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 Gladys Engel Lang
Written by Peter Simonson and Lauren Archer

Gladys Engel Lang is a major figure in communication, media, and public opinion research. Unlike the four other women in this documentary, she did her graduate work and was not associated with Columbia University but with its rival in sociology, the University of Chicago. She and Thelma McCormack were the only ones of the five to achieve academic success and a regular professorships but only after some struggle and years of being shut out of the system. Except for two distinguished lifetime achievement awards, she has rarely been adequately recognized for the high quality, pioneering, and lasting work she has done over her long career. She carries little bitterness, though, about the 1950s and ‘60s, when she, like many other women with doctorates, were unable to secure full-time, tenure-track positions. Not until the 1970s, when the doors opened a bit, did she and other women around the country enter the professorial ranks in any significant number. As Out of the Question shows, doors had also been open to women in the 1940s, but only for a short time and the paths upward for them remained pretty much blocked.

Gladys Engel was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1919, the second of Matthew and Jean Gratz Engel’s two daughters. Her parents were both children of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Her father grew up in Atlantic City and her mother in Philadelphia. Neither had graduated high school, but they respected education and had high expectations for their girls. In the years of World War I and thereafter, they ran with a freethinking, mixed ethnic crowd in Philadelphia, many of whom aspired to become performers. Her father was a jack of many trades and active union member who, like his father, had a talent as a decorative painter. The two together decorated, among other buildings, the ceiling of Atlantic City’s famous Apollo Theater. Her father also worked in the sporting world, where he served as a boxing and wrestling manager and also refereed, while her mother raised the girls, ran the household, and took part in the lively conversations that took place around the Engel dinner table. Young Gladys could read before she was five, attended good public schools, and graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1936. Entering college, she had hopes of becoming a lawyer, an idea that had been planted when young Gladys watched Norma Shearer play the role of woman lawyer Nina Duane in the 1926 Hollywood film The Waning Sex.

Engel was turned from law toward sociology at the University of Michigan, where as a sophomore in 1938 she took a class from Robert C. Angell, nephew of the legendary Michigan sociologist Charles Horton Cooley. Cooley was the first important U.S. theorist of communication and played a central part in the Michigan-school of sociology. Angell along with Amos Hawley, a young faculty just beginning his important work in human ecology, were her important mentors. She graduated in 1940, when she took part in an anti-war protest held in conjunction with the ceremony, and then moved west to Seattle to enter the Masters program in sociology at the University of Washington with the aid of a research assistantship and where she married her first husband, a Northwestern grad who, having received his M.A. in sociology at Michigan, had become a teaching assistant in the same department. During her two years at the University of Washington, Engel pursued her interest in human ecology and also conducted a field study of the effect of odd-shifts on the food habits of war industry workers. The latter was at the behest of Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist, who was visiting Seattle in connection with her work on the recently formed governmental Committee on Food Habits. By this time, the U.S. had entered the war, and Engel had shed her pre-Pearl Harbor pacifism. When Engel took her Masters in the spring of 1942, she turned down offers to teach sociology at the University of Indiana and North Carolina in favor of taking a civil service test in statistics (to which she had not had much exposure) so she could work for the government and contribute to the war effort.

In 1942, at the age of 23, Engel took a position with the newly formed Office of War Information (OWI) in Washington, D.C. She worked in the Domestic Branch as Information Analyst and Acting Chief of the Radio Section, Bureau of Intelligence. Her duties revolved around evaluating how radio programs were handling war-related themes. She also participated in a study of radio soap operas to see how their writers were addressing issues like food rationing and other issues tied to the war effort. (Other women also worked as researchers but in nowhere near the numbers approaching those of men.) Here as elsewhere, many qualified female college graduates were compelled to accept secretarial positions instead (as Thelma Ehrlich was in New York). In 1943, the Bureau of Intelligence was eliminated, and hundreds had to find new jobs. An active union member like her father, Engel helped organize the displaced workers by circulating their resumes, including her own, via the United Federal Workers of America. Her work with Margaret Mead drew the attention of the agriculture subsection of the Bureau of Intelligence, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor agency to the CIA. She would work as a research analyst for the OSS for the next six years. She moved from Washington to London and Italy, later to China and beyond. She helped plan efforts at “psychological warfare” (efforts to influence the mind of the enemy), analyzed foreign press reports, investigated and wrote reports on national food supplies, and observed the start of a postwar feminist movement in Italy. Her OSS career ended in postwar China, where she was hired to analyze news articles but as she likes to tell it, did nothing serious—dancing and traveling around the country until the job came to an end. As the OSS was folded into the CIA, many young researchers like herself moved on.

Engel returned to the U.S. and, in 1949, entered the doctoral program in sociology at the University of Chicago. By that time, she had worked seven years as a social researcher, authored or co-authored four published articles, and flown to countries around the world as part of what she calls “the original international cocktail set.” Chicago, like Columbia, was filled with former soldiers attending school on the G.I. Bill and there were few academically qualified women to serve as mentors. Only two who were a presence for Engel in the department in sociology had regular faculty appointments: Ethel Shanas, who became a worldwide authority on old age and its problems, and Helen McGill Hughes, who a decade earlier had written excellent sociological studies of newspaper human interest stories. Engel worked on a research project for Chicago’s interdisciplinary Committee on Communication and took courses and seminar from Ernest Burgess, Louis Wirth, Herbert Blumer, Tamotso (Tom) Shibutani, and others. She cultivated interests in collective behavior, mass communication, and politics. Long divorced, she also fell in love with and married a fellow student, Kurt Lang.

In the spring of 1951, Kurt and Gladys Lang were among those enrolled in Shibutani’s graduate seminar in collective behavior, a setting that served as incubator for a classic study still read today. They took the lead in organizing classmates and friends to study an event that was about to occur in Chicago. World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur was visiting the city just after having been controversially relieved of his duties as commander of forces in the Korean War. He landed at Midway Airport to become the center of a parade in his honor downtown to the Loop. Sociology at Chicago was different than Columbia in lacking an equivalent to the Bureau of Applied Social Research for funding and running research. Also, competition and unhappiness among its graduate students were less intense. The Langs had no money at their disposal but nevertheless managed with the generous help of volunteers to station 31 observers along the parade route. All of them wrote reports on the crowd's reaction to this hero. Six months pregnant with her first child, Gladys thought the push of a downtown crowd wasn’t a good place for her to be; she would do the best she could to gain access to a television set from which to view and report on the event. Television was still new. They did not have a set but Donald Horton generously gave her and a fellow-student access to his TV. While the actual event turned out to be staid and rather disappointing as a display of collective excitement, the televised coverage made it seem much more dramatic and stirring than it actually was. This discrepancy between the coverage and the event drove their analysis for what became an award-winning article, “The Unique Perspective of Television and Its Effect: A Pilot Study.” It was the first systematic documentation of how television cameras and commentary created their own “video events,” different than the reality on the ground, and illustrative of the more inclusive processes by which news media actively shape public opinion and politics.

At about the same time the Langs were studying the MacArthur Day event, Gladys became the second woman ever to receive a Social Science Research Council (SSRC) graduate research fellowship—which, as she recounts in the film, the selection committee threatened to revoke when members were informed that she was pregnant because they felt that she would not be able to cope with a baby and make good on the fellowship as promised. She protested the decision in a long letter to Elbridge Sibley, Executive Director of the SSRC. Its “eloquence,” Sibley told her later, persuaded the skeptics on the committee. The 1953 MacArthur Day essay launched Gladys and Kurt’s careers as two of the most discerning and creative communication researchers of the postwar era. Often collaborating together, they wrote a series of articles in the 1950s and ‘60s that unpacked ways that television was changing the face of American politics. Gladys did her dissertation on the televised political conventions of 1952; Kurt his on the MacArthur Day event – each with significant input from the other. Subsequent joint-essays are on television-based political personalities, citizens’ collective experience of politics, and the first-of-their-kind televised presidential debates of 1962 (some of which contributed to their pioneering Politics and Television [1968]), their fine extension of Chicago School sociology, Collective Dynamics (1961), which included chapters on a number of sorts of public communication, also similarly co-authored as nearly, but not all, Gladys’s other publications.

Though she was a well-trained and accomplished scholar, Gladys Lang, could not secure a tenure-track professorship in the 1950s and ‘60s. After the birth of her two children (in 1951 and 1955), she taught, but only as a lecturer, at a series of institutions: the University of Miami (1954), Carleton College in Ottawa, Canada (1955-56), Brooklyn College (1957-59), Queens College (1959-1965), Rutgers University (Fall 1965), and Columbia (1967-70), where she also served as research associate and board member for a late iteration of the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Less-qualified men received positions she applied for, while so-called “anti-nepotism rules” prevented her from being hired in the same department as her husband—one among several mechanisms severely limiting academic opportunities for women in that era. Things slowly began changing in the 1970s, and in 1972, Gladys joined the faculty at SUNY-Stony Brook, where Kurt had taught since 1964. She was initially hired to head an Interdisciplinary Program on Communication and Society and the year after became professor of sociology and communication and, in 1980, an adjunct professor of political science as well. In 1984, she returned, accompanied by Kurt, to the University of Washington, where she had taken her Masters four decades earlier.

Since the 1980s, the Langs have continued to produce public innovative and important work on media and politics, collective memory, and public opinion, including a well-received book on Watergate —The Battle for Public Opinion (1983)-- and another on the building and survival of artistic reputation over time – Etched in Memory (1990, updated in 2001). In that period, Gladys and Kurt have shed some of their earlier institutional marginality and come to be recognized as both leading and historically pioneering figures. Along with Erving Goffman and Joseph Gusfield, they are the most important Chicago School sociologists of communication of their generation, and unique in their pathbreaking attention to television. Within communication studies, their work stands out for its careful attention to history, cultural contexts, and the sociological complexities of media, public opinion, and political roles and action in the second half of the twentieth century.
Select Publications (* denotes work co-written with Kurt Lang)
“Some Neglected Temporal Aspects of Human Ecology.” Social Forces 22 (1943), 43-47.
* “The Unique Perspective of Television and Its Effect: A Pilot Study,” American Sociological Review 18 (1952), 3-12.
* “The Inferential Structure of Political Communications,” Public Opinion Quarterly 19 (1955), 168-84.
* “Political Participation and the Television Perspective,” Social Problems 4 (1956), 107-116.
* “The Television Personality in Politics,” Public Opinion Quarterly 20 (1956), 103-113.
* “Television and the Intimate View of Politics,” Journal of Broadcasting 1 (1956-57), 47-55.
* “The Mass Media and Voting,” in Eugene Burdick and Arthur J. Brodbeck, eds., American Voting Behavior (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1959), 217-35.
“Minority Groups and Economic Status in New York State.” In Aaron Antonovsky and Lewis Lorwin, eds., Discrimination and Low Incomes (Albany, NY: State of New York, Interdepartmental Committee on Low Incomes, 1959), 49-71.
* “Decisions For Christ: Billy Graham in New York” in M. Stein and A. Vidich, eds., Anxiety and Identification (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1960), 415-427.
Old Age in America (Editor). Reference Shelf, Vol 33, no 5, New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1961.
* Collective Dynamics. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co, 1961.
*“Candidate Images and Vote Decisions,” in Sidney Kraus, ed., The Great Debates, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 313-331.
*“Planning for Emergency Operations,” Mass Emergencies 1 (1967), 107-117.
* Politics and Television. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968.
* Voting and Nonvoting. Boston: Blaisdell Publishing Company, 1968.
* “Collective Behavior Theory and the Escalated Riots of the Sixties,” in Tamotsu Shibutani, ed., Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970).
* “Critical Events Analysis,” in Steven H. Chaffee, ed., Political Communications: Issues and Strategies for Research (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1975), 195-217.
* “Experiences and Ideology: The Influence of the Sixties on the Intellectual Elite.” in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change. ed. L. Kriesberg. JAI Press: Greenwich, Conneticut, 197-230.
* The Battle for Public Opinion: The president, the press, and the polls during Watergate. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983
* Politics and Television Re-Viewed by Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang. Sage: Beverly Hills, 1984.
* “Recognition and Renown: The Survival of Artistic Reputation” American Journal of Sociology, 94 (1988), 79-109.
* Etched in Memory: The Building and Survival of Artistic Reputation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990
* Introduction to the Illinois Paperback of Etched in Memory (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), xi-xxvi.
* "The 'New' Rhetoric of Mass Communication Research: A Longer View,” Journal of Communication 33:3 (2006), 128-140.

Other Biographical Sources for Gladys Lang
William P, Eveland, “Gladys Engel Lang,” in Nancy Signorielli, ed., Women in Communication (Greenwood Press, 1996), 254-63.
American Association of Public Opinion Research