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John Reith and BBC Women

John Reith was clearly central to the structure, ethos and working conditions of the BBC. But what was his attitude towards women? Undoubtedly an imposing figure, not just in stature (he was 6ft 6ins tall, his face scarred by a war wound) but also in self-belief, his Scottish Presbyterianism was fundamental to his character as was a profound conviction, formulated at Gresham boarding school, that he would make his mark on the world.[1] Reith did not attend university, a detail that always irked him; instead he trained as an engineer, his aptitude quickly taking him to management level. His belief in a disciplined, loyal workforce, cared for by a benevolent employer, was already apparent at the Beardmore engineering works at Coatbridge in Scotland where, from 1920, he worked as General Manager.[2] Reith’s experience and self-assurance evidently impressed the interview panel for the job of General Manager at the BBC for which he applied in October 1922.

The minutiae of Reith’s life and BBC career can be found in his extensive diaries which offer a startling insight into his character and relationships. The most enduring association was with his mother, her photograph always had pride of place on his desk.[3] Reith had few close friends although as a young man he developed a passionate, obsessive alliance with a local boy which would continue to haunt him throughout his years at the BBC.[4] His courtship of Muriel Odhams, whom he met in 1917 when she was a member of the Women’s Legion, was awkward and unromantic.[5] They married in 1921, their son Christopher was born in 1928, their daughter Marista in 19 3 3.[6] For Reith there was no question that his wife would give up paid work on marriage. Hers was the domestic domain, caring for their children, sorting out servants, entertaining guests, awaiting her husband’s return at any time of night or day. Reith’s ability to view BBC women in a different light implies a clear division in his mind between the private and the public.

There is little in Reith’s background or character to suggest he would take an enlightened attitude towards BBC women staff. He had attended boarding school, served in the army and worked in engineering, all male- dominated environments. He was not intrinsically a modern man. His family background was traditional and conservative. [7] However, confronted by the enormity of broadcasting, he became aware of the need to harness the best available staff and if this included women, he was prepared to employ them. When a woman proved herself to be committed and able, he was willing to support and promote her. This forward-looking approach was encapsulated in a 1926 directive on equality of opportunity for salaried women staff.[8] Headed ‘Women Assistants’ it was addressed to the BBC’s provincial Station Directors and required them to abandon titles such as Chief Aunt or Woman Organiser because of the limited impression of duties they portrayed. The class of women the BBC was now employing, Reith emphasised, was such that they ‘should rank on the same footing as men ... [and] be as eligible as men for promotion’. Even if a large part of their activities were in connection with women and children, he stressed, this did not warrant inequality, as the efficient planning and conduct of these programmes was as important as any other. Looking to their broader responsibilities, Reith declared that there was ‘no reason actually why a woman should not be a Station Director’, although he acknowledged it would be ‘extraordinarily difficult to find one suitable’.

Reith’s directive indicates that, at salaried level at least, he believed men and women in the BBC should be treated equally. This applied, in particular, to the highly educated women who were applying to the BBC by the mid-1920s. But this acceptance of able women did not mean he necessarily felt comfortable in their presence. He was often baffled by them. For example, he noted in his diary in April 1926 a meeting with a ‘weird creature, Miss Mackenzie’, who was wanted for a position in Cardiff (Margaret Mackenzie would become a senior BBC Press Officer).[9] [10] The following year he was similarly uncertain about Miss Mills, ‘a rather weird individual’ who was to be the ‘central filing girl’ (this was Agnes Mills, a serious-minded Oxford graduate recruited to establish the Registry). 1 44 Reith’s unease about women was captured by Lambert who offered this insight into the Director General’s approach towards senior female staff:

Sir John’s attitude towards women officials in broadcasting seemed to oscillate between nervousness and sympathy. When they gained access to his presence, he found it hard to refuse them their specific requests; but afterwards, in the light of other considerations, he might find it necessary to minimise what was conceded, with a Knoxian impatience at ‘the monstrous regiment of women’.[11]

Reith’s hesitant attitude towards women is evident here. Yet there is little to support Lambert’s view that he viewed them as a ‘monstrous regiment’. Reith’s frustrations and irritations with senior BBC men are well documented in his diaries; however, similar sentiments directed against BBC women are rare.[12] In his relationships with the BBC’s three most senior women, Hilda Matheson, Mary Somerville and Isa Benzie, he appears to have adopted an avuncular rapport, especially in connection with Somerville and Benzie who joined the BBC from university. Reith’s relationship with Matheson, although it later descended into hostility and dislike, began as one of cordiality and mutual respect.

Reith plainly took pleasure in the company of BBC women he considered to be loyal and undemanding, in particular those he helped to appoint. This included Somerville and Benzie and also, for instance, Kathleen Lines and Olive May. Miss May, who ran the telephone exchange, remembered Reith joining her for cocoa after hours at Savoy Hill, and he made a point of attending the Christmas celebrations of Kathleen Lines’ Photographic Section.[13] Reith especially enjoyed the personal attention women gave him which included a dedicated switchboard operator and a private waitress, Mrs Swales, who prepared his cups of tea and who looked after him ‘in a most maternal way’.[14] Reith was happiest either being looked after by or looking after women. He found it much harder to work with them collaboratively.

Without a doubt the closest relationships Reith developed at the BBC, whether male or female, were with his personal secretaries. He found them easy to talk to, their constant charm and dedication far more palatable and soothing than the ‘stupid’, ‘feeble’ and ‘childish’ behaviour he deplored in many of the men around him. Reith’s biographer, Ian McIntyre, was struck by the significant role played by his secretaries, describing them as a ‘succession of remarkable women who would serve, organise, advise, cosset, mother and occasionally bully Reith throughout his BBC career and beyond it’.[15] [16] Reith built intense, fatherly, relationships with a succession of personal secretaries, Isabel Shields, Elizabeth Nash and Jo Stanley. 1 50 He took them to dinner and to the cinema, brought them presents from his holidays and popped in for evening coffee at their flats.[17] In return they indulged him. They entertained his mother when she was in London, telephoned him with gossip while he was away and helped choose furnishings for his office. The volume of BBC work frequently required them to stay after hours and they often toiled alongside Reith in the evenings or at weekends.[18] Reith’s expectation of total loyalty meant that he was agitated when they resigned (Shields to get married in 1928, Nash to see the world in 1936), but with all of them he remained close friends. Jo Stanley accompanied Reith to Imperial Airways when he left the BBC in 1938.

While Reith developed close relationships with a small number of BBC women, on the whole his attitude was far more ambivalent. On the one hand he enjoyed feeling chivalrous towards them (a trait derided by Winifred Holtby as subtly undermining), on the other he found them intimidating and confusing.[19] This dual approach is discernible in other top male officials. Reith’s deputy Carpendale, for example, was also uncertain about BBC women. He appreciated their value to the Company/ Corporation but could be patronising, referring to even the most senior women as ‘girls’ (as he did the Foreign Director, Isa Benzie).[20] Men like Reith and Carpendale, older, ex-military personnel whose education and working lives prior to the BBC had been in the company of men, found it awkward to work with women as equals.[21] This was true of many in the top echelons of the Corporation. On the other hand, the young men who arrived at the BBC from the late 1920s had started their careers in a postsuffrage atmosphere and so were more accepting of working alongside women, especially their contemporaries, as further chapters will explore.

  • [1] In a radio interview Reith stated, ‘Merely that one felt somehow or another, arroganceif you like, or some sort of conceit, that I had qualities at that age, seventeen and a half, thatought to enable me to do something in the world’. BBC Sound Archive, 87181, ‘ReithRemembered’, broadcast 21 June 1989.
  • [2] McIntyre, Expense of Glory p. 99.
  • [3] McIntyre, Expense of Glory, pp. 2, 24.
  • [4] McIntyre, Expense of Glory, pp. 21-85.
  • [5] McIntyre, Expense of Glory, pp. 82-9.
  • [6] Reith’s daughter, Marista Leishman’s, biography of her father portrayed him as a deeplytroubled man, a workaholic who dedicated his life to the BBC. Leishman, My Father Reith.
  • [7] Reith’s draconian attitudes towards alcohol and divorce would become the stuff oflegends.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R49/940: Women Assistants, 1926, Reith to All Station Directors, 30April 1926.
  • [9] Reith Diaries, 29 April 1926, 28 November 1926.
  • [10] Reith Diaries, 22 September 1927.
  • [11] Lambert, Ariel in All his Quality, p. 69.
  • [12] Reith was not averse to writing damning comments about women, as his hostile references to Ethel Snowden reveal.
  • [13] Reith Diaries, 23 December 1930, 21 December 1932, 20 December 1933.
  • [14] Interview with Dorothy Torry, 28 June 2006.
  • [15] McIntyre, Expense of Glory, p. 120.
  • [16] Initially, Isabel Shields worked alone, however during 1925 the complexities of Reith’sjob necessitated a second secretary, Elizabeth Nash, and in December 1927, a third ‘assistantsecretary’ was recruited, Jo Stanley.
  • [17] See, for example, Reith Diaries, 1 February 1923, 18 April 1927, 31 August 1934,25 April 1938.
  • [18] Reith Diaries, 31 January 1926. As Reith pulled together the final papers for theCrawford Committee he noted, ‘Miss Shields and Miss Nash were both at the house workingon evidence’.
  • [19] Winifred Holtby (1934) Women and a Changing Civilisation (London: Lane andBodley Head) pp. 105-10. Noel Annan also made this point, Annan, Our Age.
  • [20] See, for example, L1/1049/2: Isa Benzie Staff File, 22 July 1937, Carpendale to?
  • [21] For a discussion on women as ‘other’ in the workplace see Rosabeth Moss Kanter(1977) Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: Basic Books) pp. 206-29.
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