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Married Women at the BBC: A Change in Attitude

There is no single explanation as to why the BBC’s views on married women’s work began to change. Rather, there are an assortment of motivations that include economic expediency, social traditionalism, institutional aggrandisement and cynical self-interest. It is also apparent that the driving force behind the introduction of the bar were two senior officials in the Administrative Department, Valentine Goldsmith and his assistant Douglas Clarke. Miss Freeman, newly appointed as WSA also played a leading role.

Economic factors were significant. By 1931, the Depression had taken a deep hold in the UK and, with millions out of work, discussions about married women’s employment were heightened. In the early 1930s especially, anger was directed at married women workers who were seen to be taking jobs away from single women as well as from unemployed men. Even the socialist and feminist Margaret Cole acknowledged the ‘very real fear’ among men if married women were allowed or encouraged to go on earning or holding down jobs, a fear shared by their wives.[1] It was in this light that married women’s work was discussed three times at the BBC’s Control Board in 1931. The all-male executive tussled with questions such as whether women whose husbands were in work should be refused BBC posts and how married women already on the staff should be treated.[2] To get a better understanding of the issues it was decided that Clarke, Goldsmith’s assistant in the Administrative department, would investigate practices in other firms.[3] Clarke was diligent and in September 1932 he reported to Goldsmith that he had held long interviews with the London Life Association, the Ministry of Labour, Imperial Chemical Industries, the Prudential Assurance Company, the National Provincial Bank, the London County Council, Marconi and the Underground Railways of London.[4] He had also sought corroboration on the issue from the Civil Service. With the exception of the Underground Railways of London, Clarke affirmed, all the companies terminated their women staff on marriage, giving as their reasons ‘principally the labour market’, although most also expressed the personal view that married women ‘could not well carry on a business and run a home’.

This view of the double-burden was widely held. It was not deemed practical for a respectable woman to attempt both to work and run a home. In August 1933, for instance, when the press got a whiff of the BBC’s marriage bar, the Glasgow Evening Citizen bellowed:

How can a woman possibly do justice to her home and to her family if she has to devote her attention to another job? Equally, how can she fulfil her obligation to her employer if her mind is preoccupied, as it must be, with domestic affairs? No more than a man can a woman serve two masters.[5]

Domesticity was used to enforce the marriage bar legally. For example, in 1925 a challenge to the bar was brought by a female teacher in Dorset. When the case of Short v Poole Corporation went to appeal, Poole Corporation, which won, maintained that ‘the duty of married women was primarily to look after her domestic concerns, and they regarded it as impossible for her to do so and to act effectively and satisfactorily as a teacher at the same time’.[6]

Clarke’s report gives an intriguing insight into fluctuating attitudes towards married women’s work which encompassed social, economic and cultural concerns. On the ‘Pro’ side he agreed that women ‘presumably have the right to live as they think fit’ and were therefore entitled to seek employment or remain in employment after marriage. He also concurred that married women might obtain an experience and balance ‘lacking in certain single women’ and that they might be more stable members of staff, as they would not have ‘the restless outlook of so many girls who are contemplating marriage’. On the ‘Contra’ side he surmised, with the labour market in its present condition, it was unfair for married women who were supported by their husbands to compete against unmarried women who needed to earn a living. Clarke also vented the view that it would seem impossible for a married woman to work and at the same time maintain a reasonable home for her husband and her family, ‘either her work in business must suffer, or her health, or her husband, or her children’. He pointed out that, through remaining at work, she might not have children, which could be bad for the community and herself. Clarke ended his report by determining that the arguments against retention outweighed those for retention though he concurred that it was ‘of course a most difficult matter to decide upon’.[4] [8] Whilst the main thrust of Clarke’s report was economic and social there was also a hint at what would become an overriding rationale for the introduction of the BBC marriage bar—a perceived difference in attitude amongst women staff towards their work. A series of emotive memos between Clarke and Goldsmith reveal this new reasoning, sparked by a reconsideration of the BBC’s system of Marriage Leave.

Like the Civil Service, the BBC offered a gratuity to women who left on marriage, in lieu of pension.4 0 Anyone who had paid into the pension scheme was entitled to receive a refund of their contributions plus interest. In addition, the BBC operated a system of Wedding Present and Wedding Leave which was granted equally to both male and female staff. The Wedding Present was a gift of between ?5 and ?10 for weekly paid staff (depending on length of service) and one-thirtieth of annual salary for those who were monthly paid.[9] Wedding Leave was an extra week’s holiday. In August 1932, Clarke discovered this was being abused with the honeymoon allowance being taken even though there was an intention to resign from the BBC soon afterwards. Angered by what he saw as an attempt to play the system these ‘girls’, he declared, wished to remain with the BBC only for a short period, in order to add to their means, and so were, ‘making a convenience of the Corporation and in certain cases causing inconvenience to us’.4 2 Clarke informed Goldsmith that, with Freeman’s agreement, the extra week’s leave should no longer be given to such women. Frustration was focused upon one woman, Miss Robertshaw, whose work with the BBC had not been in ‘any way noteworthy’ and who he and Freeman would be rather glad to replace.

This raised two apposite issues: women’s intention to stay at the BBC after marriage and their aptitude. It begged the question: should those considered to be inadequate in their work have the right to stay? Goldsmith’s response is telling. He both supported Clarke and Freeman in their desire to tighten up Marriage Leave and elaborated on Clarke’s distinction between women’s motivation for work:

The first [class of woman are] those who intend to marry and remain in the ranks of women workers permanently ... i.e. they regard themselves equally with their husbands, as workers, and not as domestic partners in the marriage ... The second class consists of those who have no intention of being women workers save for their financial needs during a temporary period of getting a home together, whose outlook is different and whose mind is not here but in their homes.[10] [11] [12]

He then posed the conundrum whether ‘without making an arbitrary rule’ the BBC could ‘put an end to the short-time convenience worker, who is less interested in her job here’ though he did agree that any decision would be hard and ‘must depend on past work and attitude’. As he reasoned, Freeman would have refused Robertshaw’s continuation of work after marriage had she been free to do so but, ‘our marriage rules bereft her of this freedom’.

That the introduction of the BBC’s marriage bar was ignited by this particular incident is signalled by Freeman who recalled that it was ‘the case that made me first query the Corporation’s policy with regard to the automatic retention of women staff after marriage’.44 Indeed, when the introduction of the bar was promulgated to women staff it was made clear that ‘certain cases’ had led the BBC to reconsider its position.[13] So, the reappraisal of Marriage Leave appears to have been a catalyst for the BBC marriage bar, a bar which would enable the retention of desirable women while allowing the Corporation to dispense with certain women it did not want. Freeman was unambiguous that this was a factor:

... sometimes the girl in question was not particularly efficient and we were glad of the chance to get rid of her. In fact by not allowing automatic retention after marriage we were enabled to dispense with some of the less satisfactory employees whose work was not so poor as to justify dismissal.[12]

This self-interest on the part of the BBC makes uncomfortable reading although there are no details of specific cases of women removed in this way.

Alongside self-interest and economic and societal factors, there appears to have been a further trigger for the BBC marriage bar: the Corporation’s growing sense of itself as an esteemed British institution.[15] By 1933, Hilda Matheson was confident that it was now ‘a part of national and international machinery’.[16] Prior to Clarke’s 1932 report the BBC had not fully considered its policy on married women’s employment in the light of other workplaces. Now that marriage bars were acknowledged as part of the prevailing cultural orthodoxy, a BBC marriage bar might accordingly add to the Corporation’s sense of conformity and respectability. It is probably no coincidence that the introduction of the bar coincided with the move from the ramshackle offices of Savoy Hill to the grandeur of Broadcasting House in 1932.

Yet, aligning itself with the establishment created a dilemma for the BBC: how might its reputation as a progressive organisation be affected by the introduction of a bar? According to Goldsmith, Reith wanted to discourage married women workers but had hesitated to change the rule because, ‘in women’s papers our outlook has been upheld as a good one facing modern facts, and any change would have immediate outside notice and be widely commented upon’.[11] Goldsmith was right to be concerned.

  • [1] Margaret Cole (1938) Marriage: Past and Present (London: Dent and Sons) p. 202.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:R3/3/7: Control Board Minutes, 5 February, 22 September, 15 December1931.
  • [3] Control Board Minutes, 15 December 1931.
  • [4] MWP:1, Clarke to Goldsmith, 23 September 1932.
  • [5] Glasgow Evening Citizen, 31 August 1933.
  • [6] As quoted by Erna Reiss ‘Changes in the Law’ in Ray Strachey ed. (1936) Our Freedomand its Results by Five Women (London: Hogarth Press) p. 99.
  • [7] MWP:1, Clarke to Goldsmith, 23 September 1932.
  • [8] The Civil Service offered a better deal, as would become apparent.
  • [9] MWP:1, Goldsmith to Salaries Clerk, 25 August 1927.
  • [10] MWP:1, Clarke to Goldsmith, 16 August 1932.
  • [11] MWP:1, Goldsmith to Carpendale? 26 August 1932.
  • [12] MWP:1, Freeman, undated and unsigned memo.
  • [13] MWP:1, BBC Marriage Bar Statement, 15 August 1933.
  • [14] MWP:1, Freeman, undated and unsigned memo.
  • [15] D.L. LeMahieu (1988) A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communications and theCultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p. 189.
  • [16] Hilda Matheson (1933) Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth) p. 207.
  • [17] MWP:1, Goldsmith to Carpendale? 26 August 1932.
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