Ham radio, for which FCC-licensed individuals are granted a portion of the airwaves to operate amateur, non-commercial radio, exploded in popularity in the mid-twentieth century. During its heyday in the 1950s, it was predominantly a hobby for middle-class men, based in suburban homes. As such, argues historian Kristen Haring, ham radio made “claims on masculinity and privacy in the midcentury household in an atmosphere of sexual identity anxiety and women’s control over domestic geography.” Haring explores “the social and spatial distance created” by this intertwining of masculinity and technology, a seemingly innocuous hobby enmeshed with sexual politics and geopolitical issues.
“Certain leisure activities gained social approval because of their association with values such as a strong work ethic, educational enrichment, thrift, and structured use of time. Still, any individual intensely devoted to a single hobby could fall out of favor and disrupt the whole household.”
Ham radio, continues Haring, ”grounded masculinity in technology rather than sexuality.” By the 1950s, “marital tensions had become a standard trope of hobby culture.” “Harsh commentaries” by hams’ wives in the hobbyist press included protests “that technical interest diminished hobbyists’ sexuality.” This, notes Haring, was during a time in which “psychologists and popular culture alike portrayed married women’s sexuality as essential to the masculinity of their husbands and sons, and, indirectly following from this, to the political stability of the country.”
Television attracted similar criticism, but television only demanded limited involvement from viewers. Ham radio required total commitment when in use, as well as expensive equipment, membership fees, privacy/solo time, etc., that only hobbyists benefited from in the family economy.
The large antennas and late night tinkering aroused the ire and suspicion of suburban neighbors in this Cold War era of conformity and repression, raising the question of who they were talking to out there. US Senators warned of the dangers of Communists with ham radios, while ham clubs reminded their members that, while American were free to say anything, loose lips could nevertheless still sink ships. Ham radio operators frequently sent postcards to each other, crossing international borders, including the Iron Curtain, which caused more concern. One ham operator’s evidently long-suffering wife is quoted: “The mailman eyes me suspiciously as he hands me colorful postcard things scrawled with a queer jargon.” In response, ham clubs “established postal consolidation centers that enclosed multiple postcards in a single envelope.”
The “technical, homosocial hobby provoked anxiety about sexuality even as it confirmed gender identity.” The “ham shack” (often a basement, garage, or attic) was a room of one’s own for the ham operator in the feminized domestic space of the suburban home. Like a workbench, the ham hardware setup was a wife-free zone, and potentially a place of father-son bonding. FCC regulations stipulated that the ham licensee keep equipment “inaccessible to unauthorized persons.” The ham abbreviation “XYL,” meaning “former young lady,” was the standard reference for a wife.
Hobbyists, meanwhile, touted the solace of the ham shack: a man’s home, or at least this little corner of it, was his castle. After a day of work in the bureaucratic, corporate world of gray flannel suits, a guy could change into jeans and disappear into amateur radio to talk to other hams around the world. By their own lights, ham radio operators were “freer men” than the typical office drone or suburban dad.