When Women Filled the Air

Iowa’s radio homemakers and their legacy

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In the Midwest in 1925, women’s voices were in the air.

There were so many lonely women on the farms in Iowa. Every day the men would leave and the wives would be left in their homes with their cooking and cleaning and gardening and children, and nothing but the radio for company. Evelyn Birkby, an author and radio broadcaster who died this year at 101, told me in 2017 that living on a farm with small children was the loneliest period in her life.

Evelyn was one of KMA’s radio housewives, a group who filled the rural airwaves from the 1920s to the 1980s, with recipes, gardening advice, and friendship.

From the beginning, KMA relied on women to fill the airwaves, from talk shows, to music, to managing the station. The post-World War I generation of women had college degrees, they were eager to enter the workforce, and they approached cooking like a science. Even in those early days, KMA featured single mothers, widows and the Reverend Edythe Stirlen, who hosted a religious program where she called herself “the little minister.”

They were the early mom influencers. They created a sacred space, a gentle gathering of women’s voices, which had no place in major media outlets. Here, they could be themselves: just women talking to lonely women over the airwaves. Discussing recipes, families, beauty tips, cosmetics, loss, grief, budgeting tips, and so much more. Radio homemakers constructed the uneasy identity of the heartland, offering with their recipes and voices a practical road map to what Elspeth Probyn, a professor of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, calls the “very practical figure of an everyday ethics of living.”

These proto-Betty Crockers affirmed the model of the modern housewife while embodying her contradictions, which Erika Endrijonas, in her essay “Processed Foods From Scratch” summarizes as, “Buy processed foods but cook from scratch; be creative but follow directions precisely; accommodate all family members' preferences but streamline the food purchase and preparation process; work part-time but be a full-time homemaker.”

And in a time of change for women, from suffrage and flappers to working outside the home to the second wave of feminism, these women, working within the contradictions of their identity, reified what it meant to be a good (white) mother.

The Midwest in 1925 was still a patchwork of dirt roads traveled by horse and carriage. Houses still lacked electricity; women cooked over coals and wood-burning stoves. Perishable foods were a luxury item for those lucky enough to live near a stream or pond, or along the route for the ice man.

In her book Neighboring on the Air, Evelyn profiles many of the women of KMA, weaving their stories together with their recipes. Among them was Bernice Currier, a single mother of four children. With the tact of her generation, Evelyn writes simply, “Their marriage was not a happy one. After a separation and an attempted reconciliation, the two decided on a permanent parting. Bernice accepted the responsibility for the children.” 

Those words are so simple and matter-of-fact — smoothing like homemade icing over all the heartache they must contain. 

Bernice had a degree in music from the University of Nebraska and played the violin on air. She later, at Earl May’s urging, learned to play the fiddle so she could play along with the hillbilly music. That fiddle-playing put her kids through college. During her early career she taught music and worked at KMA; in 1948, when her kids were grown and arthritis made it impossible for her to play the fiddle, she started her own radio show called “A Visit with Bernice.” 

In Evelyn Birkby’s book, Bernice is described by Billie Oakley, another radio homemaker, as a “gutsy woman, one who was born before her time. She did her own thing without too much concern for public opinion as long as she knew it was right. She resented being paid less than men. She made $50 per week and of that she paid for the food which she was expected to serve the radio visitors who stopped by her house.”

One of the early personalities of radio homemakers was Leanna Driftmier, who founded the Kitchen Klatter empire and hosted the longest-running homemaker show in radio history. In 1926, Leanna’s sister, Helen Field Fisher, had a homemaker show on KMA’s rival KFNF, called “Mother Hour.” Fisher started another show on horticulture and handed “Mother Hour” over to Leanna.

Leanna was a teacher, a graduate of the Los Angeles Normal School. She married Martin Driftmier of Shenandoah, a widower with two children. They married and had five more children. The chaos of their large family life played well on air. The children played their instruments for the audience and helped Leanna cook on air. Even the mouse that scurried through the Driftmier kitchen became a beloved radio character  named Tippy Toes.

Her children recalled busloads of people pulling up to the house to visit with Leanna. For her family, this was just part of the job.

Leanna opened her home and her life with honesty and vulnerability. When her sons fought in WWII, she talked about it on her show and encouraged women to grow victory gardens. According to Evelyn Birkby, she mailed more than 3,000 personal messages to parents who lost sons in the war.

Most of the radio homemakers had microphones in their homes so they could cook and talk to their audiences as if they were right there with them, sipping a cup of coffee and sharing a sweet roll.

When Leanna was in a car accident, she had a microphone installed by her bed so she could still conduct her holiday broadcast.

The Kitchen Klatter brand grew from a newsletter to a magazine, which at its peak had nearly 90,000 subscribers. Eventually, Leanna branched out, founding the Triple K Manufacturing company and selling Kitchen Klatter-branded cleaning products and flavorings. She had an empire that also kickstarted the careers of other radio homemakers, including Evelyn.

The recipes shared by Leanna and her Kitchen Klatter empire sit in a dissonant space. They are cheap and utilitarian. This is partly because, from the Great Depression to WWII, for those living in a rural area, cut off from access to grocery stores and distribution centers, keeping the family fed was a full-time occupation. The radio homemakers provided food and life and stability in a world that felt out of control. And their appeal was a comforting processed simplicity, a centering of home and kitchen and whiteness.

Radio homemakers were almost always white women. And only occasionally white men. And as they made recipes on air, they were doing more than just sharing secrets of the kitchen; they were creating the identity of the Midwest, as bland, homey, and predominantly white. 

For context, the KKK in Iowa reached its peak in 1926, one year after May founded his radio station. After the Great Depression, formal membership in the Klan dropped off, but racist fears about “outsiders” and “city people” ruining their way of life remained in America’s heartland. Many Iowa communities were Sundown towns, places where Black Americans were not welcome after dark.  During the rise of the radio homemakers, the number of counties with Black Iowans decreased from 38 in 1890 to 28 in 1930. Iowa has 99 counties.

Although the radio homemakers politely stayed out of politics, their marketing of the ideal mother, as Audre Lorde wrote of images of generic womanhood, “ignores their built-in privilege of whiteness and defines women in terms of their own experience alone.” 

As the world changed around them, the radio homemakers held fast to home and food as a prescribed way of life and an idealized way of living. As more women entered the workforce, and television, paved roads, and phones connected the lives of rural women in the Midwest, the need for radio homemakers ended. No longer were women so isolated in their homes on the prairie that they’d turn on the radio to hear a friend, any friend talk to them.

The year before I met Evelyn, I was a mother with frustrated writing ambitions, two small children, no job and a bad marriage. I remembered one February, as a blizzard raged, lying on the floor while my kids played and wondering if this was all my life was going to be. I was so lonely and frustrated. “I have a master’s degree!” I’d whisper to my baby when he’d slap me in the face. 

I remember telling Evelyn this when she told me that on her radio show she once talked about her daughter’s death from meningitis — how so many women wrote in to tell her of their own loss and heartache. “We are all just so lonely,” I said. 

Evelyn’s memorial service was this past weekend. I wanted to go, but it was too far away for me to manage. Even now, the Midwest is still so large, so open, so lonely, and so often hard to understand in its spaces and contradictions. 

And feeling that way makes me think of those women: imperfect, loving, hurt and hardened in a way I may never understand, turning on the radio, finding a friend, making something beautiful and sacred from the airwaves.

Further Reading:

In 2018, I wrote about mom influencers and bodies and capitalism for a site called Topic. It’s relevant to the radio homemakers. I also love Evelyn’s books, which are as fun, kind, and chatty as she was. Her book Neighboring on Air, is my favorite.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email, which includes interviews, essays, and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks, and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics, food, dogs, our bodies, and more.