The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954

John Richardson


Greenwood unswervingly publicised the programme of the women's movement during her years at the microphone. But she was more than a publicist/propagandist, she was also a social theorist. Greenwood set herself the task of sketching out to her listeners the blueprint of a possible society and appending the instructions on how it would be built. Her project is not apparent in each and every script. It surfaces more clearly during some historical periods than in others. Most scripts take up only fragments of the grand design but in some it approaches the coherency of a distinct social programme. Taken as a whole Greenwood's project acts as an opus which binds her archive together. The scripts which constitute this undertaking will be examined here.

Greenwood's starting point was the formal objectives of the women's movement. Her finished product would be the representation of a society in which these objectives had been achieved. This much Greenwood was able to determine before-hand. She had less control over the other components which mediated her text. Her design was drawn against the backdrop of power relations in which the women's movement took shape and operated. The salient features of this field have been dealt with in the preceding chapters. The system of leaders and led, educators and pupils, the privileged role of science, the tension between socialism and parliamentary democracy, and the contradiction between public and private spheres were the ground on which the feminist quest for equality was conducted. These relations, and their associated ideologies, played a part in structuring Greenwood's vision of the ideal future. Her problem was to transform this vision into a shape which was both acceptable to the broadcasting authorities and legible to her listeners.

During the late 1930s Greenwood began to broadcast a series of "travel adventures". These, she told her listeners, were based on the real-life exploits of contemporary travel writers. They described a journey undertaken by a heroine to some exotic location. After enduring considerable hardships and overcoming a range of barriers placed in her path the heroine would reach her destination (her destiny).1

The quest, recalling the modernist search for origins, was an important theme of Greenwood's texts. The figure was of particular relevance to the women's movement, which was itself engaged in a search for self-determination. Later the quest structure was developed to take on board a number of themes common to utopian writing. The figure rarely appeared in its completed form. Most scripts focussed on one or another of its major themes at the expense of the rest. A script in which a relatively completed quest appears will first be examined followed by a discussion of the components as they evolved in the body of Greenwood's work during different historical phases.


"Women of the Soviet Arctic"2 is the story of the "Soviet men and women [who] have been conquering the Arctic with the aid of science". This single sentence describes the dynamic of Greenwood's project. The raw topography (nature, the Arctic) is juxtaposed with the tool of transformation (science) and the colonists (men and women). Their efforts will result in a form of nature which supports a particularly equalised culture (conquest). There follows a movement from the general to the particular propelled by themes of Greenwood's formula.

As the introduction continues science in the abstract is converted into the technology and inventions which assist the colonists in their task - "ice breakers", "flying ships" (sea planes), "the latest equipment" and so forth. Greenwood completes her introduction by foreshadowing the theme of the journey:

Now although every school child in the Soviet has followed the work of the Northern Sea Route Administration, and speaks of its leader, Professor Otto Schmidt and his colleagues as "Heroes of the Arctic", it was a young woman journalist who first told the outside world of the every-day lives of the men and women who man these Arctic stations. She is Ruth Gruber . . . .

The voyage of discovery has already been made, the traveller has returned. This establishes Greenwood's warrant. Gruber's report can now be legitimately relayed to the listeners via the mediation of a radio script.

Before retracing Gruber's tracks, Greenwood elaborates on the nature of the quest, it's raison-de-etre. Gruber's mission is, "to go abroad and study the problems facing women under the differing political systems of fascism, communism, and democracy". Fascism and democracy (capitalism) are summarily dealt with. The Nazis have removed Gruber from her lecturing position at the University of Cologne. On her return to America, in the grips of the depression, she finds that "professional women [are] almost as unwelcome as in Germany". The scene is set for the success of communism to reflect back on the failures of fascism and capitalism. Greenwood has levered to the surface the force which underpins all utopian constructions - their invitation to compare the reader/listener's own reality with that of an idyllic projection. It is a comparison designed to expose the flaws in the listeners' current social arrangements.

The journey is usually governed by the same laws as those applied to the construction of utopia. Science and industry (although at times industry collapses into individual effort) are the ingredients of its success. Both the journey and utopia are, after all, nothing more than examples of Greenwood's dynamic of change. The journey is never easy, a variety of obstacles are placed between the traveller and her destination. Science, when applied to the journey, becomes an aid with which the explorer overcomes the difficulties which she is pitted against. In the case of Ella Maillart, the heroine of an earlier script:

After many disappointments she fell in with a party of four scientists leaving for the very part of Asia she ached to see - the high plains of Kirghistan - and they agreed to take her.3

Gruber's Arctic will be a landscape which has been "transformed", so much has been made clear in Greenwood's introduction. But "change" was not always figured as "transformation". In some scripts change was represented as the re-discovery of a mysterious lost nature. In these parables the traveller herself often belongs to a branch of the sciences, like botanist Miss Isobel Hutchinson, whose initial quest was undertaken in the name of "research":

She explains her constant returnings to the Arctic lands in these words - "I had heard the call of the wild on star-lit nights under the Northern Lights; I had slept in a snow hut; I had broken a new trail - and my heart beats for the wilderness".4

Nature cannot help but be re-worked during the course of the journey. Hutchinson "breaks a new trail", builds, "a snow hut" yet, in this instance, nature remains "the wilderness" - a wilderness which is supportive of, rather than antagonistic to the heroine. Both nature transformed and nature re-discovered are in affinity with "woman".

The Arctic is the raw material par excellence of Greenwood's scheme - the twin "poles" of her "new and strange" nature; it is, in Gruber's case, re-worked into plenitude and, in Hutchinson's, re-discovered as wilderness, there is no essential difference. The difference is between this future-past and Greenwood's present, the distance to the pole, either forward or back, is the measure of nature's loss in the present.

Initially Gruber is confronted with a bureaucratic, rather than an environmental hazard - no Western citizen had previously gained access to the Soviet Arctic. To help overcome this hurdle she is supplied with a letter of introduction from the American Arctic explorer, Stefanson. Stefanson's letter gains her an interview with Professor Schmidt, himself a scientist. The letter of introduction is a pass-key found elsewhere in Greenwood's scripts. Miss Freya Stark, for instance, travels to Arabia "armed with official letters to open all doors".5 The letter performs the function of the "magical agent", a talisman which in Vladimir Propp's analysis of folk narrative assists the hero to accomplish his task. Propp's heroes are also engaged in a quest, crusade or journey.6 Gruber uses her talisman to good effect:

this letter was the open sesame which took her past the closed doors (closed to other foreign journalists) of Dr Otto Schmidt in Moscow, for, next to Stalin, he was the man everyone most wanted to meet and interview.

In Propp's scheme the "magic agent" - in this case a letter passed from one scientist to another (Stefanson to Schmidt) - conceals a donor. According to Fredrick Jameson the donor is:

the element which explains the change in the story, that which supplies a sufficiently asymmetrical force to make it interesting to tell, and which is therefore somehow responsible for the "storiness" in the first place.7

In Greenwood's narrative the donor is science, represented by the personas of Stefanson and Schmidt. Schmidt unlocks the second closed door - that guarding the secrets of the Soviet Arctic. It is here that Gruber will find her utopia. In this script the (raw) Arctic is represented as the barren "naturally" inhospitable wasteland of Greenwood's present, its conquest will be her supreme example of the figure of transformation (challenged only by Mrs Rosita Forbes' mapping of the Sahara desert8).

Schmidt points Gruber towards her destination, telling her,

We want to open new land, to build cities, to find gold . . . . And, (pointing to a huge wall map) here are polar stations where women are wireless operators, meteorologists. Here is Agarka [sic]. Today it is a thriving lumber town. Five years ago there was nothing but tundra. And the leader of Igarka [sic] is a woman.

The map is a symbol of the super-imposition of culture upon nature,9 it becomes a thematic object denoting the triumph of science. The heroine's journey traces out the contours of the map, either a-fresh, or, as in the case of Mrs Rosita Forbes, for the first time. In doing so, the explorer becomes the scientist:

Her other love was for maps . . . . The curly red lines across African deserts had the fascination of a magnet for her and she used to hope that the explorers who were writing their names over the few blank spaces left on maps would leave just one small desert for her - a hope which was amply realised in later life.10

A number of similar images appear in Greenwood's scripts. Of these the most privileged of all is the aeroplane. The aeroplane, a heavily recurring image, performs a dual function. It is both a physical tool which conquers the natural terrain and an overarching symbol of the power of science. In 1950 Greenwood described her first sighting of a jet plane. The text is ladened with pleasure:

And when the Vampire Jet came roaring out of the sky to bank and soar and whiz by standing on its side, with a roar that shattered the air behind it, every single spectator held his breath in startled incredulity. It was gone almost before you could see it, and you heard it only after it passed.11

When Gruber resumes her journey she flies. Like Paulina Ossipenko who, in a previous script, had established a record for flight in a straight line, Gruber inscribes her own line on the landscape12 - again it is the mark of science on nature. Distance, time and terrain are vanquished:

She flew from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk, a distance as great as the whole breadth of the United States, and this was but her starting point down the Yenesei River by launch (though up on the map) to Molokov Island, which is the sea-plane base for the Arctic. She did the last lap of 815 miles in a modern white Donier flying boat in 8 hours. What had taken dog sledges 40 days, and now took a river boat 6 to 8 days, she did in as many hours [Greenwood's emphasis].

For Greenwood, as much for the characters in her story, time was of the essence. At Igarka, "there was so much to do and time marched on so swiftly".

With the voyage completed Greenwood takes up the hitherto neglected component of "industry". Science alone was not enough to effect the transformation from wasteland to utopia. Science had to be complemented by collective effort. At Igarka Gruber found "a city which never slept". On the wharf "ships were loaded all 24 hours of the day". Greenwood's heroines were never passive observers. Just as Gruber, in her conquest of the terrain during the course of her journey performed the function of scientist, she now joins the industrial push. Her vantage point is from within, assisting in the transformation - ÒHere she met all the people, lived among them, and, because everyone else worked, accepted a job on the local newspaper . . . .Ó

The fruits of women's labour can now be picked. The Arctic has been conquered, but conquest does not rob the Arctic of its nature, on the contrary, it liberates it. Only now can nature realise its full potential, only now can the Arctic become fertile. Fertility is injected into nature by the "womanly" yet strangely androgynous figure of Chief Scientist Marie Krenikova: "it was her job to make the Arctic fertile, to grow vegetables and fruit and grain to feed the population". The results are spectacular:

Everything was free, transportation to Leningrad and back (at the end of two years service) food, clothes, cigarettes, books, radio communications with friends, and salaries were doubled and sometimes trebled while they were away in the Arctic, and then they went down to the Crimea and lived in the sun for two months holiday, and, as often as not, begged to be allowed to go back to the Arctic.

"Everything was free". The values of the listeners present are called into question. Greenwood goes on to put the point more explicitly: "When Dr Gruber offered money for a fur coat, they stared at her in amazement and then in pity. She had found a world of new values". The new values are egalitarian values, the quest has been fulfilled and, as a by-product, the capitalist mode of exchange has fallen. But the "fur coat" is more than the object of exchange, more even than a necessary article of protective clothing. It is a signifier of "femininity" which is taken up in Greenwood's description of "the pretty 19 year old wireless operator":

She was small, slender, fair with soft skin and a low cultivated voice. She wore her fur coat with an air which could compare favourably with any woman in Europe for feminine charm and grooming.

"Femininity" is a common attribute of the Greenwood heroine. The heroine is, like Miss Pauline Gower, "Very lovely, very feminine, and still (to confound the critics) very capable".13 She is, like Mrs Mardi Gething, "very small and vivacious . . . hard to picture at the controls of giant bombers".14 Or, like Valentina Orlikova, "who, in her officer's uniform presented a picture of tailored perfection combined with womanly beauty . . . positively the most lovely creature (from photographs) that I've ever seen".15 The heroine is able to secure the femininity which Greenwood sacrificed in her struggle to make safe her Stirling Court home. In the terms of the utopian paradigm, femininity is on the side of the new nature.

Yet at Igarka femininity is brought under severe pressure. As Schmidt had foretold, the leader of the colony was indeed a woman. But at the very moment when woman ascends to the pinnacle of the hierarchy and renounces her traditional role, femininity falls away:

She wore the navy blue jacket and navel cap of the officers of the Northern Sea Route Administration, and a white shirt blouse and tie with a long navy skirt, and so drew no attention to the fact that she was a woman. Her hair was cut short like a man's. She was thin and angular, in her early forties, with a strong face with high cheek bones and piercing eyes . . . . Dr Gruber ran into her often but always felt that the woman was eliminated in the capable official.


1 See appendix 4 for sample travel adventure script.

2 "Women of the Soviet Arctic", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 19 Jan. 1940. See Appendix 5.

3 Untitled script, Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 8 Jan 1937.

4 "Women and Adventure - E Cheesman, Isobel Hutchinson - Botanist", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 5 Feb 1937.

5 "Freya Stark - Traveller in Arabia", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, April 29 1938.

6 Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968) pp. 43-50.

7 Fredrick Jameson, The Prison House of Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972) p 67.

8 "Rosita Forbes - English Woman Explorer, Lecturer and Journalist", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 16 Dec 1938.

9 As in Macherey's reading of the work of Jules Verne. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 183.

10 "Rosita Forbes", Greenwood.

11 Untitled script, Radio Roundabout, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6 PM-AM, 3 Feb 1950.

12 "Paulina Ossipenko, and her Companions of the Historic Non-stop Flight Across the USSR", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 16 June 1939.

13 Untitled script, Women in Tomorrow's World, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 8 June 1945.

14 Untitled script, 8 June 1945, Greenwood,

15 "Women of Russia: Against the Background of the Nation's War Effort", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission,

New: 25 March, 1996 | Now: 1 May, 2015