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.

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.

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.

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.

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?


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  • Comment number 21. Posted by JoMcC1

    on 30 Mar 2010 17:09

    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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  • Comment number 20. Posted by VanessaEngle

    on 29 Mar 2010 13:08

    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 19. Posted by active-citizen

    on 27 Mar 2010 01:44

    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"

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  • Comment number 18. Posted by zelda

    on 20 Mar 2010 20:56

    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.

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  • Comment number 17. Posted by Stephanie Li

    on 19 Mar 2010 00:42

    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.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by Dorabelladella

    on 18 Mar 2010 14:47

    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.

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by mrsfilms

    on 17 Mar 2010 16:39

    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.

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by brutusbo

    on 16 Mar 2010 10:40

    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.

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Elizabeth

    on 16 Mar 2010 10:30

    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.

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by talk_it_over

    on 15 Mar 2010 23:16

    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.

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