Researching the early women of audio

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After researching Marion Keisker last year, I became really interested in learning more about early women in audio. How many were there? What roles did they have in recordings? How early were women recording?

Cordell Jackson

I found a number of women by digging through Wikipedia – women like Wilma Cozart Fine, a record producer in the 1950s, or Cordell Jackson, the Rock and Roll Granny. Just from that, I knew that there were women in the recording industry in the 1950s and late 1940s. But, how much further back did it go?

I came across a goldmine of information at the Chasing Sound Oral History Project. Susan Schmidt Horning interviewed dozens of recording engineers for her book “Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture, and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Studies in Industry and Society)”. These recordings were later donated to the University of Kentucky and they are available online to listen.

The interviews are fascinating to listen to. John Palladino was one of the first engineers at Capitol Records (and spent the next few decades there) – and he reveals his wife, Evelyn, was also a recording engineer briefly. They met at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. One of her jobs was making record dubs of radio shows to send to the troops during WWII.

In another interview, I learned of Ethel Gabriel, the first major label record producer. She worked for RCA for 40 years. I’ll be sharing more about Ethel’s story later. There’s Mary Shipman Howard – a classical music engineer from the 1940s who worked for NBC and owned her own recording studio in Manhattan.

I contacted Dr. Schmidt (who is a history professor) and she graciously helped me with information on some women I hadn’t discovered yet (like Lillian McMurry, who has an incredible story of discovering blues artists in Mississippi).

While I’m still doing research, I’m already seeing common themes in these women’s stories. Opportunities came because of the war. Mary Howard wasn’t allowed in the NBC union (because it was men-only) until they were short staff during the war. That’s when she got promoted from secretary to engineer. Kay Rose (who went on to become the first woman to win an Oscar for sound) got her first assistant picture editor job at Universal during the war. There were no other assistants available so they hired her.

It’s interesting many of these women were very entrepreneurial, too. Lillian McMurry started a record store, record label (Trumpet Records) and produced recordings with no background in the music industry. But, she knew records were selling fast in her furniture store. Cordell Jackson bought a lathe (to record vinyl) and started her own label when she couldn’t get a record deal. Women had only been given the right to vote two decades before (1920) – and it was an era where it was unusual for women to even go to college. So, for them to take it on themselves isn’t just entrepreneurial – it’s having grit, too.

What’s really amazing is they probably had no idea the others even existed. I’ve seen or heard interviews where more than one of these women have claimed to be the first producer or record label owner or engineer. As of now, the earliest female engineer I know of is Mary Shipman Howard (1940) and her record label started in 1947. Helen Oakley Dance was the first female producer I know of in 1934 or 1935 (she was in the jazz scene of Chicago).

I’m really hoping to find some more women involved in the recording scene in the 1930s. If you know of any, please contact me! I’ve also put together a timeline of women in audio from this era.