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Married Women at the BBC: The Introduction of the Marriage Bar

A few days before the Board of Governors met to approve the introduction of the marriage bar there was worrying news for the Corporation. Feminist campaigners appeared to have learnt of the BBC’s plans for change. On 21 October 1932, Mary Somerville informed Clarke that the ‘Suffragette element’ of women’s organisations were seeking a test case on the grounds that it was illegal to force a woman to resign on marriage. Somerville thought it likely that, should the Corporation come to a decision that women should either be dismissed or required to resign, the test case would be the BBC. This ‘even if abortive’, Clarke stressed, ‘might have very unpleasant results to us’.[1] Since the early 1920s, feminist groups such as the Open Door Council, the Six Point Group, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) had actively campaigned against the marriage bar. it seems probable that Somerville had that day attended a conference at Caxton Hall organised by the WFL on ‘The Position of Married Women’, the precursor of the Campaign for the Right of the Married Woman to Earn.[2] Although the subject of the BBC was raised at the conference, in the event, it was Liverpool University that would become the focus, as we shall see.[3]

Despite jitteriness, the BBC marriage bar was approved by Governors on 27 October 1932.[4] As yet, though, there was no official announcement and it would take eight months of painstaking deliberations to finesse the wording of the ‘Statement to Women Staff’. By the time this was delivered there had been a major restructuring within the BBC so it was not Valentine Goldsmith but Basil Nicolls, as the new Director of Internal Administration (DIA), who introduced the ruling. On 15 August 1933 the BBC’s female employees were informed that, while there was to be no definite bar, in future the retention of married women was to be regarded as exceptional and dependent upon the circumstances of individual cases. In coming to this decision the Corporation had:

... largely been guided by a belief that only an exceptional woman, with adequate material resources, can perform her duties satisfactorily as a whole-time servant of the Corporation, while attempting to fulfil the cares and responsibilities of a young family.[5]

The BBC had hoped to avoid scrutiny through notifying staff by memorandum rather than by incorporating the new ruling into the Staff Agreement or the Standing Instructions.[6] Unfortunately for management, somehow the ‘Statement to Women Staff’ got into the hands of the press. One of the most intriguing features of the ensuing coverage is how differently— and how wrongly—it was interpreted. The Evening News claimed that the ‘Resign-on-Marriage rule’ had been relaxed.[7] The radio columnist Collie Knox, writing in the Daily Mail declared that, ‘BBC Girls May Marry’.[8] Only the Daily Mirror got the story broadly correct, covering the issue with both a full-page article and an editorial.[9] Under the headline ‘BBC Dictatorship: Married Women’s Rights’, the barrister and political activist Helena Normanton railed as to whether, ‘some policy of more or less compulsory celibacy’ was on its way. ‘Fair play is such a jewel’, she protested, ‘that it would make us all very uneasy to feel that there is any possibility of one rule ... for the highly-placed woman, and another and harsher for the stenographer or translator.’[10]

Considering Helena Normanton’s sharp criticism of the BBC it is surprising that these details failed to filter into the Campaign for the Right of the Married Woman to Earn which was then at the peak of its activity and with which Normanton was involved.[11] Liverpool University, which had introduced a marriage bar in February 1933, was its prime target.[12] The newly married Dr Margaret Miller, an eminent academic at the university, was the main casualty of the bar.[13] A political activist, Miller refused to go quietly and her case led to the formation of the Campaign. On 14 November 1933, a Mass Meeting of the Campaign for the Right of the Married Woman to Earn was held at Central Hall, Westminster. It attracted 3000 women and was addressed by, amongst others, Nancy Astor MP and the writer Rebecca West.[14] In her speech, Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, President of the WFL, did mention the BBC, but in connection with its appointment and quick dismissal of a woman announcer.[15] The Mass Meeting received blanket coverage in the press and prompted Liverpool University to reconsider its position, abolishing its marriage bar in March 1934.[16] It is interesting to speculate how the BBC might have reacted if it had been made a focus of the Campaign. In the event, it dodged the spotlight and so was not put into the awkward position of defending itself in the face of intense feminist scrutiny.

By the autumn of 1933, the BBC marriage bar was securely in place, with female employees informed of its parameters. The tricky problem BBC management now faced was how to decide which women would be exempt.

  • [1] MWP:1, Clarke to Goldsmith, 21 October 1932.
  • [2] Mary Somerville Private Papers, Speech to teachers 1938.
  • [3] Women’s Library/Women’s Freedom League:2/WFL01-15, National ExecutiveCommittee Meeting, 22 October 1932.
  • [4] BBC/WAC:R/1/1: Board of Governors Minutes, 27 October 1932.
  • [5] MWP:1, Statement to Women Staff, 15 August 1933.
  • [6] MWP:1 Clarke to Goldsmith, 21 October 1932.
  • [7] Evening News, 28 August 1933.
  • [8] Daily Mail, 29 August 1933.
  • [9] Reith was horrified by the coverage, noting in his diary that ‘the “Daily Mirror” rag hada great stunt about our attitude to married women. A gross misrepresentation of the facts.’Reith Diaries, 28 August 1933.
  • [10] Daily Mirror, 28 August 1933.
  • [11] University of Liverpool: Margaret Miller Papers: D384/2/83-112. See, for example,letters dated 13 and 14 June between Normanton and Florence McFarlane of the Six PointGroup.
  • [12] For an analysis of Liverpool University’s marriage bar and its links with the Campaign forthe Married Women to Earn see Jennifer Bhatt (1995) ‘Margaret Miller and the Campaignfor the Right of the Married Woman to Earn’ (Unpublished MPhil dissertation: Universityof Leicester).
  • [13] There is a suggestion that Miller was viewed as difficult and challenging to the male hierarchy, her dismissal in part due to a strained relationship that had developed betweenherself and two senior male colleagues. See, for example, Margaret Miller Papers, MargaretMiller to Mrs Adami, 11 December 1932.
  • [14] Groups that attended included the Association of Assistant Mistresses, the Association ofWomen Clerks and Secretaries, the National Union of Women Teachers and the NationalAssociation of Women Civil Servants. Other affiliated groups included the National Women’sCitizen’s Association; the Fabian Society Women’s Group, the Soroptimist Club; theAssociation for Moral and Social Hygiene and the YWCA.
  • [15] Daily Telegraph, 15 November 1933.
  • [16] Margaret Miller Papers: The University of Liverpool: Memorandum to Special PurposesCommittee, Employment of Married Women, 14 March 1934.
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