Early Women of Audio: A New Analysis

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When I first started looking for the earliest women in sound recording history, I really didn’t think I would find anyone prior to 1950. If the culture of recording studios wasn’t welcoming of women in the 1970s, why would it be in the 1950s or 1920s? I’ve been surprised how many women I have found but I’ve had to get out of the box a bit to get to them.

Looking for Traditional Careers

Originally, I was looking for women who followed a traditional career path in the recording industry. You look to people like Al Schmitt, Phil Ramone or Tom Dowd who learned the craft from others at commercial recording studios, learned how to produce artists, and were in the industry for decades working for major labels and studios. The only woman I’ve found who’s career mirrors that would be Ethel Gabriel, who was at RCA 40 years in the A&R department. She hung out at the recording studios while she was working at the RCA record plant in the 1940s, was mentored by her boss, Herman Diaz, Jr, and eventually was given a chance to produce. Amazingly, her story is pretty unknown.

The next longest career is probably Mary Shipman Howard, who was a recording engineer for 15 years. Even then, when she first applied to NBC to be an engineer (in 1940) the union at the time didn’t hire women. She was hired as secretary. It wasn’t until WWII (when there was a shortage of staff) they changed the rules and promoted her.

A Job, Not a Career Path

I pretty much gave up on looking for careers once I realized that most of the women who have credits as producers or engineers were in and out of the industry in less than 10 years. But, that brings up more questions: What made them try it, and why did they get out?

For the recording engineers, it sometimes was a skill that supplemented other interests. Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron and Ruth White are remembered for electronic composition but started with recording. A number of women produced music or started record labels as part of husband and wife teams like Wilma Cozart Fine, Dorle Soria, or Juanita Stinnette Chappelle. There’s women who had an entrepreneurial spirit – Helen Oakley Dance, Lillian McMurray and Cordell Jackson. They decided to produce recordings (and figured out how to do it on their own) based on personal interest and drive.

There’s women who tried and changed directions after a couple years (Victoria Hernández, Juanita Stinnette Chappelle). I include them because they tried; they had record labels and released records even if they moved on shortly after. That’s the interesting thing about the recording industry of this era – you get women like Lillian McMurray who decided to sell records in a furniture store, created her own record label, and signed artists (including people who audition by coming into the store) in a year. She was in and out of the business within 6 years but the music she produced was so significant she was named to the Blues Hall of Fame. Lillian said she paid royalty checks on time for decades – meanwhile she was volunteering with her church and was a Girl Scout Troop leader. Cordell Jackson gave up recording for twenty years to sell real estate. She came back into it and her career skyrocketed.

Looking Outside the Box

I also had to redefine what I considered jobs in the recording industry. It’s easy to get stuck in the box of working in a recording studio in a traditional role. I found three women who were ethnomusicologists as early as 1890 – which is incredible! It’s not traditional audio but it is still knowing how to listen and operate audio equipment with the intention to capture sound. 

What they are doing is not much different from a field recordist – someone recording original sounds for a movie. Or a production sound mixer who’s capturing voices on set. The way an ethnomusicologist recorded back then was wax cylinders – no different from a recording studio. Ralph Peer is widely recognized for his field recordings of musicians that were released to the public on record labels. The only difference with ethnomusicologists is their recordings (including music) weren’t intended to be released.

There’s a number of women working in spoken word or educational content, too. Caedmon is a new one to me – two women (Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney) who created a record label right out of college. That’s been recognized as the beginning of the audiobook industry.

If you look outside technical roles, there’s Lilian Bryant, Edison’s music manager. While she wasn’t behind the glass, she was a crucial part of the recording process for his studio and the earliest days of recording. Aletha Mae Dickerson-Robinson was recording director of Paramount in Chicago in 1928. When you take a step back from this, it’s pretty amazing to think that women were given important responsibilities like these in recording studios. It makes me wonder who they were – what their personalities were like, what kind of background did they have?

What’s Next

I’m interested in looking into why some of these women got the opportunities they did. One trend I have found is most of the women prior to WWII were college-educated. I know some came from affluent families (like Helen Oakley Dance, Mary Shipman Howard) but I wonder of more of them did (because so few women went to college back then).

Given all the new names I’ve found (over 30 now) I think it’s fair to start recognizing that yes, there were women in the recording industry in the earliest years. Are they a needle in a haystack? Maybe. But there’s definitely enough evidence to show they were around – just not necessarily in a traditional sense.