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PIONEERING WOMEN IN MEDIA RESEARCH
Written by Peter Simonson and Lauren Archer

It’s a little-known fact, but women made significant contributions to developing the field of communications research and conducting some of its most innovative early studies. We might call these women the founding mothers of mass communications research, whose stories had gone largely untold before this film. The five women represented in Out of the Question are a small handful of dozens, if not scores, of women who played parts in research projects, books, and articles that probed the new world of mass media in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The film and website aim to begin the process of documenting, understanding, and honoring the work done by this long-marginalized and largely forgotten group of women.

This section of the website features biographical information on some of the previously unknown but key contributing women in early media research. Biographies are grouped by research topics, but an alphabetical listing of the women featured on the website can be found here. This listing contains links to each woman's biography. We encourage you to explore the topics you are interested in or read through the alphabetical list of women to find a particular person. As a start to what we hope will be a larger project, we have included only women who were active in the field before the 1960s (for women active since the 1960s, see Signorielli, ed., Women in Communication).

Though the most comprehensive recovery effort to date suggests that “only a few women were active in the discipline before the 1960s and 1970s” (Signorielli, xxii), the record we are beginning to unearth suggests otherwise. Operating in roles that ranged from lead investigator and published author to research associate, interviewer, stenographer, and secretary, women had a hand in many of the most important, pioneering studies of earlier decades. A few of these women published work that is among the very best of the era—Helen MacGill Hughes, Herta Herzog, Marjorie Fiske, and Gladys Engel Lang among them. Others played formative parts on research teams that produced the most important studies of the era and developed new methodologies that are now widely used. Others coded data, transcribed interviews, and typed manuscripts. Together, they helped produce lasting knowledge. The nature of their contributions differed, but they shared one thing in common: they operated in male-dominated worlds, where their work was assigned a lower status and was often subsequently forgotten.

This website—a work in progress—offers short biographies and research/publication lists for several dozen women active in communication and media research from the 1930s through the 1950s. Some tread academic paths, meeting significant obstacles along the way, while others took their research training into the commercial world of advertising, marketing, and public opinion research. World War II provided openings for some, while others found opportunities even before the war in Paul Lazarsfeld’s Office of Radio Research (ORR). Indeed, Lazarsfeld’s research institutes included many women, though opportunities for them shrunk there in late 1940s, with men flooding graduate programs, and taking research positions previously held by women.

Most of the women featured on this website were associated with Lazarsfeld’s ORR or its successor, the Bureau of Applied Social Research. A few—notably Helen MacGill Hughes and Gladys Engel Lang—studied at the University of Chicago. Two worked on the Payne Fund Studies (Dorothy Marquis and Ruth Peterson). We have concentrated on the United States, but also include several women who lived and taught in Europe (e.g. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann and Hilde Himmelweit), or who moved between the Europe and the U.S. (e.g. Herta Herzog and Marie Jahoda). Similarly, we have focused on mass communications research, though have also included two women who played leadership roles in speech communication (Maud May Babcock and Henrietta Prentiss).

We welcome your suggestions for other women, as well as research and biographies that you might like to contribute.

References:

Nancy Signorielli, ed. Women in Communication: A Biographical Sourcebook. Westbrook, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.