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‘Only an Exceptional Woman’: Married Women at the BBC

On 12 October 1928, as part of the evening series Questions for Women Voters, the BBC broadcast a debate ‘Should Married Women Work?’ 1 The programme, which was produced by Hilda Matheson, pitted Dame Beatrix Lyall against Mrs E.D. Simon. Lyall, an activist in the Mothers Union and a Conservative member of the London County Council put the case against married women’s work. Shena Simon, a Liberal member of Manchester City councillor and ‘a strong and consistent feminist’ maintained that women should be free to choose for themselves.2 The outcome of the debate is not known, but it was an interesting choice of topic for the Corporation. Unlike many areas of women’s work, the BBC in 1928 openly recruited married women and there was no requirement that, on marriage, female staff should resign. However, in 1932 the BBC introduced a marriage bar that was not abolished until 1944.

The BBC’s marriage bar was never straightforward. It was at times described by officials as a ‘semi-bar’. This was because when it was introduced in October 1932, an allowance was made for those who were ‘exceptional’ to remain on the staff and many married women kept their jobs. How this distinction was made would cause consistent discomfiture for BBC management, best illustrated by the operation of the Marriage Tribunal (1934-37) where a woman who planned to marry could put

  • 1 Radio Times, 12 October 1928.
  • 2 Earlier that year Simon had successfully led the campaign against Manchester City Council’s marriage bar.

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016 K. Murphy, Behind the Wireless,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-49173-2_4

forward a case to remain on the staff. The five criteria used to determine her value were loyalty, efficiency, indispensability, career-mindedness and an ability to balance office and married life. Compassionate circumstances were also taken into consideration, underscoring the paternalist nature of the BBC. The minutes of the Tribunal reveal a multitude of viewpoints about married women’s lives at this time and their hopes and desires for work. The number of women who came before the Tribunal, though, was comparatively few. During the three and a half years it functioned, 29 women had their cases heard out of whom 13 were dismissed. These small numbers suggest that, in line with the custom of the day, most women who resigned did so voluntarily. The narrative of the BBC’s marriage bar, its introduction, application and ultimate abolition, casts new light onto one of the most invidious discriminatory practices of interwar Britain and reveals a range of tensions and contradictions about married women’s work.

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