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Married Women at the BBC Post-1932

For married women who remained at the BBC, whether at Head Office or in the Regions, life continued as normal with the same prospects for increments and promotions as other female staff. This applied both to those who passed the Marriage Tribunal and to those who had married before the bar was introduced. For instance, Alice Wright, who was successful at a Tribunal in 1935, became Deputy Music Librarian in 1937. Most continued to use their maiden names. Of the 38 married women listed as working at the BBC in February 1937, 26 were ‘Miss’, so there was little indication that their marital status had changed.[1] Nearly all those referred to as ‘Mrs’ had married prior to the introduction of the bar.

A small number of married women subsequently resigned, very possibly to start a family. By October 1938 five of the 16 women who had passed the Tribunal had left; in addition two women had requested maternity leave.[2] These were Mrs Benham, a clerk in Programme Finances and Mary Adams, a senior talks producer, whose maternity is discussed in Chapter 6.[3] Another married woman and mother on the staff was Caroline Towler. One of the supposedly clear principles of the BBC marriage bar was that married women would no longer be recruited by the Corporation. Despite this, in the summer of 1933 Reith personally sanctioned the return of Mrs Towler to the BBC. As Miss Banks she had been Miss Freeman’s predecessor as WSA and was a great favourite of Reith’s. Since her resignation in 1931 her naval officer husband had become unemployed and she appealed to her old boss to be allowed back.[4] Clearly, when it was decreed by the Director General, a married woman could be employed. Towler, now a mother to two young children, including a four-month-old baby, was found a salaried role as Night Hostess, a glamorous position that involved meeting and greeting the evening’s broadcasters. The Evening News assured its readers that her children would not be missing her much ‘for her duties do not start until 6.30 pm. They finish at 11 pm.’[5] The press were evidently intrigued by working mothers at the BBC, the children of Mary Somerville and Sheila Borrett were also deemed newsworthy as later chapters will show. This was emblematic of the often contradictory coverage in the press, on the one hand berating married women who worked and on the other marvelling at their modernity.

The latitude that was shown to Caroline Towler was extended to the BBC’s temporary female staff. Many occupations and industries which imposed marriage bars made exceptions for casual labour such as holiday cover or seasonal work. Married teachers, for instance, were often accepted for supply work and the Post Office also employed married women as temporary staff during busy times.[6] The BBC followed this convention and used temporary agency staff to cover sick leave, holiday leave and periods between appointments, nearly always married women.[7] This was because it was ‘almost impossible to get unmarried girls to do temporary work as, owing to the shortage of the market at the present time, they are snapped up immediately for permanencies’. Many of the women had previously worked at the BBC and were seen as particularly valuable because they not only understood the Corporation but were known to be reliable and trustworthy. However, BBC supervisors increasingly found themselves in conflict with the Administration Division over their use of married women staff in a temporary capacity, especially when contracts were for lengthy periods of time. The situation was clarified in June 1937 with new guidelines that married women could be employed but only for a maximum of six months at a time and for no more than eight months in any given year.[8] [9]

By mid-1937, it was apparent that the regulations surrounding the marriage bar were not working. But how might the BBC progress? What, if anything, should replace the Tribunal? It was Miss Freeman who had the closest dealings with women staff and it was Freeman who, in 1937, voiced the first concerns about the continuation of the bar.

  • [1] MWP:2, February 1937.
  • [2] MWP:2, Freeman to Pym, 7 October 1938.
  • [3] There are no details of Mrs Benham’s maternity leave.
  • [4] Reith Diaries, 9 June 1933, ‘Miss Banks to see me, in a very bad way’.
  • [5] Evening News, 26 August 1933.
  • [6] Peak Frean, for example, which enforced a strict marriage bar for permanent employees,welcomed married women during peak times, Glucksmann, Women Assemble., pp. 107-8;Oram, Women Teachers, pp. 69-70; Glew, ‘Women in the GPO’, pp. 161-3.
  • [7] MWP:2, Clarke to Freeman, 8 February 1937.
  • [8] MWP:2, Extract from Mrs Winship’s file, 4 June 1937.
  • [9] MWP:2, Freeman to Pym, 9 March 1937.
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