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The Marriage Bar in Interwar Britain

Marriage bars were commonplace in the 1920s and 30s. They operated in the Civil Service, in teaching and in banking as well as in large companies such as Cadburys, Great Western Railways, Boots, Sainsbury’s and ICI.[1] It had been anticipated that the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 would end the practice. However, when tested in law it became apparent that while the Act might enable married women to work, it did not entitle them to do so.[2] Marriage bars were the practical manifestation of the overriding ideology of the period: that married women’s sphere was the home. At this time, there was an expectation that once a woman married she would leave paid employment and become a housewife; her priority being husband and family. It was an ideology reflected in newspapers and women’s magazines as well as in the BBC’s own broadcasts aimed at its female daytime audience, as Chapter 6 will show.[3] Yet, this created an awkward tension because the interwar years were also a time of expanding employment opportunities for women. Despite the convention to leave work on marriage, many women wanted to retain their jobs. For some, like the educated and trained career woman, this was associated with vocation, ambition and personal fulfilment. For others, the lure of new consumer goods and the quest for the ideal home meant that the benefits of a double-income were tempting, at least until children were born.[4]

The BBC’s continued retention of married women, albeit in small numbers, was in keeping with other areas of work. Those in the arts were largely immune from marriage bars which, in part, may explain the BBC’s initial progressive attitude. As Ray Strachey noted, ‘women musicians, painters, actresses and writers may marry as much as they please, and do in fact marry without abandoning their careers’.[5] Similarly, there was an acceptance of married women working in journalism and advertising. The membership list of the Women’s Provisional Club for 1936, for instance, included Mrs Ethel Wood, Director of the advertising agency Samson Clark Co.; Mrs Hilary Blair-Fish, Editor of Nursing Times and Mrs Emilie Peacocke, Editor of the Woman’s Department at the Daily Telegraph.[6]

Married women were not debarred from being MPs. The legal profession, opened to women following the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, also did not operate a marriage bar.[7] Although married women medics employed by local or public authorities might face dismissal, married women GPs did not and were often able successfully to juggle work with family life. The LSE took a positive approach towards the employment of married women to the extent that its Director, William Beveridge, introduced a system of child benefit in 1925.[8] Women academics, unlike schoolteachers, were rarely subject to a bar. At least one hundred married women were working in British universities in 1933.[9] A key exception was Liverpool University which, in 1933, introduced a bar, as will later be discussed. Some businesses continued to employ married women. At the John Lewis Department Store the proprietor John Spedan Lewis positively recruited married women managers, particularly in the 1920s, believing them to be more loyal staff and to better understand the needs of customers.[10] In 1939, Ray Strachey in her role as Secretary of the Women’s Employment Federation, waxed positively about Vickers Armstrong who were looking to recruit women graduates for their Aeronautical Stress Department. ‘Women’, Strachey emphasised, ‘were employed in all departments ... and there was no marriage bar’.[11]

The examples above all share one similarity, they relate to career-minded women. And this would become key to the philosophy behind the BBC bar. It was observed that there were two classes of married women workers, those who saw their work with the Corporation as permanent and those whose commitment to the BBC was temporary, until they had set up home. This corresponds to what was identified by feminists as the ‘meanwhile’ attitude of young women in the interwar years, an attitude which was seen to debase all women’s work. Strachey in particular lamented the prevalence of this perspective amongst those in the lower ranks of office workers, including clerical staff, shorthand typists and telephonists, where women were eager to swap the routine of their jobs for the idealised notion of the ‘nice little home’.[12] Writing in the Manchester Guardian in 1928,

Vera Brittain bemoaned the belief that ‘business’ was the chief concern of a man’s life but ‘marriage’ the be-all and end-all of a woman’s existence which had been translated into the theory that women’s work was only a ‘meantime’ occupation between school and marriage ‘and need be neither carefully studied nor adequately paid’.[13] This resulted in little incentive for training and it also had a detrimental effect on women’s pay. Certainly in the GPO, the high turnover of female staff as they left to be married was seen as economically advantageous because it ensured a constant flow of fresh and cheap new recruits.[14] When, in January 1930 nearly 7,000 lower grade female clerks in the Civil Service were asked if they favoured the abolition of the marriage bar, if it meant the end of the marriage gratuity, only 138 women voted in favour. This caused Winifred Holtby to remark:

Who are the girls who voted for the marriage bar? Nine out of ten swing daily to their offices in suburban trains and trams and buses, carrying in their suitcases a powder-puff and a love-story or ‘Home Chat’ ... They think that if only they could marry all would be well.

Yet Teresa Davey’s study of female Civil Servant clerks in the interwar years shows that they were not the flighty girls Holtby depicted, rather they were bright, hard-working young women who enjoyed their jobs. They did, however, leave on marriage with enthusiasm. Their husbands were often of a higher social class (and had frequently been met through work) and the women looked forward to a companionate partnership as well as sharing a belief that they had earned the right to a ‘lovely new home’.[15] At the BBC, while it was the waged female staff rather than the salaried who were more likely to leave on marriage, this was in no way true across the board. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the complex issue of women and marriage would continue to be a thorny one for the BBC.

  • [1] There is a growing historiography on marriage bars, see for instance Alison Oram (1996)Women Teachers and Feminist Politics 1900—1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press);Helen Glew (2009) ‘Women’s Employment in the General Post Office, 1914-1939’(Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London); Zimmeck also included information about the marriage bar in her study of women civil servants in the interwar years. MetaZimmeck (1984) ‘Strategies and Stratagems for the Employment of Women in the BritishCivil Service 1919-1939’ Historical Journal 27.4, 903-4, 922-3.
  • [2] Glew, ‘Women in the GPO’, pp. 125-6. For the impact of the Act on married women seeMari Takayanagi (2012) ‘Parliament and Women c. 1900-1945’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London) pp. 55-65. Section One of the Act clearly stated:‘A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function,or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering orassuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation.’ During its passage throughParliament, the Civil Service successfully negotiated exemption, others being the ArmedForces, the Church and the Stock Exchange.
  • [3] See, for example, Fiona Hackney (2011) ‘“They Opened Up a Whole New World”:Feminism, Modernity and the Feminine Imagination in Women’s Magazines, 1919-1939’(Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London) pp. 137-80; Maggie Andrews(2012) Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Domesticity and Femininity (London:Continuum), pp. 1-81; Adrian Bingham (2004) Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press inInter-War Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press) pp. 85-110.
  • [4] For a discussion on new consumerism and the ideal home see, for example, DeborahS. Ryan (1997) The Ideal Home through the 20th Century (London: Hazar) pp. 33-86.
  • [5] Ray Strachey (1935) Careers and Openings for Women: A Survey of Women’s Employmentand a Guide for Those Seeking Work (London: Faber and Faber) p. 61.
  • [6] Women’s Library: Women’s Provisional Club, 5/WPV/3/1, Membership records,September 1936.
  • [7] Helena Normanton, the UK’s first female barrister, successfully campaigned to keep hermaiden name. See Judith Bourne (2014) ‘Helena Normanton and the Opening of the Barto Women’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London) pp. 176-80.
  • [8] William Beveridge (1960) The London School of Economics and Its Problems 1919-1937(London: George Allen and Unwin) p. 46.
  • [9] British Federation of University Women survey 1933.
  • [10] Judy Faraday (2009) ‘A Kind of Superior Hobby: Women Managers in the John LewisPartnership 1918-1950’ (Unpublished MPhil dissertation: University of Wolverhampton)pp. 39^0. A woman buyer for John Lewis contributed a chapter to Margaret Cole’s careerguidance book where she enthused that you did not have to give up your job on marriage.Margaret Cole, ed. (1936) The Road to Success: 20 Essays on the Choice of Career for Women(London: Methuen) p. 242.
  • [11] Women’s Library: Women’s Employment Federation: 488 6/WEF/488-4, AdvisoryDepartment’s Committee Minutes and Correspondence 1938-40, 29 June 1939.
  • [12] Strachey, Careers and Openings, p. 57.
  • [13] Manchester Guardian, 27 September 1928, quoted in Paul Berry and Alan Bishop eds.(1985) Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby(London: Virago) pp. 125-6.
  • [14] Samuel Cohn (1985) The Process of Occupational Sex-Typing: The Feminisation ofClericalLabour in Great Britain (Philadelphia: Temple University Press) pp. 94-105; Glew, ‘Womenin the GPO’, p. 127. See also Selina Todd (2003) ‘Young Women, Employment and theFamily in Interwar England’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of Sussex) p. 51.
  • [15] Teresa Davy ‘Shorthand Typists in London 1900-1939’ in Leonore Davidoff andBelinda Westover, eds. (1986) Our Work, Our Lives, Our Words: Women’s History andWomen’s Work (London: Macmillan Education) pp. 154-9.
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