the “millions of British subjects” who paused to listen to the King's Christmas broadcast.96 Even after more than two decades in Boston, Bemis was still an avowed “British subject” delighted “to see the tremendous interest taken in the United States in things British.”97 The two peoples were, indeed, depicted as bound by an innate (and implicitly racialized) kinship reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxonism that flourished around the turn of the century.98 “Living in America as I do I realize more and more the deep bond there is between the English-speaking people, however much surface friction there may be,” she reflected in March 1949.99 This conviction was only reinforced during a visit to England, during which she was “constantly reminded of the close links and associations between the two countries.”100 As the years progressed, Bemis's creed of Anglo-American kinship was given substance through accounts of symbolic encounters between the two peoples. Listeners heard about a sermon preached in the English village of Penn by the Bishop of Pennsylvania, received news of Winston Churchill's rapturous reception at MIT, and followed a Boston rowing regatta in which the Cambridge University crew challenged US teams.101 Through these vignettes, the “common past and common purpose of the English-speaking peoples” was brought to life.102 And on the rare occasions that Bemis depicted the Anglospheric bond as anything less than harmonious, the ABC kept American Letter on script by censoring her comments. In August 1948, for example, her long account of Jewish American fury over British actions in Palestine was entirely omitted from the broadcast program.103
Yet for all its reverence toward Britain, American Letter also made it clear that Britannia ruled the waves no more. Frequent accounts of British postwar rationing formed a stark contrast to Bemis's pen portraits of a US cornucopia. During her visit to London in July 1948, she sent back graphic accounts of housewives battling to complete their laundry with limited soap and hot water, and only a “rough makeshift” copper boiler. Back in Mother England, the nylons Bemis took for granted in Boston were impossible to obtain, while “shortages, rationing and red tape are ever-present.”104 Even tea was in short supply, leading Bemis to later partake in the “T Chain Letters,” a transatlantic pen-pal arrangement in which Bostonians included “a couple of tea-bags in each letter,” which ended up in “the cups of grateful women” in England.105 Two centuries on from the original Boston Tea Party, the former insurrectionists now played the role of Lady Bountiful, sending a much-reduced mother country their surplus scraps.
American Letter's depictions of postwar geopolitics also made it clear that Washington, DC, now eclipsed London on the international stage. Time and again, Bemis returned to two key themes: the United Nations headquarters in New York and the Marshall Plan efforts to ward off communism in Europe. As early as May 1945 she observed that “isolationism is on the way out,” and thereafter included snapshots of US global leadership in almost every episode.106 The San Francisco United Nations conference, Voice of America broadcasting, the Friendship Train that raised funds for war-torn Europe, Italian-Americans’ campaigns against communism in Italy, and a Herald Tribune youth forum at the UN were just some of story lines that showcased the new “American Century.” Together, these reports left listeners in no doubt that the United States would henceforth uphold the “democratic way of life” for the entire world.107 Over time, this political coverage gave American Letter a self-conscious gravitas that made it difficult to dismiss as “mere” women's programming, while also lending geopolitical weight to Bemis's case that Australia would do well to look to the United States.
For reasons that are unclear, American Letter was discontinued from the national ABC network in 1957. But the program enjoyed a second life on the local ABC Women's Session program run by Catherine King in Western Australia. Bemis's American Letter was a perfect fit for the cosmopolitan ethos of King's program, which attracted a loyal audience of both sexes who appreciated its “wide-ranging social and political discourse.”108 Defying the domestic focus typical of women's programming, King's Women's Session (1944–76) treated its audience as thoughtful citizens of the world.109 At its new home, American Letter continued until at least 1965. By this time, history had vindicated Bemis's early embrace of US cultural and political leadership. With Britain shunning the former empire for Europe via membership in the European Economic Community, and Australia following the United States into Vietnam, it was clear that Australia had now more or less transitioned from a British colony into a US satellite.
Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Australian women with experience of the United States engaged in a range of broadcasting initiatives, across both commercial and public radio, that sought to promote Australian awareness and appreciation of this emergent superpower. At a time when Australians were otherwise starved of substantive information about the United States, these programs provided authoritative and intimate accounts of the nation and its people. Throughout the midcentury decades, when Australia was still embedded with the British Empire, Australian women broadcasters were part of a cultural vanguard that challenged the pejorative associations of US modernity and identified the emerging potency of US cultural and political leadership. “America educators” such as Jean Wilmot Bemis, Muriel Valli, and Doreen McKay exemplified the active citizenship enacted and encouraged by Australian radio women, and point to radio as a hitherto unexplored space in which Australia's international relations were imagined and renegotiated. Yet unlike international examples of radio-based cultural diplomacy, which were often orchestrated by the state, these Australian programs were notable as the work of individuals motivated by personal experience and conviction. Also running across this suite of broadcasts was a distinctly gendered sensibility. Although diverse in form and content, these instances of US boosterism were not only developed and hosted by women, but consistently feminized in tone. Alongside more conventional political content, the likes of Bemis and Valli made the traditional women's spheres of home and family into the raw materials of and audience for geopolitical intervention. Whether through pairing pen pals, promoting almond milk, or explaining Thanksgiving, these women engaged in cultural diplomacy that did indeed make waves across the Pacific.