Desktop version

Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC

The BBC Marriage Tribunal

On 12 May 1933, Reith met to discuss the issue of the retention of married women staff with Mary Somerville, Miss Freeman and the BBC governor, Mary Agnes Hamilton, an occasion of sufficient import to merit an entry in his diary.6[1] In her record of the meeting Somerville noted that the notion of the ‘exceptional’ woman had been discussed as had the small tribunal which would consider the case of anyone ‘desiring to know whether she would be regarded as an exceptional case’.[2] It seems likely that the BBC’s Marriage Tribunal was inspired in part by a procedure that existed within the Civil Service. In 1931, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Civil Service (the Tomlin Commission) had been published, one of the areas considered was the retirement of female civil servants on marriage. While it was agreed the marriage bar should be retained, the Commission identified a difference in attitude towards the higher and lower grades of Civil Service women indicating that ‘a considerable body of opinion’ was in favour of treating the higher grades differently.[3] It was therefore agreed that an exceptional woman could be retained on marriage if it was deemed in the public interest, individual cases going before the Treasury.[4] Mary Agnes Hamilton had been a member of the Royal Commission and it was Hamilton who mooted the idea of the BBC Tribunal.[5]

Discussions about what made a woman ‘exceptional’ continued at the BBC for many months with ‘indispensability’ the prime focus. According to Nicolls, the DIA, this referred to the applicant’s special experience and/ or the difficulty of replacing her.[6] He used Mary Somerville as a prime illustration. Although long married, if her case were to come up afresh, he surmised, it would almost certainly be held that her special experience in school broadcasting was of great value and made her very difficult to replace. Nicolls also pointed out that since the members of the staff with the most valuable experience were likely to be the most highly paid it was inevitable that the exceptions to the rule should mainly occur among the senior staff. This would be evident in the rulings of the Marriage Tribunal; no salaried woman was ever required to resign.

The BBC Marriage Tribunal heard its first case on 28 December 1933. Five criteria had eventually been decided upon and a points system introduced. These were:

  • 1. Special value of experience, making replacement difficult or undesirable. (Maximum 100 points)
  • 2. Compassionate circumstances. (Maximum 50 points)
  • 3. Long service and general efficiency. (Maximum 50 points)
  • 4. Character as bearing on the strain of combining married life with office work. Maximum 50 points)
  • 5. I ntention of making a career in the BBC. (Maximum 50 points)[7]

Unless there were conflicts of interest, the Tribunal was made up of the DIA (Nicolls); the Establishment Officer (Clarke); the WSA (Freeman) and two independent assessors, one male, one female. These were senior staff with at least five years’ service and from a different division to that of the woman whose case was being heard. Aware that the independent assessors might have a personal stance on the marriage bar, at the beginning of each meeting the Chairman warned members that the Tribunal had been summoned to interpret a definite policy, so that ‘a woman member who was entirely opposed to the policy might and should rightly vote for not retaining an applicant’. The woman whose case was before the Tribunal was not herself present, rather documents were submitted from her managers and from Freeman, who spoke to each individual beforehand to garner the particular details of her situation. Representation by a friend or colleague was agreed in principle in March 1937, shortly before the ‘experiment’ of the Tribunal came

to an end.[8]

The Marriage Tribunal documentation makes engrossing reading, both the minutes of the hearings themselves and the behind-the-scenes discussions. The scrutiny given to the minutiae of the women’s lives is unsettling, it is hard to imagine the personal life of a male employee being probed in the same way. Looking through the 29 cases, three of which came before the tribunal twice, one is instantly struck by the arbitrary nature of the scoring system which was largely dependent on the report of the manager and the whim of the board. Indispensability was the top criterion for retention so it is something of a surprise that Lilian Lord, a salaried clerk in the Supplementary Publications Department scored most highly for Criterion One, ‘Value’ (97 out of 100) far above that of Jean Melville the acclaimed accompanist who scored only 70.[9] The BBC’s selfinterest is palpable. The women were assessed by their usefulness to the

Corporation and the difficulty of finding a replacement. This was made even clearer in December 1934 when greater leniency was introduced:

Hitherto indispensability has been interpreted as meaning that the individual had some special experience or qualities which it would be extremely difficult for the BBC to obtain by replacing her, and the mere inconvenience of replacement was not taken into consideration. In future, more weight may be given to such inconvenience.[10]

Subjectivity was even more of an issue when it came to Criterion Four ‘Character’. For this, the panel were in the hands of Freeman who directed them with comments such as, ‘WSA said that she considered that Miss A was a level-headed sort of girl and not the kind to give way under the strain’ and ‘WSA pointed out that Miss B was a girl of the class that regarded it as natural to have to work for a living, and that there was no doubt that she would have no difficulty in running her home in addition to her work’.[11] While most women who came before the tribunal were considered capable of combining home life and office work, a handful were not. For instance Freeman was clear that: ‘Miss C’s health record is not good and WSA expressed doubt as to whether she would find it easy to combine married life with her work here’.[12]

These considerations emphasise the expectation in the 1930s that women were the home-makers. If a married woman worked, it was she who had to negotiate the double-burden of two jobs. The reason why the vast majority of BBC women were viewed as capable of doing both was either their fortitude or their ability to pay for domestic help. Many ran their own flats, for example the drama producer Barbara Burnham already employed a housekeeper. For others, it was felt that the fact of being married would lessen the domestic burden. So it was noted that one woman, a Studio Executive Clerk, ‘has for some years had domestic responsibility in her own home and it appears that that is likely to be lessened rather than increased when she sets up house with her husband’. For a secretary in the Office Administration Department ‘marriage would ease the situation by enabling her to employ a servant’.[13] For yet another, the burden would be eased because she would no longer have sole care of her widowed mother.[14] These cases show that for the majority of BBC women, it was considered possible to both work and run the marital home provided there was adequate domestic support. In none of the BBC documentation was there any suggestion that husbands might share the chores.

‘Long Service’ and ‘Career’, Criteria Three and Five, were the most straightforward to address. Of the ten women who applied to the Tribunal with less than four-and-a-half years’ service only one was retained, Mary Allan, who had been appointed specifically to run the Television Make-up and Wardrobe Department. Similarly, all those who had been awarded their ten-year bonus, whether salaried or waged, received unanimous votes for retention, indicating that loyalty was an important consideration for the BBC. Fifteen women voiced their intention of remaining with the Corporation even if their husbands had sufficient finances to support them, only two of whom were subsequently required to resign, showing that commitment to a career was viewed positively. Radio Pictorial applauded the ‘intelligence and humanity’ of the BBC’s matrimonial rules, which were ‘never more plainly vindicated’ than in the case of Barbara Burnham:

It is one thing to engage a married woman whose husband can support her while single girls as well qualified are seeking the same job. It is another to dismiss a woman whose temperament and long training fit her for the almost unique position which she occupies, just because she wants to marry.[15]

The criterion that caused the most soul-searching for the Tribunal was ‘Compassionate Circumstances’ which related both to caring responsibilities and to the means of the prospective husband. Nearly all the women provided evidence that their fiances were not earning enough to ‘keep two people in any degree of comfort’.[16] One was a ballet dancer whose income was subject to perpetual fluctuations; another, an osteopath in a new practice; a third was an ‘architect in the London County Council (LCC) with a salary of approximately ?3 a week, with prospects of a slow increase’.[17] Others included a carpenter, a transport foreman and a stoker in the Navy. For many women, and their fiances, there were financial dependents: an elderly father, widowed mothers, younger siblings who were students or in precarious jobs. One applicant was suffering from a disease ‘which did not at present affect her efficiency, but was such that her doctor had strongly urged her to get married as the best method of effecting a cure’.[18] The BBC’s attention to these considerations reveals its paternalism and reiterates its reluctance to introduce a blanket bar.

One of the most vociferous arguments against marriage bars in the interwar years was the enforced singlehood they imposed.[19] For feminists the issue was human rights, for others it was seen as wrong to deny those who wanted a career the pinnacle of womanhood: marriage and family life. March 1935 saw the BBC wrestling with the issue. Two women who had failed the Marriage Tribunal the previous year had reapplied, the financial circumstances of their prospective husbands having worsened. In his weighing up of their second appearance Nicolls was clear that under the ruling, they should not be kept on. Yet he acknowledged that, ‘Here we are up against the very difficult policy question of our action preventing early marriages’. For one of the two women, the choice was to marry and be permanently extremely hard up, to stay on unmarried, or to take the risk and leave, hoping to find suitable work elsewhere. The second woman’s situation was more serious in the eyes of the BBC. She was already 35 so her chance of marrying was ‘a relatively poor one’ but by staying on, she was running a risk of never getting married. The compassionate circumstances were such that she could not get married unless she was able to earn her own living and support certain dependants. For Nicolls the central question was whether the BBC was ‘better served in the long run by Miss X or Miss Y as an embittered, because compulsory, spinster, or by her as a contented married woman allowed to remain on the staff?’[20] It was agreed that both women could stay.

Another worry raised by forcing women to postpone matrimony was the possibility of a secret marriage or, worse still, compelling a couple to ‘live in sin’. Speaking at the Mass Meeting for the Right of the Married Woman to Earn in 1933, Nancy Astor declared that, because of marriage bars ‘thousands of women nowadays are secretly married, or, worse still, living with the men they ought to be married to’.[21] It is known that there were cases of teachers and assembly-line workers who hid their wedding rings to keep their marriages secret.[22] [23] The LCC informed the BBC that they had occasional cases of women who were found to have got married secretly and who were then sacked.8 8 The London Passenger Transport Board (who by 1937 had instituted a bar) also recognised that many unreported marriages took place.[24] The BBC itself was not immune to the problem. Freeman herself acknowledged that, ‘at different times, three women have been dismissed when it was found that they were married’.[25]

While Reith maintained a distant interest in the Marriage Tribunal, the BBC Governor Mary Agnes Hamilton played an active role. It had, after all, initially been her idea and she was sent the minutes of all Tribunals ‘so that she might have an opportunity of urging more lenient treatment, or reconsideration’.8 [26] Why Hamilton, with her feminist leanings, supported the BBC’s marriage bar is puzzling. Prior to her appointment as a Governor, she had served as Labour MP for Blackburn 1929-31. The official Labour Party line was against marriage bars, although a significant minority of members were in favour of them.8[27] Perhaps her support for the BBC bar was a result of her passionate trade unionism. In Parliament she had frequently attacked her party’s failure to solve the unemployment crisis. Her ambivalence about married women’s work is apparent in her book Women at Work in which she represented the two polarised views on the subject.[28] And it was Hamilton who first suggested that the BBC Marriage Tribunal should be replaced by a simpler Civil Service-style system whereby only women above a certain grade or salary could be considered for retention, a system that was ultimately adopted.[29]

It had gradually become apparent that the Marriage Tribunal was untenable. On 16 July 1937 it heard its final case and was then suspended pending discussions on its future. Not only was it viewed as work-intensive for BBC management but it put the women whose cases were heard under immense strain. It had also created an awkward issue in connection with severance pay because ‘termination’ was initially at a higher rate than ‘resignation’, something it took many months to resolve.[30] In addition, it was seen as relatively ineffectual; in the three and a half years it operated only 13 women had their services terminated whereas 79 women had elected to resign on marriage during this time.[31] It is impossible to know how these numbers relate to resignations prior to the introduction of the marriage bar because no statistics were kept.

What is certain is that 1933 marked a climate change for married women staff, the antipathy towards the ‘non exceptional’ would have encouraged many to leave. Freeman’s fact-finding interviews with married women in 1932 definitely had the effect of prompting a number of departures, the scrutiny of their situations causing discomfort.[32] A query from Reith in March 1933 about whether numbers had been ‘reduced’ garnered the response from Freeman that five had left with two about to leave.[33] Freeman was non-committal as to whether the bar had increased resignations amongst unmarried staff, stressing that no woman had indicated this to her although she did advise those with weak cases against going before the Tribunal.[25] Nicolls was less circumspect. Now Controller (Administration) he claimed:

...undoubtedly [the policy had] been the cause of many girls deciding to give up work on marriage, who would probably have stayed on, without it being financially necessary for them to do so: in fact the most remarkable point has been the fewness of the applications.[35]

  • [1] Reith Diaries, 12 May 1933.
  • [2] MWP:1, Somerville to Nicolls c May 1933.
  • [3] Glew, ‘Women in the GPO’, p. 127.
  • [4] Between 1934 and 1938, eight women in the Administrative Grades were retained onmarriage. Hilda Martindale (1938) Women Servants of the State, 1870-1938 (London: Allenand Unwin) p. 156.
  • [5] Mary Agnes Hamilton (1944) Remembering my Good Friends (London: Jonathan Cape)p. 264.
  • [6] MWP:1, Nicolls, c January 1934.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:R49/372: Married Women Policy: Tribunals, 1934-37 (hereafter MWPT),Tribunal Minutes, 30 January 1934 and all subsequent tribunals.
  • [8] MWPT, Pym to Freeman, 23 March 1937.
  • [9] Tribunals, 16 January 1935, 17 August 1934.
  • [10] MWP:1, Note on the Marriage of Women Staff, Nicolls, 21 December 1934.
  • [11] Tribunals, 16 January 1935, 11 May 1936.
  • [12] Tribunal, 5 March 1937.
  • [13] Tribunals, 25 February 1937, 5 August 1936.
  • [14] Tribunal, 19 January 1937.
  • [15] Radio Pictorial, 10 June 1938.
  • [16] Tribunal, 17 July 1937. Some Tribunals heard more than one case.
  • [17] Tribunals, 17 July 1937, 5 May 1935, 11 May 1936.
  • [18] Tribunal, 17 July 1934. No details were given about the disease.
  • [19] See, for example, Katherine Holden (2007) The Shadow of Marriage. Singleness inEngland, 1914-1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press) pp. 15-16.
  • [20] MWPT, Nicolls to Carpendale, 6 March 1935.
  • [21] Daily Mail, 15 November 1933.
  • [22] Oram, Women Teachers., p. 56; Miriam Glucksmann (1990) Women Assemble: WomenWorkers and the New Industries in Inter-War Britain (London: Routledge) p. 223.
  • [23] BBC/WAC:R49/371/2: Married Women Policy:2, 1936-July 1939 (hereafterMWP:2), Message from W.H. Young, LCC, 29 July 1937.
  • [24] MWP:2, Clarke to Freeman, 14 July 1937.
  • [25] MWP:2, Freeman to Pym, 7 October 1938.
  • [26] MWP:2, Reith to Nicolls, 26 September 1935.
  • [27] Pamela Graves (1994) Labour Women: Women in British Working Class Politics 1918—1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) pp. 126-31.
  • [28] Mary Agnes Hamilton (1941) Women at Work: A Brief Introduction to Trade Unionismfor Women (London: Routledge) pp. 5-6, 164—8.
  • [29] MWP:2, Carpendale to Pym, 30 June 1937.
  • [30] See, for example, MWR:2, Nicolls to Pym, 21 January 1937.
  • [31] MWP:2, Staff Records to Clarke, 16 July 1937. This represented a yearly average of 4.5per cent of the total female staff.
  • [32] MWP:1, Brief Report on Married Women at Present Working for the Corporation, 25October 1932.
  • [33] MWP:1, Married Women, Draft Letter, early March 1933.
  • [34] MWP:2, Freeman to Pym, 7 October 1938.
  • [35] MWP:2, Note on Policy in regard to Married Women, prepared by Nicolls for LadyBridgman, June 1936.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics