Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Girls in Chicago show off radio sets they've built (July 1924 Radio News magazine)

Nerd Rage: Gendered Tech During the Rise of Radio

• January 30, 2013 • 7:50 AM

Girls in Chicago show off radio sets they’ve built (July 1924 Radio News magazine)

Radio is for boys only. No girls allowed. Or at least that was the message from so many young men at the dawn of the medium.

There was a sense of betrayal by many young men in the early 1920s that radio was no longer their exclusive domain. Girls were rushing in and getting their cooties all over everything. The magazines of the early 1920s that had once catered to the “wireless amateur” as they were known began appealing to a broader base. No longer was the radio magazine implicitly sold as for men and boys by excluding women from its pages as so many did in the late 1910s. By 1922 women and girls were starting to be featured in many radio magazines as competent tech nerds who could hold their own with any man.

The July 1924 issue of Radio News ran the photo above and explained: “The girl pupils of one of Chicago’s public schools would not let the boys outdo them. Hence a contest was held for the making of radio sets, and prizes were offered. The girls have shown superior workmanship and attracted the attention of local experts. The above photo shows some of the prize winning sets and their owners.”

As Richard Butsch notes in his 1998 paper on gender and radio technology in the 1920s, the predominantly male audience of Radio News magazine was scandalized by the perceived feminization of its pages.

A letter to the editor in the November 1922 issue of Radio News:

… in the editorial of the first issue [July, 1919] you stated that the magazine was for and by the AMATEUR, and you signed off H. Gernsback — your editor. The issue of August, 1922 is nothing more than the average broadcast magazine, great numbers of which have recently sprung up, and you signed the editorial with a plain H. Gernsback.

The first issue of Radio News teemed over with AMATEUR, AMATEUR, and AMATEUR… Just try and count the amateur articles in last August’s issue.

And then alas came along the broadcast craze. The word AMATEUR, so profusely expounded in the first dozen issues, is absolutely left flat and his place is filled by the young chap who can only hear noises with his ‘steen’ step amplifier, or the kid whose crystal set doesn’t function properly. Of course, I realize it is more profitable to cater to the broadcast fiends from a financial standpoint, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it was the now apparently forgotten AMATEUR who originally put the magazine on its feet.

… if you canned those silly [fiction] stories and the articles on scarf-pin radio sets you would have room to admit some of the amateur stuff you were so glad to start with.

Reference to fiction stories and scarf-pin radio sets was a thinly-veiled swipe at women, and as Butsch notes, “[the editor's] retreat from from a purely technical format was seen as an especially treacherous betrayal of his own followers’ faith in masculine technological mastery and contribution to the world.”

Woman from a 1924 magazine advertisement for radio sets [Novak Archive]

An advertisement for a Unidyne radio set in the July 1924 Radio News magazine [Novak Archive]

While the wireless magazines of the late 1910s (back when radio technology was used as a point-to-point communication rather than broadcast) suffered the wrath of angry young men, other magazines like Radio Broadcast, Radio Age and Radio World (all started in 1922) were more open to women from the start.

Butsch notes that Radio World featured many women in its pages from 1922 until 1924:

It included cartoons, many pictures of radio and cabinets in domestic settings, advice on how to choose a set for the parlor and many pieces on women. The magazine from its inception in 1922 to about mid-1924 gave marked attention to women. Pictures, stories and cartoons presented images of women in control of this new technology. The predominant message was one of women successfully using and enjoying radio. Numerous pictures showed women operating radios, for radio telegraphy as well as broadcast listening. A woman in New York was pictured playing chess via radio telephone with a female friend in Chicago. One cover featured the first woman graduate of a radio school.

But by mid-1924 something had changed. The pages of Radio World no longer showed women at the helm mastering technology but rather as set-pieces. The cover design of Radio World was suddenly featuring “young women in bathing suits, or dancing, legs exposed, while listening to radio.” The push-back from many corners of the male radio community had seemed to work.

Today the tech world grapples with its own gender problems. Women are under-represented not only in the major tech company boardrooms and Silicon Valley start-ups but also in the pages of tech’s leading culture magazines. We’ve undoubtedly made some progress since the 1920s, but we still have quite a ways to go.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.