Honoring Hilmes: The Amplification of Women’s Voices

May 12, 2015
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Post by Jennifer Hyland Wang, Independent Scholar

This is the seventh post in our “Honoring Hilmes” series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

At the beginning of Radio Voices (1997), Michele Hilmes defended her study of radio to a field which had ignored it; studies of the programming, practices, and cultural traditions of radio, had “become the ‘repressed’ of television studies, occupying a position similar to that of the silent film era in film studies twenty years ago” (xv). To understand television’s role in American life, she argued, scholars must study radio. In her groundbreaking work, Hilmes brought American radio to life, revised contemporary media scholarship, and resurrected radio studies as a viable and valuable academic enterprise. For me, though, that was not her most significant contribution to broadcast history. In this field-defining text, she devoted chapters to daytime radio and the many women who operated in and around broadcasting. If studying radio is the repressed of television studies, then surely studying daytime radio – denigrated by contemporaries and snubbed by most academics – is to study the repressed of the repressed. Before Michele Hilmes, precious few scholars looked at radio, much less at how gender shaped American broadcasting. Few took seriously the sound of women’s voices wafting through the daytime ether. Except for Michele Hilmes. This, in my mind, was a more radical act, cementing her place in feminist media history.

Mary Margaret McBride, aka "Martha Deane."

Mary Margaret McBride, aka “Martha Deane.”

Hilmes re-centered the role gender played in broadcasting history and challenged her peers to try to make sense of broadcasting without it. In her books and published articles on the radio, television, and film industries, Hilmes listened to the whispers of the women who shaped American media and the spaces, places, and times when those voices were silenced. Whether writing about female DXers, soap opera writers, or daytime audiences, Hilmes pointed academics to a gaping hole in our understanding of how American broadcasting functioned. She told the story of how radio broadcasting used gendered identities to inform basic industrial practices and define the relationship between advertisers, audiences, and broadcasters. Hilmes delineated the profound and dynamic ways in which gender shaped broadcasting history and how gendered hierarchies were embedded in broadcasting’s DNA. Not only was American broadcasting shaped by gender, she argued, radio produced gendered representations and discourses that sometimes replicated, sometimes challenged, and often confounded those terms. No one had spoken with such clarity and insight on the critical role of gender in the origin of American broadcasting or on the continued relevance of gender in understanding the media’s operations.

Yet, Michele Hilmes’ work collecting, mentoring, and cultivating female scholars is as profound a contribution to the field of media studies as her own innovative scholarship. To explain, I need to tell a story. I was one of Michele’s many advisees in graduate school. I fell in love with radio and history in her classes, even as I yearned for a family. The difficulties I faced merging motherhood and academia were present from the very start of my academic training. I wrote my dissertation under Michele’s steady guidance as I raised two young children. I birthed my third baby the same morning I was scheduled to defend my dissertation. One week post-partum, bloated and sleep-deprived, I nursed my baby, walked into a room and defended my dissertation, and came out in time to nurse my young son again. At that moment, the messy, tangled terrain on which many female academics live their lives – the chaotic juxtaposition of breast feeding and intellectual inquiry, the labor that gives forth a new life and the labor that completes a long fought-for Ph.D., of sleep deprivation so severe that answers to basic questions eluded me at my defense at the moment that I was expected to stand toe-to-toe with my academic betters – was never more absurd, more lived, or more real.

Hilmes3 copyI have no unusual strength, no special superpower that allowed me to finish my degree while knee-deep in diapers, snot, and sippy cups. Completing graduate school was a much longer process than I, and certainly Michele, had ever imagined. What I did have was an advisor who had been there, someone who had balanced motherhood and academia, and had not just survived, but thrived. She had walked the walk, raising a delightful child while negotiating the demands of a dual career family. She was a proud mother and a productive and pioneering scholar. She showed me, and many others, that a balance – albeit tenuous, dynamic, and fraught – between family and career was possible, if it was negotiated on your own terms. She never judged our choices – to stay home with young children or to seek a tenure-track position, to pursue a traditional career in academia or one outside the ivory tower. Her feminism was pragmatic. She would ask about our personal dreams and professional aspirations and then helped us each fashion an academic career that resembled no one else’s. There was not one path, not one way to be an academic, and not one way to be a mother. No matter my choices, Michele Hilmes remained a steadfast presence in my life, encouraging me to marry my ambition as an academic with my duties as a mother in whatever convoluted way I could. It wasn’t a question of whether I, or any other female academic, could have it all. It was a question, she believed, of how much we could have on our plates at any given time, a process that was negotiated and renegotiated in increments, sometimes minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day.

In a recent podcast to celebrate Michele’s retirement, I listened to the many women who have graduated from UW-Madison’s Media and Cultural Studies program under Michele’s watch, or who had found encouragement from Michele in their early research, who wanted to speak about Michele’s profound influence on their academic life. Michele guided women like Cynthia Meyers, Lisa Parks, Elana Levine, Allison McCracken, Clare Bratten, Eleanor Patterson, Kit Hughes, Norma Coates, Megan Sapnar Ankerson, and Aniko Bodroghkozy and myself, among many others, through graduate school, dissertations, and workplaces.  In her academic work, Michele Hilmes unearthed the voices of historical women who experimented with broadcasting in the medium’s earliest days and broadcast them for all to hear.  Through her tenure at UW, she encouraged dozens of women to find their own voices in and around academia, multiplying the women trained to recognize the profound influence of gender in the formation and operation of broadcasting. It is this marriage – her media scholarship and her mentorship of female graduate students – that is a lasting and profound contribution to the field.


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3 Responses to “ Honoring Hilmes: The Amplification of Women’s Voices ”

  1. Eleanor Patterson on May 12, 2015 at 7:28 PM

    Great post, Jennifer!! This post speaks to me on many levels, as Michele Hilmes’ has influenced me in similarly ways. She has influenced my research interests, questions and methodologies in so many ways. However, like you, I contend with the competing demands of motherhood and academia, and as a graduate student, I am so grateful to have a feminist media scholar as a mentor, who has paved the way for our participation in this field, while also literally supporting our development as scholars, feminists, mothers and humans. Really well written post, thanks for articulating this part of Michele Hilmes’ legacy!!!

  2. Clare Bratten on May 13, 2015 at 11:38 AM

    Jennifer, Wonderful tribute to the mighty Michele. I am sorry I missed the podcast opportunity. My own tribute is that I came to UW for my doctorate after re-entering scholarly life twenty years out of undergrad. So I am another ‘non traditional’ student. I drove up to campus and met Michele in the summer when I was contemplating applying (and doing research on Edna Ferber for a Master’s thesis at the great Wisconsin state archives). Michele was in her office and greeted me with her usual calm friendliness and encouragement. I felt welcomed even while being years beyond the average cohort age of most of the other grad students. Her steadfast and prolific scholarship have been a wonder and, yes, she helped highlight so well the contribution of women to radio while simultaneously creating a haven for women in academia. So glad to be there during her time there (and with our wonderful cohort of grad students).

  3. Jason Mittell on May 14, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    Wonderful post, Jennifer! I would just add that Michele’s model of being both a successful academic and a successful parent resonated for me as well. Even though we didn’t have kids until after graduate school and the pressures & expectations for being an academic father are far, far, far, far (etc.) less pernicious and damaging than for an academic mother, Michele was still the only one of my graduate mentors who had modeled being a parent pre-tenure. It was only after graduate school that I came to recognize what a gift that model was, and came to appreciate how impressive it was that Michele achieved what she did professionally while having a family and being “out” about that balance within a department where it was far from the norm.