“Purifying the Upper Atmosphere”: Women’s Work in Early Radio, 1905-1913

Anne Gessler

Abstract


This essay argues that between 1905 and 1913, female commercial radio operators deployed a range of complicated and contradictory arguments to establish credibility in the new, male-dominated communications field. Women envisioned early radio as a utopian space that would renegotiate gender roles in the American workforce. Female radio operators also engaged in a larger conversation around women’s citizenship and voting rights. However, while wireless companies initially hired female employees to diffuse tense labor relations, a national conversation around women’s dubious moral character and inferior physical capabilities soon animated the field. The essay explores the political, economic, and cultural events that transformed radio from a potentially transgressive space to an industry that instead reinforced gender and class hierarchies: the RMS Republic-Florida disaster in 1909; the formation of the wireless division of the Commercial Telegraphers Union of America in 1910; the American Marconi Company’s takeover of the United Wireless Company in 1912; and finally, the RMS Titanic disaster in 1912 and the subsequent passing of the Radio Act of 1912. These events pushed female radio operators out of the industry. Not until World War I would the federal government and corporations formally recruit women to serve as professional radio operators.

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ISSN: 0044-8060
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