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Women's lives at the heart of our collection of programmes

Jana Bennett Jana Bennett | 08:41 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

Starting on International Women's Day (Monday, 8 March) we're showing a very special and thoughtful collection of programmes on BBC TV with the different experiences of women at their heart.

The author of that feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique died a few years ago. Betty Friedan's highly influential book was all about how the American system had celebrated women doing paid work during WW2 but then tried to repudiate that part of US history and forcefully reintroduce the notion of femininity in the 50s to get women back at home.

January Jones as Betty Draper and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

It was fascinating to me because it told of the experience of my own mother's generation - an experience reflected in the wonderful Mad Men series on BBC Four now.

Some of the most influential feminist writers - Marilyn French and Mary Daly - have also died recently. What happened to that body of work? There are a number of writers who made a big contribution. What does their writing mean to women these days?

What brought this into sharper focus for me was a chat with some girls in a local sixth form who didn't know why feminists would have talked about burning bras as a symbol of liberation. "Why would you want to do that?" one of them asked.

When I was a student, it felt like my whole generation read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer - and I mean young men as well as women. This year it's 40 years since that book was published.

Could we tell the story of the contribution made by these writers who had defined post-war feminism and look at the influence of these ideas over the decades through women's and girls' lives?

It feels like a good moment to assess the effects of feminism over the generations. I thought this series could form a chronicle of our own social history driven by writers.

Germaine Greer

So this is what's coming up:

Documentary producer Vanessa Engle has made a series of three documentaries, the first of which, Libbers, is on BBC Four on TV on 8 March.

These engrossing programmes look at how important these post-war writers had been on much thinking on women's rights and women's lives.

Marilyn French gave Vanessa her final interview before she died, so this film is all the more precious.

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In A Passionate Woman on BBC One, Kay Mellor tells the two-part story of her mother's affair with a Polish neighbour in the 1950s - and its impact on her family a generation later in the 1980s. Billie Piper and Sue Johnston are among the cast.

Beyond this, how much have these ideas of Western feminism been shared right across the world where the most basic rights aren't in place?

BBC Three is contributing more stories to the collection, including an incredibly gritty but in some ways uplifting documentary called Judith: Going Back To Congo. A young British woman goes back to her birth country, where, as Amnesty says, rape is cheaper than bullets. Systematic rape has been used as a way to destroy communities there.

Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC Three, has also commissioned two documentaries about Afghanistan - Girls On The Frontline about young women soldiers and Women, Weddings, War And Me where another young British woman goes back to her birth country, this time to look at the struggle with the Taleban.

This week's Question Time comes from Dewsbury and though chaired by David Dimbleby as usual, it has a female-only audience for the first time on the show.

So across the spectrum, the idea is to capture through different programmes, some of the experience of women's lives here and elsewhere - across the ages and across the globe.

Also in honour of International Women's Day and this week of programming, the BBC website is publishing two absorbing archives of women's history - Marriage and Second Wave Feminism. I encourage you to go there to listen to footage such as a question posed on Any Questions in 1955 - At what age does a woman become a spinster? (Answer - when she can no longer attract!)

There's lots of video clips too - like this Nationwide feature from the 1970s where a female journalist tries to buy a coffee after midnight and can't get served anywhere because she is an unaccompanied woman - and therefore probably a prostitute.

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Going back to the sixth formers' conversation - the era they were wondering about is captured in this footage. Do have a look - and please leave your thoughts about this special week of programming on the blog here.

Jana Bennett is the director of BBC Vision

EDITOR'S UPDATE - Women, Weddings, War And Me had a title change just before it went on air so I've amended this post. The previous title which Jana had originally mentioned was Nel: From Camden To Kabul.

The central woman in the documentary, Nel Hedayat has written this evocative feature for the BBC News website: Marriage, prison or death?


  • Comment number 1.

    Whenever I read articles like the above that involve human rights topics, it always makes me think about how it would read the other way. What if there were an International Mens' Day, what if there were a White Police Federation...

    Makes you think....

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    - There is not an international mens day because there was not a problem with the equal rights of men. There is not a white police federation because there was not a problem with white police.
    So for both reasons, there does not have to be a day or reason to celebrate, unlike the actual past difficuties.

  • Comment number 4.

    @3 Yes there is a problem with equal rights.

    If equal rights are good then the same thing should be done for both.

  • Comment number 5.

    @4 -
    So you think there should be a day to celebrate the fact that men and white police now have equal opportunities and a heard voice? - I don't believe there was ever a problem with the rights of men or white police.
    There is no change so, What is there to remember? What was the movement with the rights of men? What was the movement with the rights of white police?

    Remember, it is the movement that is being celebrated.

  • Comment number 6.

    For some reason, the fact that today is international women's day has passed me by, which is strange as i read the press most days, subscribe to online news feeds and watch the news most days too - however while looking for something else on BBC IPlayer I came across Vanessa Engle's first of three documentaries and have just watched as my husband gently snored next to me! it was brilliant.
    Thank goodness that there is still enough interest in the media to still make programmes about this topic and for mine and our daughters generation to be reminded that there was and to a large extent still is inequality for women around the world including the UK, US and it in spades in the developing world.
    The fact that our daughters generation don't necessarily feel that there is still a fight is a blessing and demonstrates just how far we have come - and I dearly hope that we all continue to find our own ways to move the movement along. Women are still oppressed but more subtly in the workplace, in the media and in the family. Our problems now are probably that are expectations are now so high of ourselves (and of each other) that we don't know when we have got there. You can have it all - probably - I am just not sure you can have it all at the same time.

  • Comment number 7.

    @ Catherine Thomas - Spot On.
    Have you read the previous comments, diccussing the subject - they may be of interest.
    Going back to what you said, - with the next generation, not having to go through with it, only reading about it in history books, yes, it is brilliant!

  • Comment number 8.

    True and proper Equality and respect for the human rights of all = GOOD
    Feminism and it's radical western morph into incessant men hating, complete and total male exclusion from children/offspring lives = BAD, very bad for childrens, their emotional well-being and the nations future.

    There is NO EQUALITY for men or boys in present day NuLab driven britain, no proper exercise of the 'Equality Duty', irrespective of what HMG says, it is a complete whitewash. Every logical, rational person in the UK knows this.

    To celebrate the corrosive influence of radical marxist feminism = BAD.

  • Comment number 9.


    Feminists do not hate men. They are fighting for their rights, not for their hatred of men, the protesting banners clearly illustrate that - they say, 'We Have A Voice' and 'Equal Rights For All', not 'We Hate Men' - That would be totally contradicting the point they are trying to express.

    Children will not suffer in any way or form, there emotional well-being will be stronger as they understand and respect equal rights, like previously said, they will read this up in history books and think, Gosh that was an odd period, thank God it is no longer.

    The nation’s future can only get better, it can only improve and every person, every individual, can overcome difficulties because of their rights.

    To celebrate positive change = GOOD.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think that the International Women's Day, like anything on this planet, can be used for bad or good purposes. If its supporters want to use it as a symbol of female hostility towards men, that is very sad. But if used to celebrate femininity as an aspiration towards peace, beauty, and love, then why not celebrate it?

    @dukeofearl - I agree that there should be a balance, i.e., that there should be a counterpart for 8 March. In the Soviet Union and in modern Russia such counterpart exists - 23 February. It is officially called 'Defender of the Fatherland Day', and it used to be the Red Army Day, but de facto it is the day when women in Russia give presents to their male relatives, friends, and colleagues, irrespective of their age or occupation.

    People don't have to think about political origins of these two days, 23 February and 8 March. I see them as a way for people to show appreciation of both genders and of good things that come from being either a man or a woman.

  • Comment number 11.

    In programme 2, Vanessa Engle repeatedly asked a question which was something like "of the two of you, who do you think works harder?" In its context, this rather odd question (most of her respondents thought it so) was apparently to investigate equality or inequality between men and women in a relationship.
    Relationships vary in their complexion over time. I have been with my wife for nearly four decades now, and every phase has involved a different allocation of "work". Before we were married (living separately, then living together), our mutual allocation of tasks and paid employment was one way; after marriage it changed. When our children came, it was different again, with my wife's work being largely child- and home- focussed. A decade later she was working part-time and still focussing much of her labour and energies (but less time) on the (teenage) children and the house - I was doing a proportion of those things but was intensively building a career. A decade later again, the children had left home, the routine house maintenance ("housework") was small, and the hours she "worked" compared with her other activities became much smaller, whilst my work career was reaching a peak.
    After her retirement, the proportion of time she devoted to "work" was very much smaller, whilst mine continued apace, albeit usually without the previous stress levels,and with flexibility to coordinate to do things jointly with her. In my retierement, I continue to choose to do external work which is satisfying, as well as "work" on the allotment and such domestic activities suh as cooking; she devbotes much thought and energy around the (grown-up) children as well as the "household" tasks.
    We're both active at the moment, but if we are typical (see the ONS stats - "Focus on older people" ch 6, I think!) my wife is more likely to be a carer over the next decade, but after that, I am four tmes more likely than her to be a carer. There would then be a futhr massive change in the allocation of "work".
    Allocating relative "time" proportions to work in an intimate relationship requires a long time scale to get a picture (as I know some academic researchers have pointed out). I think Vanessa Engle's questions seemed determined to sidestep this.

  • Comment number 12.

    Oh dear!
    The interveiw in Vanessa Engle's prgramme (was itshe herself? I dont know) several times referred to "1950s wives" (or words to that effect). People in Britain then were enormously diverse, and social patterns varied immensely. She said that women commentators wrote of their boredom and unsatisfied lives. Surely,some high profile women did, and no doubt others felt so. But many, many, felt like the Oxford graduate who was interviewed, and found life to be busy, demanding, satifying, but hardly "boring" (or isolated) looking after children. I was one of six, so mum and dad were stretched to the limit,financially and physically, but I dont think mum regretted in the least staying at home to care for us while we were young. She worked in external employment before we came along, we were always poor, and she worked in the external job market part-time once we were all settled in school. There was a wide social circle of other families. Extremely hard work, as the war had been, but hardly unsatisfying or boring.

  • Comment number 13.

    I found last night's programme (the second in the Women series) incredibly disappointing. As a thirtysomething professional woman who would never hesitate to identify herself as a feminist, I found the cohort of couples 'analysed' in this programme incredibly skewed. Not only were all the couples middle class, I would classify them as rich. The luxury of the husband working while the wife stays at home (all with houses in London or farms in Dorset, no less!) is often just that - a luxury. Furthermore, if the topic of the programme was mothers, why were none of them single mothers (no, I'm not counting the one who'd only just separated from her husband - what about those who never had the support of a man)?

    If the premise was – why are educated upper middle class women no longer fighting for women's rights (assuming of course that only such women could and should be feminist) but staying at home? – then that should've been noted from the beginning (at which point I fear we would've switched off).

    As each white professional South East English couple was introduced, my partner and myself became more enraged (and when the lawyer appeared we couldn't help but laugh as you had finally gotten all the traditional professions - doctor, businessman, professor & lawyer). As a man, he found it completely infuriating - routinely asking how who does the laundry determines just how feminist a home is.

    For a series of programmes that should have been progressive and modern, we found this entirely out of date and narrow. We both enjoy BBC4 and usually love the documentaries. One wonders if it's sexist to do such a shoddy job when it comes to a topic like women. What was the purpose of the discussion? What research regarding half the population only includes a very small minority?

    Very disappointing - you can do better.

  • Comment number 14.

    Oh dear! Vanessa Engle's documentary gave the impression that only very well-to-do families in lovely posh houses have children, and furthermore that nobody north of Watford ever reproduces. I found the programme offensive. Surely the BBC isn't so cash-strapped it couldn't have driven a camera up the M1 to see what motherhood might be like outside of north London. The documentary maker seems unwilling or unable to get outside her comfort zone and talk to the great unwashed - in the middle of what we're constantly told is an epochal economic disaster, there is something very wrong about setting a film like this solely in managerial, affluent suburbia. As 'social history' it was a complete failure and as 'public service braodcasting' it was a bit of a sick joke.

  • Comment number 15.

    I completely agree with the two comments above. I too found that the programme was so skewed towards upper/middle class that it was impossible to take seriously. The question of whether to stay home with your kids was never framed in economic terms, but always as some sort of blissful personal choice. It appeared that all the families were well-off Londoners who sent their children to posh schools and spent their days picking fresh berries in the garden.
    It was great to see such nice camera, sound, and editing- good production values...but fell completely short as a documentary.

  • Comment number 16.

    Watched 'Mothers' last night and was struck by the fact that almost all of the women interviewed had an AGA in their kitchens. This gave the impression they'd been selected on the basis of AGA ownership, and this leads one to conclude all were mates of, or mates of mates of BBC people making the programme. In fact it rendered the thing risible. AGA ownership, it should be noted, renders your opinions pretty much irrelevent.

  • Comment number 17.

    I find the more I watch the "Women" series the more I feel empowered and liberated to be on this gender side. I can't help but feel proud of and admire those women who stood up for equality 50 years ago. Thank you BBC for making a documentary that celebrates all they did so that the unaware generation I am apart of can learn it didn't come easy. That said, I do feel a tendency in my thoughts to dislike men the more I'm watching this, which I didn't expect and am not really proud to say. Although I guess it shows when my boyfriend was laughing all the way through the "mothers" episode, whilst I couldn't stop cringing at the men who paused too long to explain why they didn't help with the chores, or empathise with the women who did the chores to avoid household arguments! Being 22 and not a mother I have a lot to learn, but I'm already cleaning up after the boyfriend and tidying his room! Do I really need to put up with this in my future? No.

  • Comment number 18.

    Oh God, middle class women going on about their lives. How tedious. There are a great many of us out here who struggle on in council/social housing with our children who actually don't have AGAs , drive 4x4s or send the children to public school. Feminism means nothing to us - money gives women the choice to have feminist views - we don't have that luxury.

    Good review, latter part of this article.


  • Comment number 19.

    I thought the first and third programmes were excellent. I agree with the previous comments about the second programme being focussed on too narrow a section of the population. My guess is that it would have taken a lot more time to interview a wider selection of people and maybe that's why it ended up so monocultural. The third programme was really inspiring.

    Here's a bit from a song by Jules Gibb:

    "Nana was a Suffragette, its as if she's still alive
    Nana was a Suffragette, their voices still survive
    Singing votes for women, is just a beginning, you haven't seen anything yet
    O Nana was a Suffragette"

  • Comment number 20.

    Thank you for all your comments and I'm glad so many people have enjoyed the films. The idea in the second film was very specific. It was to take the nuclear family (as described by Marilyn French, Sheila Rowbotham, Kate Millett, Ann Oakley etc as being a unit of capitalism that they perceived as being oppressive to women in the 1960s) and test what had happened to it in the present. I went in search of women who, knowingly or otherwise, had benefited from the gains of the women's movement, so these were women who had had access to education up to degree level and had access to jobs. It wasn't a search for 'middle class' women, but rather a search for women who had had access to opportunities that were denied women forty years earlier. I wanted to test what choices these women had made and see how their lives compared to the family lives that the Libbers in the first episode had critiqued.

  • Comment number 21.

    I too felt very disappointed with this series. In common with many of the other postings, I did feel that the the interviews reflected a very narrow band of people and although Vanessa says that she was trying to target women who had benefited from 70's feminism and to explore the choices that they made, I can't quite believe that these are the people she came up with. It seems like very lazy research; many, many women benifited from feminism. I am from a lower working class household but was given the opportunity of University (full grant + working, no help from parents) as many of my friends were. I consider myself a feminist, work full time in the media, mother of a one year old, my partner is full time carer for our boy. We are unmarried. I'm not unusual, but I think it would have undermined Vanessa's arguments/pre-determined judgments to have had a more varied sample to question. She would have come to some more complex and interesting conclusions. More than this though, I felt offended by the mocking tone of questioning, often on pointless/unilluminating subjects ('who makes the decision to switch washing powders?'), and for example the ridiculous focus on lentils/food preparation for the feminists convention which was not affectionate and felt more like they were being slightly laughed at. I was pleased that most of the young feminists were bemused by the question 'are you angry?' - most of us are angry about something. The questions felt limiting, lame and uninspiring, resulting in a strange feeling that the subjects felt restricted in what they wanted to say or could have said.


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