History of the BBC

History of the BBC

Women at the BBC

Women's Hour 1946
Woman's Hour 1946

The early years

The BBC employed women from the very start; in fact Reith's first appointment was his personal secretary, Isabel Shields in January 1923. Although the majority of the Company's early female employees were in support roles such as telephonists, typists and catering staff, several significant women joined during 1923, its first year. Ella Fitzgerald had the job of producing Women's Hour (not to be confused with today's Woman's Hour) a daily afternoon programme of talks whilst Cecil Dixon both appeared on Children's Hour as the first 'aunt' and provided musical interludes on the piano. Isabel Mallinson was the BBC's first Cashier and Caroline Banks ran the General Office. By 1926, doyennes such as Florence Milnes, Mary Somerville and Elise Sprott had found their way to Savoy Hill.  Florence Milnes set up and ran the BBC library for thirty-two years; Mary Somerville's thirty-year career included eighteen years as the legendary head

Elise Sprott
Elise Sprott

of Schools Broadcasting; Elise Sprott's job as Women's Press Representative ensured that the feminine angle of the BBC was constantly in the news. 


Several women stars were also launched during those initial years including the first female comedienne Helena Millais, "Our Lizzie", who made her debut in November 1922 with the words "Ello me ducks, ere I am again with me old string bag." Mabel Constanduros first appeared in 1925. She became 'Mrs Buggins' in sketches she had originally written to amuse her family. Gladys Young, who was to become the most celebrated radio actor, was first heard in a play broadcast in May 1926.


This was an era when women were only just beginning to enter the workplace in large numbers. Although the vote had been won in 1918, it was limited to women aged over thirty (it wasn't extended to all women until 1928) and it was only in 1919 that the professions such as law, accounting and veterinary surgery were required by Act of Parliament to admit women. Oxford University agreed to open its degrees to women in 1920; Cambridge University didn't allow women to formally graduate until 1948. The BBC, as a modern organisation, welcomed both men and women, ostensibly offering equal promotion opportunities and equal pay.  It was also unusual in its employment of married women. However, in 1932, a Marriage Bar was introduced which meant that only those deemed of special importance to the Corporation were entitled to stay. 


Key appointments

Hilda Matheson
Hilda Matheson

In 1927, Hilda Matheson became the BBC's first Director of Talks. Head-hunted by Reith, she transformed the broadcasting of the spoken word, hugely raising the profile of the BBC. The Week in Westminster, which she initiated in1929, was originally aimed at educating newly enfranchised women about the workings of parliament, with all the speakers being female MPs. Other key appointments in the inter-war years were Isa Benzie, who had started her career as a BBC secretary, eventually succeeding her boss, as Foreign Director, in 1934; Mary Adams, who became the first woman TV producer in 1937; and Margery Wace and Janet Quigley who produced an astounding range of programmes, many directed at the BBC's female audience. Working from Manchester, Olive Shapley, pioneered social documentaries; Olga Collett delighted audiences with her commentaries from Ascot and Covent Garden while Doris Arnold, another former secretary, came to both produce and present some of the BBC's most popular variety shows. 


Janet Quigley
Janet Quigley

The Second World War and women

During the Second World War, as men were called up, BBC women were increasingly called upon to fill the available posts. From June 1941, eight hundred women were trained as engineers. To deal with the shortage of good secretaries, in February 1942, Lady Margaret D'Arcy was charged with the establishment of the BBC's own Secretarial Training School.  In February 1943, a crèche was opened at Caversham, to cater for the needs of the female monitoring staff. And, after years of being slated, women announcers found their voices were suddenly acceptable: Mary Malcolm, Marjorie Anderson and Jean Metcalfe all started their celebrated broadcasting careers at this time. Audrey Russell, a firewoman with the Auxiliary Fire Service, was spotted as a broadcasting talent and recruited by the BBC in June 1942. In the autumn of 1944 she became the first and only British woman to be accredited as a war correspondent. It was also during the war that the BBC employed its first black woman producer, Una Marson, who worked on Calling the West Indies from 1941. In 1944, Janet Quigley was awarded an MBE for her influential radio programmes which included 'The Kitchen in Wartime', Calling all Women' and 'The Factory Front'. 


The post-war years saw the introduction of several key BBC programmes for women, who were now being firmly encouraged back into the home. On radio, Housewives' Choice began in March 1946 followed by Woman's Hour in October 1946. On the newly resumed television service, Designed for Women was first transmitted in 1947. The innovation of Mary Adams (now a senior producer) it was presented by Jeanne Heal. By the early 1950s, a range of afternoon programmes for women viewers were being aired, under the title Mainly for Women with Doreen Stephens appointed Editor of Women's Programmes. 1948 saw the arrival in television of one of the most influential woman to have ever been employed by the BBC, Grace Wyndham Goldie. Almost immediately, she started the innovative Foreign Correspondent, pioneering soon after the BBC's first General Election programme in 1950. By the end of the 1950s, as Assistant Head of Television Talks, amongst the programmes she had launched were Tonight, Monitor, and the new-look Panorama. 


Enhanced roles

In 1965, a male bastion was breached when Kathleen Stevenson was appointed Technical Operations Supervisor in the Manchester Control Room. She'd joined as an engineer during the war. The BBC journal 'Ariel' reported that "she is known affectionately to the Control Room boys as "Auntie Kath".  Kathleen Stevenson's appointment to a senior technical post was a rarity.  Despite the early promise of the BBC, by 1973, an internal report highlighted widespread misogyny and discrimination in the Corporation, and the uncomfortable news that less than 6% of senior posts were held by women. It wasn't until the mid 1980s, and the appointment of the BBC's first Equal Opportunities Officer, that prospects for women in the Corporation really began to change. In 1990, Margaret Salmon became the first woman to be appointed to the BBC Board of Management. Although there has yet to be a female Director General, in 2008 nearly 40% of senior management posts were held by women.

Kate Murphy, Senior Producer, Woman's Hour.
Kate is currently doing research on the role of women in the BBC

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