Changing attitudes to Feminism on the BBC Archive

Friday 12 March 2010, 13:47

Chris Jones Chris Jones

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This time last month I wrote about the BBC Archive's expanding set of online collections centred on particular themes and subjects drawn from the corporation's fascinating history.

This week has seen the launch of a brand new collection based on the BBC's collection of material documenting 20th century feminism. It's designed to run in tandem with the launch of Vanessa Engle's three-part documentary series on BBC Four, Women, as well as the celebration of International Women's Day last Monday. I spoke to two of the site's producers, Emer O'Reilly and Kate Wheeler, about this fresh look at how women's roles in society have changed since the advent of the BBC.

Emer, who is an archivist with over 20 years experience at the BBC, revealed how the angle of the collection had been inadvertently inspired by a teenager who had used a previous archive collection on the Suffragettes to research a school project. The archive team wanted to help young people to understand what happened next in the story of the struggle for women's rights. The new collections reveal that although the Suffragettes won the battle to gain British women universal franchise in 1928, it was many years until anything like true equality was attained. For decades jobs were still advertised by gender and women's salaries stalled at a rate of approximately one third of their male counterparts.

Emer told me that one of her favourite programmes on the site - the story of Bella the Welder, drawn from the groundbreaking 80s series Out Of The Doll's House (the interviews were later re-broadcast as Voices From The Doll's House) - demonstrates the changes in women's rights perfectly. It documents the tale of a Scottish woman who, like millions of others, found employment during the Second World War, replacing a male workforce that had gone to fight abroad. In fact, by 1943 90% of single women and 80% of married women were involved in war work outside the home. Despite excelling at, and loving, welding, Bella was paid only half of a man's regular wage and was made redundant when the war ended. It wasn't until 1975's introduction of the equal pay and sex discrimination acts that she was able to eventually regain employment as a welder, despite years of interviews (often posing as a male candidate on paper!).

With such amazing material on offer, the Archive site's reputation and popularity is steadily growing. And while one of the biggest draws is still the steam train collection each addition increases the reach and appeal to broader sections of our audience. For example, the Feminist collection has already been much talked about on sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as on feminist blogs.

The team are particularly proud of its commitment to the true Reithian value of using the material as a way of providing historical context for educational purposes. Indeed, the one of the site's next projects - set to coincide with the launch of a new 'face' of Dr Who - not only looks at the show's evolution but also aims to use the time lord's encounters with real figures from history to reveal the true stories behind key events. Add to this, amongst many other treats, an in-depth look at how general elections have been covered by us over the years and the release of classic material from Richard Feynman's Fun to Imagine series, supporting BBC Vision's Science season, and the future looks very bright for the BBC's past!

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