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

Director, BBC Vision

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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