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Married Women at the BBC: Before the Bar

In January 1931, the feminist journal Women’s Leader published an article by Hilda Matheson in which she praised the BBC for its policy on married women. By allowing married women to apply for jobs and by not compelling them to resign on marriage, she maintained, it set an example not always found among public bodies. 1 8 Matheson suggested that this tolerance and open-mindedness were a result of the BBC being a post-war institution, with a largely post-war staff. And as a young company undergoing fast and haphazard growth, questions about a woman’s marital status were not a recruitment priority. Rather, decisions to appoint appear to have been made on aptitude and whether an individual was likely to be an asset to the BBC. It is arguable that the early BBC took a positive decision to employ married women, seeing this as an emblem of modernity.

Although married women were entitled to work at the BBC most chose to resign on marriage. Staff bulletins and magazines frequently celebrated weddings and engagements for example, in May 1928 The Saveloy (the original staff newsletter) informed its readers that Isabel Shields, Reith’s personal secretary, had left to be married. 1 9 Of the eight other women whose matrimony was announced (four of whom were engaged to BBC colleagues) only two had elected to stay with the Corporation. One of these was Mary Somerville whose engagement to the journalist R.P. Brown merited a cartoon captioned: ‘Happy Mr Peter Brown’. The approaching retirement of Miss Johnson, secretary to the Manchester Station Director, was described as a ‘disaster looming ahead’ indicating there was often frustration that marriage led to resignation. John Reith, for instance, recorded his sadness that his secretary, Miss Shields, had gone. He noted in his diary her loyal and devoted service over five very strenuous years.[1] [2] [3]

Reith’s regret at losing valuable female staff was most pronounced in the case of Olive May, the Telephone Supervisor at Savoy Hill. Her engagement in January 1928 to the Leeds-based engineer Cecil Bottle caused an angry reaction. On hearing the news Reith telephoned his Chief Engineer, Peter Eckersley, and demanded that he take disciplinary action against Bottle for getting betrothed to his ‘star operator’. It was left to Lady Reith to telephone Miss May the next day to apologise, explaining that Sir John thought everybody should put the BBC first.[4] May’s treachery was forgiven. On the day she left, Reith recorded in his diary, ‘Mrs Bottle, senior telephonist since 1923 departing today. I gave her a silver inkstand and went along to see her presents. She has been beyond praise in every way and I regret her going very much.’[5]

In 1932, ahead of the introduction of the marriage bar, BBC management carried out an audit of the approximately 400 female staff. This showed that 31 married women were employed in jobs as varied as multigraph operator, telephonist, registry clerk, shorthand typist and secretary.[6] While some had married since joining the BBC, others had been married when they arrived including two mothers. It is not known if Mary Somerville was included in the original report as selected names were, at some point, redacted but it was Somerville’s pregnancy which first prompted the BBC to clarify its position on married women’s work. As a senior staff member (she was by now de facto head of School Broadcasting) there was an acceptance that following her wedding in June 1928 she would retain her job. However in November 1928, Somerville announced that she was pregnant. The BBC was now confronted with one of the realities of employing married women, motherhood. Reith made no mention of Somerville’s engagement or marriage in his diary but on 22 November he noted, ‘Carpendale and wife to tea. We talked about Miss Somerville who is going to have a baby and wants to stay at work.’[7] Mary Somerville’s desire to retain her job forced the BBC to start urgent discussions about its standpoint on maternity.[8] There was no precedent within the Corporation because it was rare for a middle-class woman to be pregnant while at work. Maternity leave was not unknown in the UK; for example, the John Lewis Partnership allowed extended unpaid leave with contributions towards financial hardship being underwritten.[9] However, the widespread existence of marriage bars and the custom to leave the workforce before children were born precluded the possibility of maternity leave in most occupations and professions.

It was Valentine Goldsmith, in his capacity as Head of Administration, who wrestled with the implications of Somerville’s pregnancy. Because the BBC accepted the employment of married women it was not only against ‘public policy’ but also ‘illogical’ to rule that motherhood entailed dismissal.[8] Goldsmith recommended that the BBC adopt a scheme, loosely based on the pre-marriage bar arrangements of the London County Council, of four months’ full pay and up to a further four months’ half pay.[11] There would be no guarantee that the woman could go back to her previous job and if she did not return to work, she would have to repay the money. And while maternity leave might be considered once or twice in a long service, it was reasonable to assume that, ‘a woman who is going to have a family of three or more must attend only to it, and give up thought of competing in the wage-earning field on equal terms, and be dependent only on her husband’. In his concluding paragraph, Goldsmith situated the BBC as a progressive institution:

Looking at the matter as a whole, I feel that any large corporation or commercial organization should take this risk rather than assume a nineteenth century attitude in the present circumstances of women’s employment.[8]

This BBC’s view of itself as pioneering is further illustrated in a letter from Hilda Matheson to Vita Sackville-West. In May 1929 Somerville, newly on maternity leave, had become seriously ill with tubercular pleurisy and there was concern about how this might affect the unborn child. Matheson, who had just learned of her friend and colleague’s illness, wrote, ‘It will be sad if all the plans for making her a spectacular vindication of the success of keeping on your job and baby don’t come off—poor Maisie.’[13]

Prior to being offered maternity leave, Somerville’s case had been referred to the Board of Governors.[14] Here it was agreed that during her ‘illness’ she was to receive three months’ leave on full-pay and up to three months on half-pay. However, while the principle of maternity leave was confirmed it was felt undesirable to prescribe fixed regulations for women who became mothers which meant that it was to be discretionary rather than a right. Somerville began her maternity leave in May 1929 returning to the BBC, initially on a part-time basis, in October 1929. The following April she was awarded an above-average pay rise suggesting that her pregnancy and ensuing absence had not adversely affected her standing at work.

Despite the forward-looking treatment of Somerville, the BBC’s approach towards married women was beginning to change. For instance, it was the subject of the inaugural meeting of the BBC Debating Society in January 1930. The BBC Club Bulletin announced that the society had begun ‘triumphantly’ with the motion ‘That in their opinion women should resign their posts on Marriage’.[15] There is no record of who took part or which side won but it demonstrates that whether married women should retain their jobs was becoming a contested topic.

  • [1] Women’s Leader, 2 January 1931.
  • [2] The Saveloy, May 1928.
  • [3] Reith Diaries, 29 February 1928.
  • [4] BBC Sound Archive, 87181, ‘Reith Remembered’, broadcast 21 June 1989.
  • [5] Reith Diaries, 27 January 1928.
  • [6] BBC/WAC:R49/371/1: Married Women Policy:1, 1928-35 (hereafter MWP:1), BriefReport on Married Women at Present Working for the Corporation, 25 October 1932.
  • [7] Reith Diaries, 22 November 1928.
  • [8] MWP:1, Goldsmith to Reith, 27 November 1928.
  • [9] Faraday, ‘A Kind of Superior Hobby’, p. 83.
  • [10] MWP:1, Goldsmith to Reith, 27 November 1928.
  • [11] The LCC had introduced a marriage bar in 1923. According to a handwritten note byGoldsmith, prior to the bar, it had operated a system of 8 weeks’ full-time/9 weeks’ half-timepay. BBC/WAC:L2/195/1: Mary Somerville Staff File, Carpendale to Goldsmith, 7(?)December 1928.
  • [12] MWP:1, Goldsmith to Reith, 27 November 1928.
  • [13] Hilda Matheson Letters, 14 May 1929.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:R/1/1: Board of Governors Minutes, 12 December 1928.
  • [15] BBC Club Bulletin, February 1930.
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